A mysterious silence surrounds the Obama administration's failure to disclose the extent of Burma's nuclear threat as required under US law

Burma’s Nuclear Mystery

By —— Bio and Archives--July 6, 2010

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Allegations of Burma’s nuclear ambitions hit the newswires on June 3rd with a report by a former U.N. nuclear expert claiming the military regime is seeking to develop an atomic bomb.


Commissioned by the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), the report clearly raised the stakes about this newest threat to international security and peace, which previously had been recognized only within intelligence circles and Burma’s pro-democracy movement. In response, US Senator Jim Webb even cancelled his planned trip to the Burmese capital where he was due to meet the generals in charge. Thus it’s clear the nuclear allegations are serious and yet there has long been a deafening silence about Burma’s nuclear ambitions.

In 2008 an Act of Congress was promulgated in the United States requiring the US State Department to disclose findings on Burma’s nuclear capabilities. The initial date for this mandatory annual disclosure was January 2009, and at this stage there should have been two such reports. To date, though, the Administration has been silent. The law in question is the Tom Lantos Block Burmese JADE (Junta’s Anti-Democratic Efforts) Act of 2008. Its intent is to promote human rights, and it includes sanctions and embargoes on such things as halting gemstone profits to Burma’s repressive dictatorship. The law also includes measures supporting democratic reforms and humanitarian needs for the people of Burma.

More specifically, however, in Section 10 of the Act there is a requirement that the State Department publicly report to Congress about Burma’ military programs and suppliers, including their “weapons of mass destruction and related materials, capabilities, and technology, including nuclear, chemical, or dual use capabilities.” This requirement extends to the ominous task of listing the countries that provide such aid to Burma and that such be reported by none other than the US Secretary of State.

Yet it’s as if the JADE Act never existed. All is silent from Secretary Clinton, President Obama, the State Department, Congress and most everyone else in Washington. Those concerned with US law and nuclear proliferation have seemingly gone into hibernation.

Well, not all however, there are some pro-democracy groups - “Dictator Watch” for one, that has been publishing evidence of Burma’s nuclear ambitions for years. Their latest move was in April 2010, months before the DVB report was released, when they filed a freedom of information act application (FOIA) to the US State Department. The application specifically demanded why Section 10 of the JADE Act is being ignored.

I spoke to Roland Watson, the director of Dictator Watch, about this action and he provided a chilling description of Burma’s nuclear ambition. He also congratulated the Democratic Voice of Burma for getting their report in the public eye, for he believes Burma’s nuclear proliferation has been ignored far too long. He believes international action is needed to curtail Burma’s plans as it poses a multiple threat to international security. The regime is not only trying to acquire nuclear weapons; there is good evidence that it is selling refined uranium (yellow cake) to North Korea and perhaps even Iran. Watson’s organisation has conducted extensive research on the Burma nuclear issue, and has accumulated intelligence from ten different sources. These include Burmese military defectors who were trained in Russia on nuclear and related military technologies. The key to unlock the mysterious silence on the JADE Act is intricately linked to Burma’s dealings with North Korea, Russia, China and Iran.

Watson states that the Burmese military rulers first expressed an interest in becoming a nuclear power in the 1960s but that things escalated in 2001 when the regime, then under the dubious name SLORC, “struck a deal with Russia to buy a reactor.” The Burmese regime, now called the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), was due in 2010 to have already completed this reactor. Hard evidence of this is lacking, though, but the deal with Moscow has long been public and ever since the SPDC has been sending military officers to Russia for training. The SPDC refers to this training as their State Scholar Program and Watson reports they have “sent anywhere from 3000 to 5000 officers to Russia, where they’ve been studying sciences related to tunnelling, aviation, ships, missiles, and all sorts of military related technologies.” These studies include nuclear sciences.

Dictator Watch has had access to information from two defectors of the SPDC’s State Scholar Program who had exposure to the nuclear program. These defectors reported that the SPDC is pursuing uranium enrichment, and also that it has acquired equipment for “plutonium activation,” from North Korea. The two sources of fissionable material for an atomic weapon are highly enriched uranium, and plutonium that is produced as a reactor by-product. It appears that Burma is following both tracks towards developing a bomb.

Watson provided a summary of Burma’s nuclear evidence. “First, Burma has uranium deposits and they have long admitted it themselves.” The SPDC in fact published such on their own Ministry of Energy website, identifying numerous sites. He reiterated that not only have commercially viable uranium deposits been found and are being mined, but that they are “being milled into yellow cake and offered for sale on the black market to anybody willing to pay the price.” Indeed, Watson said “Dictator Watch has information about such sale attempts.”

The international customers for Burma’s yellow cake include North Korea and some intelligence sources suggest Iran as well. It is believed that the large quantity of yellow cake that Iran purchased from South Africa in the 1970s has run out. Iran’s enrichment program is substantial, and growing, and Tehran clearly needs to secure new uranium supplies.

Burma’s links to Iran and North Korea are extremely troubling, and it was in 2009 that a publicized incident occurred between the US Navy and a North Korean vessel - a known weapons carrier called the Kang Nam I. This North Korean ship was reportedly carrying advanced weaponry (possibly nuclear technology) destined for Burma and a US Destroyer was dispatched to interdict it. The Kang Nam I eventually turned back to North Korea with cargo intact. Watson reports, however, that the ship had already gone to Burma at least once, possibly two times previously and unloaded its cargo at Rangoon - at night. On one of those occasions the Kang Nam I continued on to Iran. In 2008 the United States through diplomatic requests to India also blocked a cargo flight from North Korea from flying to Iran after it stopped in Burma.

It is further believed that the interdicted Kang Nam I shipment from 2009 was successfully delivered to Rangoon port in April 2010.

Dictator Watch has evidence that North Korea has long been selling Burma an array of weaponry, including missiles and nuclear technology. The weapons include Scud missiles (short range ballistic missiles), and the SPDC is reportedly pointing them towards military bases in Thailand.

With all this nuclear and weapons skulduggery going on it’s a wonder why Burma hasn’t been brought before the United Nations Security Council. For Watson the threat is clear, “If you have uranium mining, milling and then bartering of yellow cake to North Korea and Iran you have a significant threat to international security and peace, including divergent rogue trafficking of yellow cake to terrorists.” However, China and Russia are permanent members of the Security Council and have historically protected the SPDC from international repercussions. On Beijing’s role Watson laments, “The Chinese are the godfathers of Kim Jong Ill and Than Shwe and on an issue as big as this they couldn’t work together if China didn’t say ok.”

One thing seems clear, the world does not need another rogue nuclear state, especially one with a human rights record as brutal as Burma’s. As for the long silence on Burma’s nuclear mystery, the DVB report and Senator Webb’s cancelled visit suggest it may be unravelling. The JADE Act has been ignored however, and thus only time will tell if Dictator Watch’s FOIA filing too will be brushed aside.


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Scott Johnson -- Bio and Archives | Comments

Scott Johnson is a lawyer, writer and human rights activist who has focused on issues in South East Asia.

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