Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Burma Must Make Clear its Nuclear Ambitions

Reports of Burma’s shady nuclear ambitions have resurfaced to take their place alongside warnings by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton of secret military ties and possible technology transfers between Burma and North Korea.

One report which aroused special interest was based on research by Desmond Ball, an Australian security analyst and author of several books on nuclear strategy and security issues in the Asia-Pacific.

However, to understand the present situation and Burma’s nuclear ambitions we need to look at the past. Burma’s interest in nuclear science and technology is, in fact, nothing new.

Three years ago, The Irrawaddy published a special cover story on Burma’s nuclear ambitions. A Burmese scholar, Maung Thuta, wrote: “More than five decades ago, Kyaw Nyein, the pragmatic modernist among the ruling triumvirate, with U Nu and Ba Swe, and the driving force behind Burma’s nascent industrialization, oversaw the setting up in 1953, under the Ministry of Industry, of the Union of Burma Applied Research Institute (UBAEC), in collaboration with the American Armour Research Foundation.”

In 1955, the Atomic Energy Centre and the Atomic Minerals Department were established and dozens of young scholars and technicians were sent abroad, mainly to the US, to study medical physics, nuclear physics, nuclear, metallurgical and mining engineering and technical training in nuclear applications in instrumentation, agriculture and industry. The same year Burma attended the first international conference on peaceful uses of atomic energy, which was held in Geneva. Two years later, Burma joined the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Maung Thuta, in an article entitled “Transparency Needed," wrote "at the dawn of the ‘Atomic Age,’ Burma’s nuclear elites centered around the UBAEC apparently had no doubts about propelling Burma into a modern industrial state through extensive research and development in the fields of power production, agriculture, medicine, industry and

Indeed, Burma was well advanced in those days to develop a nuclear project, compared to neighboring countries. In the early 1960s, a site for a nuclear research reactor was designated near the Hlaing Campus in Rangoon.

“However, the first phase of nuclear ambitions faltered and stagnated within a few years when the much-vaunted ‘Pyidawthar’ industrial plan failed and UBAEC patron Kyaw Nyein fell from grace amid disputes among the ruling political elite,” Maung Thuta wrote.

Burma’s early nuclear ambitions ended there. Gen Ne Win, who staged a military coup in 1962, had little interest in nuclear projects, nor did he trust scholars. So Burma’s nuclear program fell by the wayside, although in 1984 the general admitted to university professors at a private dinner party that he had made a blunder by ending it.

One of the experts from those times, Thein Oo Po Saw, who earned a master’s degree in nuclear engineering from the University of Illinois in 1950s, remains active in Burma today.

Thein Oo Po Saw played a crucial role in reviving Burma’s Atomic Energy Committee and renewing links with the IAEA. He also urged Burma’s military regime in 1995 to join the Regional Cooperative Agreement for Research, Development and Training in Nuclear Science and Technology in Asia and the Pacific (RCA).

The professor has taught at the Defense Services Academy in Maymyo and is currently an adviser to the Ministry of Science and Technology and adjunct professor at the Yangon [Rangoon] Technological University.

Whatever the motives involved, the regime revitalized the nuclear project. An Arakanese professor, Thein Oo Po Saw, renewed links with the IAEA. Since then, Burma has been demonstrating its intention to develop nuclear energy for “peaceful purposes.”

The regime has outwardly supported the concept of nuclear-free zones and signed the Treaty on the Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone, or Bangkok Treaty, in 1995. A year later, Burma signed the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.

Burma’s renewed interest in nuclear technology was evident, however. The Ministry of Science and Technology was created in 1997 and headed by an extreme nationalist, U Thaung, a graduate of Defense Services Academy Intake 1.

Two years later, Burma began negotiations with Russia on a nuclear reactor project, and in January 2002 the military regime confirmed plans to build a nuclear research reactor for “peaceful purposes.” The Deputy Foreign Minister at that time, Khin Maung Win, declared that Burma’s “interest in nuclear energy for peaceful purpose is longstanding.”

Thein Oo Po Saw also played a key role in the military-sponsored National Convention.

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