Thursday, March 4, 2010

U.S. Increasingly Wary as Burma Deepens Military Relationship with North Korea

The Obama administration, concerned that Burma is expanding its military relationship with North Korea, has launched an aggressive campaign to persuade Burma's junta to stop buying North Korean military technology.

Concerns about the relationship -- which encompass the sale of small arms, missile components and technology possibly related to nuclear weapons -- in part prompted the Obama administration in October to end the George W. Bush-era policy of isolating the military junta, said a senior State Department official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.

Congress and human rights organizations are increasingly criticizing and questioning the administration's new policy toward the Southeast Asian nation, which is also known as Myanmar. Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs and generally a supporter of the administration's foreign policy, recently called for the administration to increase the pressure on Burma, including
tightening sanctions on the regime.

Thus far, the engagement policy has not yielded any change in Burma's treatment of domestic opponents. On Friday, Burma's supreme court rejected opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi's latest bid to end more than a decade of house arrest. The Nobel Peace Prize laureate's National League for Democracy won elections in 1990, but the military, which has ruled Burma since 1962, did not cede power.

In recent months, the junta has also ramped up repression against political dissidents and ethnic groups, although it has released one aging dissident -- U Tin Oo -- after almost seven years in detention. Thousands of people have fled Burmese military assaults, escaping to China, Bangladesh and Thailand, in the months after the U.S. opening. A report issued this week by the Karen Women's Organization alleged that Burmese troops have gang-raped, killed and even crucified Karen women in an attempt to root out a 60-year-old insurgency by guerrillas from that ethnic minority.

On Feb. 10, a Burmese court sentenced a naturalized Burmese American political activist from Montgomery County to three years of hard labor; he was allegedly beaten, denied food and water, and placed in isolation in a tiny cell with no toilet. Burma recently snubbed the United Nations' special envoy on human rights, Tomás Ojea Quintana, denying him a meeting with Suu Kyi and access to Burma's senior leadership.

Underlining the administration's concerns about Burma is a desire to avoid a repeat of events that unfolded in Syria in 2007. North Korea is thought to have helped Syria secretly build a nuclear reactor there capable of producing plutonium. The facility was reportedly only weeks or months away from being functional when Israeli warplanes bombed it in September of that year. Burma is thought to have started a military relationship with North Korea in 2007. But with the passage of a U.N. Security Council resolution last June banning all weapons exports from North Korea, Burma has emerged as a much bigger player than it was.

In a report Albright co-wrote in January, titled "Burma: A Nuclear Wannabe," he outlined the case for concern about Burma's relations with North Korea. First, Burma has signed a deal with Russia for the supply of a 10-megawatt thermal research reactor, although construction of the facility had not started as of September.

Second, although many claims from dissident groups about covert nuclear sites in Burma are still unverified, the report said that "there remain legitimate reasons to suspect the existence of undeclared nuclear activities in Burma, particularly in the context of North Korean cooperation." By John Pomfret for The Washington Post

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