By WAI MOE
A well-known expert on Burma’s military affairs is skeptical about recent reports on nuclear cooperation between the Burmese regime and North Korea.
In a paper published on the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s Web site on Monday, Andrew Selth, an expert on Burmese military affairs and author of “Burma’s Armed Forces: Power without Glory,” expressed doubts about Burma’s nuclear capability.
Selth said that Burma’s recent arms and materiel purchases from various countries including North Korea “do not necessarily mean that the junta is engaged in a secret program to develop weapons of mass destruction (WMD).”
“Some generals—possibly including regime leader Snr-Gen Than Shwe—are clearly attracted to the idea of acquiring a nuclear weapon, in the belief that possession of WMD would give Burma the same stature and bargaining power that they believe is now enjoyed by North Korea,” Selth said.
“The key question, however, is whether this is just wishful thinking, or if there has been a serious attempt by the regime to pursue a nuclear weapons program,” he said.
In early August, based on interviews with defectors conducted over two years by Professor Desmond Ball of the Australia National University’s Defense Study Center and Thailand-based journalist Phil Thornton, The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Bangkok Post published stories saying that the junta could develop a nuclear bomb by 2014.
Selth said US officials knew about the Burmese defectors more than two years ago. “Yet, even when armed with the apparent revelations of all these defectors, the Bush administration remained conspicuously silent about Burma’s nuclear status,” he said.
Selth also said that the tunnels pictured in recent news reports were “quite modest” and would be vulnerable to attack by “a modern air force equipped with latest weapons.”
“Many of these underground facilities are probably for military purposes, such as command bunkers, air raid shelters and protective tunnels for vehicles and weapons systems,” Selth said, noting that the Burmese generals have feared an air attack ever since the Gulf War.
“Some are more likely to be related to civil engineering projects. None of the photos support claims of a secret nuclear reactor, or nuclear weapons project,” he said.
Facing an arms embargo since 1988, the Burmese junta sought to reduce its dependency on foreign arms suppliers, Selth said, suggesting that recent purchases could be part of a program for the country’s large defense industrial complex to produce more sophisticated weapons, rather than WMD.
Selth said that it is certain that North Korea is “selling Burma conventional arms, sharing its military expertise and experience, and helping it upgrade its defense infrastructure.”
However, Selth does not totally deny reports of Naypyidaw’s nuclear ambitions, saying that Burmese natural gas sales have given the regime untapped foreign exchange reserves that could be used to fund a nuclear program.
“Russia is providing technical training for a large number of Burmese servicemen and officials, including in the nuclear field,” he said. “Some sophisticated equipment has been imported, and it is possible that sensitive nuclear technologies have been provided to Burma by North Korea.”
Speaking in an interview on National Public Radio, Bertil Lintner, a Thailand-based expert on the Burmese junta, said that the Burmese are “certainly interested” in acquiring a nuclear weapon.
“[The Burmese are] seeing how the North Koreans have been able to stand up against the Americans and the rest of the world because they are nuclear-armed. And they would like to have the same kind of negotiating position,” he said.
According to Lintner, Beijing is “well aware of Burma’s nuclear ambitions,” and “there’s definitely Chinese complicity in this new cooperation between North Korea and Burma.”
However, Lintner said the Chinese can conveniently deny any role by saying that it is the North Koreans who are cooperating with Burma, and that China cannot control them.