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Doubts remain about regime's nuclear secrets
Sydney Morning Herald - February 13, 2012
George Soros and the Herald are two visitors to have had this diversion. Whether it's some kind of show of force, or practice for a ceremonial fly-past, the modern Russian-made jets were a reminder of a deep concern about foreign intervention that gripped Burma's former military regime in the past decade.
With talk of "regime change" swirling in Washington, the then leader Senior General Than Shwe set out to make his country invasion proof.
At unknown but vast expense, the capital was moved to a newly built city, Naypyidaw, well inland and out of immediate reach of the US navy. The air force, previously a mostly transport fleet helping in internal wars, was equipped with the potent Russian interception and strike aircraft, the MiG-29.
To alarm worldwide, the regime ordered a small nuclear reactor from Russia, sent several hundred technicians to Russian centres for training in nuclear science, and deepened its contacts with another pariah state, North Korea, raising fears of a secret, parallel program to make nuclear bombs.
As first reported in the Herald in July 2009, two defectors to Thailand – one an army officer who had been sent to Moscow for nuclear training, the other with the trading firm Htoo Trading – told of a secret complex being dug into a mountain at Naung Laing, in Burma's north.
Under US pressure a North Korean cargo ship heading for Rangoon was turned back. Japanese police foiled a Burmese attempt to buy a specialist device that could be used in ballistic missile trials, and the US said Washington was worried about the transfer of "nuclear technology and other dangerous weapons" from North Korea to Burma.
With a new ostensibly civilian government in Burma, led by former army general Thein Sein chosen in tightly controlled elections, Western governments including Australia's are urging it to clear up remaining doubts about unsafeguarded nuclear activity and the connection with North Korea.
"We doubt that there is a covert nuclear program with the North Koreans," one foreign diplomat told the Herald. "Probably the activity is all about hardening and deepening. But there is the question of ballistic missiles, and why, for example, a ship said to be bringing coal from North Korea has to be unloaded in the middle of the night."
Burma's military might not be aware how closely it was monitored by US agencies, said the diplomat, under the Proliferation Security Initiative, a multi-nation network set up to watch for exports of mass destruction and ballistic missile technology after North Korea quit the nuclear non-proliferation treaty in 2003 and went overtly nuclear. Ko Ko Hlaing, who is the president's chief political adviser, served as a research officer on the army chief's staff until his retirement from military service in 2004. He derides the idea of Burma going nuclear.
"It's actually like a James Bond 007 story," he said. "Why would we need a nuclear program without any enemy within our defence perimeter? Neither China nor India is our rival. We have no contingency to make military action against them, and also Thailand now has very friendly relations."
The Herald reminded him about the early Bush administration's free talk about regime change, and the outside perception that the move to Naypyidaw had been about "strategic depth" in defence.
"Actually it's now become history, the time of General Than Shwe," Hlaing said. "It's now the era of President Thein Sein, and the national interest and threat perceptions are not the same... I personally cannot see any threats in our neighbouring countries or from the American naval fleet. So why would we keep, or seek such a very costly and very notorious and very bad image, [option of] nuclear weapons. It is useless. Anyway we have no money to do it, and no enemy to fire on. And also we have no capacity to keep, so it's out of the question."
Yes, but was it ever considered? "Even in the previous system we needed some conventional arms and ammunition, to fight the local insurgents," Hlaing said. "We had an arms embargo from the Western countries, and from Japan and South Korea also. So we have to find wherever we can buy.
"We tried to buy defence technologies from South Korea, but a South Korean company was prosecuted for having relations with the Myanmar military. So you don't want Myanmar to have contact with North Korea, but when we contacted South Korea, you sanction the South Korean company. What's the logic?"
[This is the final in Hamish McDonald's series of reports from Burma, where he attended a seminar with Burmese and regional officials, businessmen and analysts as guest of Melbourne University's Asialink institute.]