A major in Burma’s army has defected and delivered hundreds of secret documents and photographs to the Democratic Voice of Burma, an opposition group that has tried for years to convince the West that the ruling military junta is pursuing nukes to no avail. The information provided by the defector, Sai Thein Win, shows that Burma is going for nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missiles and has joined a growing list of rogue nations and the world will have to handle another region in crisis.
Win was educated in Russia and then joined the Burmese army, where he became the deputy commander of a factory connected to the secret weapons program. The factory is located at Myaing, but the program’s central site is near Thabeikkyin, he says. Russia agreed in May 2007 to provide Burma with a nuclear reactor and train about 350 scientists. The All Burma I.T. Students’ Union, another group opposed to the junta, reported in March that construction is nearly finished on three nuclear reactors and provided their specific locations.
A former director of the IAEA, Robert Kelley, says that Win’s photos show that Burma is clearly building uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing capabilities with North Korean assistance, although they are far away from having a nuclear weapon. Nuclear expert David Albright, the President of the Institute for Science and International Security, agrees with Kelley’s assessment. He says that Burma right now can only mine uranium and making yellowcake, which are the very first stages for making a nuclear weapon. Albright previously cast doubt upon the reliability of Burmese defectors, although he stated this before Win’s defection and said that he doesn’t necessarily disagree with their conclusions.
The Burmese opposition is hailing Win’s revelation as vindication of their previous claims, while simultaneously expressing frustration that they weren’t taken seriously before.
Tint Swe of the National Coalition Government for the Union of Burma said, “We have been shouting about the nuclear effort for at least 10 years now. The world had grossly underestimated the effort. No doubt the stage is rudimentary, but the junta will leave no stone unturned to protect and prolong its power, a fallout of which is the endeavor to acquire nuclear capability.”
Their frustration is warranted. Very incriminating information has previously leaked out of Burma, proving the opposition has far reach inside the country and strongly indicating that disenchantment with the ruling junta is present among officials in the highest levels.
A professor from Australia’s National University’s Strategic and Defence Studies Centre extensively interviewed two defectors who left Burma in 2006 and published a comprehensive report. The report included a map of the country’s uranium mines, refineries and reactors. Both sources independently said there is a secret underground nuclear reactor adjacently located from the public one built by Russia. As of 2006, there were about 60 North Koreans working at the site, which they described as being very similar to the one later destroyed by the Israelis in Syria in 2007. One of the defectors said that the junta believed they’d be able to produce a nuclear weapon by 2020, but the authors of the report say they could produce a bomb as early as 2014 if all goes as planned.
Last summer, a secret Burmese government report leaked out documenting meetings with 17 North Korean officials, including the chief of staff of their armed forces, from November 22 to 29, 2008. The North Koreans agreed to build underground tunnels on November 27, and they also advertised air defense systems, radar, underground missile factories and a launch pad to the junta.
Shortly before that, the Democratic Voice of Burma obtained photos of massive construction allegedly related to the nuclear program. The opposition claimed that 600-800 underground tunnels and bunkers had been built since 1996, spending over $3.5 billion on the underground projects since 2001. The roads were wide enough for trucks and some of the bunkers could hold up to 600 people. The Democratic Voice of Burma has released a documentary about the nuclear program that can be viewed here. It is simply astonishing how many of the junta’s most guarded secrets have leaked out, partially because of the anger of those aware of the high cost of these projects while the population suffers.
Now, the Democratic Voice of Burma is reporting that finishing touches are being done on a missile base at Moe Hnyin in the northern part of the country. Radar systems and North Korean 122mm Multiple Launch Rocket Systems have arrived at the site. A total of four radar sites have opened up this year alone.
Burma’s nuclear project has international consequences. One civilian defector said that in February 2004, he met two Iranian officers that traveled to Rangoon, one from Iranian intelligence and one nuclear expert. The Iranians were reportedly provided with a sample of uranium yellowcake. A separate defector from the army said none of his contacts had heard of an Iranian connection, but the story makes sense. North Korea has used Burma as a transit point to ship materials to Iran, and last June, three Japanese businessmen were arrested for trying to help transport missile components between the two. Iran is in need of more raw uranium and is striking deals with other countries like Zimbabwe and Venezuela to get it. The detail about Burma providing a sample of yellowcake gives the story credibility in this context.
Burma, like Iran and Syria, is refusing to sign the IAEA’s “Additional Protocol” that allows for more invasive inspections and questioning. Former IAEA director Robert Kelley says that Burma is also taking advantage of the “Small Quantities Protocol” that applies to countries with minimal amounts of nuclear material and no nuclear facilities. It means they do not have to undergo inspections and are not subject to other IAEA measures meant to stop nuclear proliferation. Kelley says that Burma’s nuclear work means this agreement no longer applies and IAEA action can be demanded. Amazingly, Kelley says that the IAEA is currently assisting Burma’s program by training its experts and offering other areas of technical cooperation.
“It has been a huge headache for the U.S. with North Korea alone,” Khin Maung Win, the Deputy Executive Director of the Democratic Voice for Burma told FrontPage. “If Burma’s nuclear program is successful, they both will form a powerful security threat in the region that the U.S. would never want to see.”
Win said that Thialand would feel threatened by a nuclear-armed Burma and would have to respond, “creating a scenario similar to that of the two Koreas.”
The military junta of Burma is also trying to use its nuclear program to ensure its survival, believing it will stop the West from taking aggressive action against them and make it more difficult for a popular uprising to overthrow them. Authoritarian leaders are megalomaniacs by nature, and so their desire to win prestige from Western attention is to be expected. It is tempting for the West to ignore Burma amidst the other threats that exist, but Burma’s program must be seen as part of the international nuclear network, providing money for North Korea’s own efforts, uranium for Iran, and acting as an overall partner in the growing bloc of countries hostile to the West. The IAEA’s aid to Burma’s program must be cut off and the international community must pressure the junta to sign the “Additional Protocol” and answer questions regarding its covert nuclear work.