Burma’s Non-Nuclear Plans

Despite the talk of help from North Korea, Burma has too much to lose by pursuing a nuclear weapons program.

Last year, senior Burmese officials dismissed the notion that the government in Naypyidaw is pursuing a nuclear program, peaceful or otherwise. Science and Technology Minister U Aye Myint became the first senior official to openly deny the allegations of a nefarious weapons program. He insisted that, despite considering the option of a civilian nuclear program, Burma doesn’t have “sufficient resources” to embark on such an initiative. Myint further asserted that his country had “no plan at all to own nuclear weapons” and underlined Burma’s commitment to the Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapons-Free Zone Treaty, which it has signed and deposited.

Since then, the military junta in Naypyidaw has continued its courtship of the West with a charm offensive aimed at removing the smothering sanctions that have targeted the regime for decades. The turning point, it seems, came in December, when U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited the country with caveat-laden hopes of meeting Burma half way on its road to reform. Burmese President Thein Sein declared the trip the start of a “new chapter” of relations with the United States.   

Meanwhile, the fear that Burma has been working on a latent nuclear weapons program hasn’t entirely dissipated in Washington. Burma’s engagement with the world continues to be schizophrenic, with promising signals of reform often tinged with dark reminders of the regime’s brutality and deception. So when senior Burmese officials repudiate accusations that it has been building a nuclear nexus with international pariah North Korea, it’s understandable that many scoff at the statement’s veracity. This week, Thein Sein blasted these claims as “unfounded and based on suspicion” and insisted that Burma isn’t acquiring nuclear weapons from North Korea.

How accurate are these accusations and – more importantly – why would Naypyidaw believe that it would accrue benefits by pursuing a nuclear weapons program? It’s true that Burma has maintained a secretive relationship with North Korea aimed at procuring ballistic missiles. This was indicated in a 2010 report by the United Nations that condemned Burma (in addition to Syria and Iran) for circumventing international restrictions on missile proliferation. Despite this, however, there remains little concrete evidence to link Burma to the pursuit of nuclear technology, with senior U.S. officials admitting that the connection is possible not probable. The Obama administration continues to play down such talk as it hopes to slowly open the door to Naypyidaw, which has become an important part of its strategic puzzle in Asia.

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Burma’s motivation for a nuclear weapons program also appears dubious as the country is well aware of its geopolitical importance not only to the United States, but also to China and the Association of South East Asian Nations. It would be foolish for it now to squander its recently acquired political capital in favor of a weapons program that would not only deplete the national coffers, but also weaken national security by morphing its status from nuisance to threat.