While Iran’s acts of defiance in the face of international condemnation of its secretive nuclear programme continue to make headlines, and while the United States focuses on getting North Korea to return to the six-party denuclearisation talks, another nuclear clock is ticking quietly away in Southeast Asia.
Burma, ruled with an iron fist by a military junta that seized power in a coup in 1962, confirmed plans to build a nuclear research reactor, with Russian assistance, for ‘peaceful purposes’ back in early 2002. Since then, select students and army officers have undergone nuclear orientation and training in Moscow, while nuclear physics departments have been established at the universities of Rangoon and Mandalay, with enrolment controlled by the junta.
But it is the persistent reports of a secret programme being undertaken with North Korean assistance, based in part on information from defectors, that are troubling Indian policymakers already distracted by border tensions with China and Pakistan.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Indeed, Colonel R Hariharan, a retired military intelligence analyst who specializes in South Asia, says if such rumours are true they would introduce a new strategic nuclear paradigm to the region and in the process make life extremely complicated for India’s military planners.
‘It might lead to a situation not dissimilar to India’s western front, where it’s facing an unstable, nuclear Pakistan,’ he says. ‘Even though it seems unlikely Myanmar [Burma] would invest in such a nuclear game, India will still be forced to keep a careful watch over developments.’
Burma’s nuclear interest has been fuelled by significant uranium deposits discovered in areas including Magwe, Taungdwingyi and Kyaukphygon, as well as some largely untouched in southern Tanintharyi Division-formerly Tenasserim Division-although Russia is said to be involved in the limited mining operation there.
The government is also reportedly actively exploring other potential uranium production sites in, among other locations, Tagong and Moe Meik, while a team of Russian and Burmese engineers from early 2007 were reportedly drilling for uranium in Hawng-Pa village.
Such activity, combined with rumours of covert North Korean involvement and a Burmese regime that seems willing to do anything to stay in power, has generated enough concern among Indian policymakers for it to create a dossier of what it believes has been going on, a copy of which was shown to this correspondent by a senior government official who asked to remain anonymous.
The dossier first lays out the background of Burma’s alleged interest in nuclear technology, beginning in December 2000, when it indicated it was interested in establishing a nuclear research centre with Russian assistance that was to have included building a 10 megawatt light-water research reactor.
However, in September 2005, with Burma apparently unable to afford the full cost of the reactor, it was decided that the Russian Ministry for Atomic Energy would play a supervisory role and provide the necessary fuel and expertise for the facility, while Burmese authorities would handle its construction. An agreement to this effect was finally signed by the two countries in May 2007.
The facility, known as the ‘Myaing Reactor or Nyaungone Project,’ was to be constructed near Anesakhan on a flat expanse of land surrounded on all sides by steep hills, and placed under IAEA safeguards. It was not supposed to be capable of producing weapons-grade plutonium.