Burma’s Nuclear Olive Branch

Burma says it is abandoning plans to develop its nuclear technology. Other countries should give it a chance.

Over the past few years, there’s been much international speculation that Burma is trying to build nuclear weapons. As reports have crept in from dissidents about the nuclear and missile linkages between Burma and North Korea, international analysts haven’t hesitated to include the Southeast Asian country in lists of potential proliferators.

Yet with little concrete evidence, even the International Atomic Energy Agency has yet to take a stand on the matter. Complicating the picture is the fact not only that many of the dissident reports are at least half a decade or more old, but also that the political situation in the country is changing fast.

Since elections late last year, Burma appears to have made considerable progress toward meeting concerns over democracy (even if the elections themselves weren’t exactly free and fair). A fledgling parliament is making its presence felt in national debates, attempts have been made by the current president to reach out to opposition icon Aung Sang Suu Kyi, and a decision was made recently to grant general amnesty to more than 6,000 prisoners, including some 200 political detainees.

Such changes on the domestic political front are surely being undertaken with an eye on shedding decades of economic, political and social isolation and to help reintegrate Burma into the international comity of nations. It’s in this context that an announcement last month from Burma’s minister for science and technology, U Aye Myint, assumes particular significance. He announced that his country was abandoning plans to ‘develop nuclear technology for “peaceful purposes” because of concerns it would cause “misunderstandings” with the international community.’ He also categorically stated that the country had no desire to possess nuclear weapons and lacked the infrastructure, technology and financial resources to do so anyway.

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It may be recalled that Burma had signed a nuclear cooperation agreement with Russia in 2007 for the construction of a 10 MW research reactor at Yangon. Even though Burma is a Non-proliferation Treaty member, and this cooperation was to occur under IAEA safeguards, the United States had expressed its discomfort at the possibility of Burma using the nuclear knowledge to complement proliferation activities from elsewhere. The nature of the military regime and hence its desire for nuclear weapons was a major source of worry. But apparent changes in Burma’s domestic politics, coupled with the minister’s statement, suggest a new awareness in the Burmese leadership of the sensitivity attached to this issue.  

While there’s no way yet of verifying the minister’s statement, it does present an opportunity to try some positive engagement with Burma as a way of ensuring that the country remains true to its word. There are no indications yet that Burma could have acquired any significant nuclear weapons capability. Proliferation activities that it might have been engaged in would likely have been disturbed, if not completely disrupted, by the stringent export controls and nuclear security measures that have been put in place since the A.Q. Khan disclosures. As a result, the country’s nuclear weapon ambitions, if there indeed were any, would have taken a hit.

Meanwhile, having tasted the benefits of its limited socio-economic engagement, especially with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which is a nuclear weapons free zone, it’s likely that Burma sees sense in remaining non-nuclear and open to engagement, rather than under sanctions over suspicions of ‘prohibited’ activities. In fact, Burma is hoping to chair ASEAN in 2014, and is keen to play an important role in this organization. The next few years, therefore, present a great opportunity to further reinforce non-proliferation in Burma.

The reality is that the limitations of a non-proliferation approach based on sanctions and isolation have been laid bare in the cases of North Korea and Iran. Can the international community, then, score a success with a path of constructive engagement with Burma?

The political opening the country has presented would seem to have offered some space for negotiating Burma’s integration into the international mainstream. Instead of turning away or dismissing conciliatory statements, it would be far more worthwhile to engage with Burma and gradually seek greater confidence-building measures through IAEA inspections and the country’s subscription to the Additional Protocol.

Shutting out Burma can only add to threat perceptions – its own as well as those of the rest of the world. It’s time the non-proliferation community changed tack from simply relying on technology denial and export controls, to trying something different through positive reinforcement and changes in behaviour. The need of the hour is to move beyond focusing only on controlling the supply of nuclear materials and technology and toward shaping threat perceptions that help control the demand for nuclear weapons.