Tuesday, July 21, 2009
Is Myanmar Going Nuclear?
The recent aborted voyage of a North Korean ship, photographs of massive tunnels and a top secret meeting have raised alarm bells that one of the world's poorest nations may be aspiring to join the nuclear club _ with help from its friends in Pyongyang. No one expects military-run Myanmar, also known as Burma, to obtain an atomic bomb anytime soon, but experts have the Southeast Asian nation on their radar screen.
Alert signals sounded recently when a North Korean freighter, the Kang Nam I, headed toward Myanmar with undisclosed cargo. Shadowed by the U.S. Navy, it reversed course and returned home earlier this month.
It is still not clear what was aboard. U.S. and South Korean officials suspected artillery and other non-nuclear arms, but one South Korean intelligence expert, citing satellite imagery, says the ship's mission appeared to be related to a Myanmar nuclear program and also carried Scud-type missiles. The expert, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said North Korea is helping Myanmar set up uranium- and nuclear-related facilities, echoing similar reports that have long circulated in Myanmar's exile community and media.
Meanwhile, Japanese police arrested a North Korean and two Japanese nationals last month for allegedly trying to export a magnetic measuring device to Myanmar that could be used to develop missiles.
And a recent report from Washington-based Radio Free Asia and Myanmar exile media said senior Myanmar military officers made a top secret visit late last year to North Korea, where an agreement was concluded for greatly expanding cooperation to modernize Myanmar's military muscle, including the construction of underground installations. The military pact report has yet to be confirmed.
In June, photographs, video and reports showed as many as 800 tunnels, some of them vast, dug in Myanmar with North Korean assistance under an operation code-named "Tortoise Shells." The photos were reportedly taken between 2003 and 2006.
Albright says some of the suspicion stems from North Korea's nuclear cooperation with Syria, which now possesses a reactor. Syria had first approached the Russians, just as Myanmar did earlier, but both countries were rejected, so the Syrians turned
to Pyongyang _ a step Myanmar may also be taking.
Since the early 2000s, dissidents and defectors from Myanmar have talked of a "nuclear battalion," an atomic "Ayelar Project" working out of a disguised flour mill and two Pakistani scientists who fled to Myanmar following the Sept. 11 World Trade Center attack providing assistance. They gave no detailed evidence. Now a spokesman for the self-styled Myanmar government-in-exile, the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma, says that according to sources working with the dissident movement inside the Myanmar army, there are two heavily guarded buildings under construction "to hold nuclear reactors" in central Myanmar.
Excerpt from The Associated Press
By DENIS D. GRAY