Weapons Trump Development

Burma’s regime seeks a military deterrent to preserve its chokehold on power.
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Former junta chief Than Shwe reviews an honor guard in Myanmar in a file photo.
Former junta chief Than Shwe reviews an honor guard in Myanmar in a file photo.

BANGKOK—The Burmese junta is taking cues from North Korea on how to use weaponry to maintain its grip on power at the people's expense, experts say.

On June 3, the Norway-based news agency Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) released hundreds of photos purportedly showing facilities the junta is using to develop nuclear expertise, which it said is likely being refined with North Korea's help.

Bruce Klingner, senior research fellow at the conservative Washington-based Heritage Foundation, said Burma is also spending what little money it earns preparing to repel a feared invasion with North Korean tunneling techniques.

“Burma, like North Korea, has no problems with subjugating the population and with starving the population as it focuses its priorities on developing military programs—in Burma’s case a lot of underground facilities, which again mirrors North Korea,” he said.

“[It’s] developing missile and/or nuclear programs, even as the people suffer international isolation and poor economic conditions.”

Photos ‘appear genuine’

DVB also released analysis contending that while the photos come from one source—a former Burmese Army major, Sai Thein Win, who recently defected to Thailand—they are “so consistent with other information ... that they lead to a high degree of confidence that Burma is pursuing nuclear technology.”

The analysis, compiled by former director of the UN International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Robert Kelley and co-researcher Ali Fowle, concluded that the technology, likely originating in North Korea, “is only for nuclear weapons and not civilian use or nuclear power.”

Kelley and Fowle said Burma’s generals, over time, “seek more ways to hang onto power as their wealth grows ever larger and the dissatisfaction of the population threatens to oust them.”

The researchers said Burma hopes to develop a defensive military power that would “make foreign intervention very painful for an aggressor,” and which “signals its neighbors to leave them alone.”

“The model for this is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, DPRK, commonly known as North Korea. North Korea is too poor to threaten anyone except its immediate neighbors, but its possession of nuclear weapons inhibits any outside intervention in its repressive regime.”

The Burmese regime has denied developing a nuclear weapons program.

Geoff Forden, a researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), said building such facilities would likely have cost Burma “on the order of U.S. $10 million or several tens of millions of dollars.”

“I was struck by aspects [of the photos] … related to what the government of Burma is willing to do to prevent what they think of as an invasion possibility,” Forden said.

“To me it seems like they are not very concerned about the people of Burma and are willing to let them suffer so that the regime could survive,” he said.

“The other documents showed a real lack of concern for the Burmese people that was very disturbing.”

Forden said the photos appear genuine and consistent with what is known about Burma’s military plans.

They appear to show the inside of two factories the junta has built to house advanced “Western technology,” he said, but added that it is unlikely the equipment is used to manufacture any viable weaponry.

“They’re general-purpose machine shops with sophisticated equipment, and they could do quite a few things. And Burma has shown an interest in making missiles, though they are definitely not very far along in their program,” he said.

Imports are key

Forden said Burma’s ability to develop an effective weapons program relies on its regime’s ability to import technology.

“It’s going to depend on how much foreign assistance they can get. And presumably they would get it from North Korea,” he said.

“If that goes through, as there were indications, then they could get ... a Nodong missile fairly rapidly—maybe one or two years,” Forden said, referring to the North Korean mid-range ballistic missile.

“They’re just starting off in the missile program, and it definitely needs foreign assistance that they haven’t gotten yet.”

Klingner cited “little to no evidence of how much progress, if any, has been made” by any Burmese nuclear or missile porgram.

“I haven’t seen anything tangible ... it seems a general consensus is that there is nothing imminent, even if there is an effort there,” he said.

Preservation of power

“Given North Korea’s propensity for nuclear development as well as proliferation ... I think there is great suspicion or certainty that North Korea also has a relationship with Burma,” he said, adding that both North Korea and Burma, which the ruling junta calls Myanmar, are pariah states.

Burma could attempt to use a missile and nuclear weapons program as a deterrent to a U.S. attack, Klingner said, which the regime fears enough to have relocated the country’s capital from Rangoon to the remote city of Naypyidaw in 2005.

“Or perhaps they would go down the path of North Korea—of using the threat of a nuclear deterrent or a nuclear weapons program as a way of forcing concessions from their opponents, including an amelioration of international sanctions,” he said.

Hours before the report was released, U.S. senator Jim Webb canceled a planned trip to Burma, citing U.S. concerns over an alleged shipment of North Korean arms to Burma.

Webb chairs a U.S. Senate Foreign Relations panel on East Asia, and has called for increased dialogue between the Obama administration and Burma's junta.

Original reporting RFA’s Burmese service and Joshua Lipes. Burmese service director: Nyein Shwe. Executive producer: Susan Lavery. Written for the Web in English by Joshua Lipes. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.





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