Monday, May 31, 2010

ASEAN'S NEW DILEMMA: Burma's nuclear ambitions

THE US ACTION was swift following confirmation of a North Korean ship with suspicious arms cargoes docking in Burma last month in violation of the UN Security Council Resolution 1874. A few days later, in the third week of April, the US State Department dispatched an urgent message to the Asean capitals recommending the scheduled Asean-US Economic Ministers' roadshow in Seattle and Washington DC, from May 3-5, proceed without the Burmese representation at "all levels." The drastic move surprised the Asean leaders.

The American ultimatum was not a bluff but a genuine show of frustration. This time Washington wanted to send a strong signal to Burma and the rest of Asean that unless something was done about Burma's compliance with the relevant UN resolutions on North Korean sanctions, there would be dire consequences. Political issues aside, Burma's nuclear ambition can further dampen Asean-US relations in the future. Already, there was the first casualty when the US downgraded the high-powered economic roadshow which was meticulously planned months ahead between the Office of US Trade Representatives and Asean economic ministers through the US-Asean Business Council.

Since nearly all Asean countries, except Singapore, decided to dispatch their trade or industry ministers to join the campaign, they agreed the roadshow should continue without the Burmese delegation as requested by the US. After some bargaining, the US softened its position agreeing to accept a representation at the charge d'affaires level from the Burmese Embassy in Washington DC. But Rangoon chose to opt out as it wanted diplomats directly dispatched from Rangoon. Without a consensus in Asean, a new name - absurd as it seemed - was in place, as the Southeast Asia Economic Community Road Show. It would be a one-time only designation.

When Kurt Campbell, Assistant State Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs returned to Burma for the second time recently, he was blunt telling the junta leaders to abide and fully comply with the UN Security Council Resolution 1874. That has been Washington's serious concern due to the growing link between North Korea and Burma and their existing transfer of nuclear-related technology. Last June, a North Korean ship, Kang Nam, was diverted from going to Burma after being trailed by the US navy.

Since 2000, Western intelligence sources have been gathering evidence of North Korea providing assistance to Burma to build a nuclear reactor that can produce graded plutonium used in assembling future weapons of mass destruction. Last year, reports were released using data collected from two defecting Burmese military officers, intercepted calls and messages as well as human intelligence along Thai-Burmese border, all finger-pointing to Burma's nuclear ambitions.

When they came out last fall, scepticism was high among military experts and strategists on the junta's nuclear intentions. Most said there was insufficient evidence. Some viewed them as attempts to further discredit the regime's international standing. As additional interviews were conducted, especially with a former major in the Burmese Army, Sai Thein Win, who was directly involved with the recent secret nuclear programme, it has become clearer that Burma is investigating nuclear technology. This week, a special report on a huge new body of information, with expert comment from a former official working for the International Atomic Energy Agency, will be released.

As such, it will have far-reaching implications on Asean and its members, who signed the 1995 Southeast Asian Nuclear Weapons Free Zone (SEANWFZ) and Non-proliferation Treaty. Asean is currently working hard to persuade all major nuclear powers to sign the protocol to the SEANWFZ. The grouping has even delayed China's eagerness to accede to the protocol.

Further complicating the issue, Asean has not reached a consensus on how its members would move forward with a common approach on nuclear energy and security. In general, Asean backs nuclear disarmament, which the Philippines has played a leading role as chair of the just concluded Review Conference of State Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation on Nuclear Weapons. Asean also backs the ongoing efforts of US and Russia over non-proliferation.

One sticky problem is that Thailand, Brunei Darussalam, Burma, and Indonesia have yet to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. In the case of Indonesia, it is on the Annex 2 list of the treaty which, to enter into force, must be reatified by all 44 states on this list. At the upcoming Asean summit in Hanoi (October), Asean leaders will study a matrix of common positions that have been or could be taken up by Asean. It remains to be seen how Asean would approach some of the sensitive issues such as the South China Sea, climate change and issues related to nuclear technology.

At the recent Nuclear Summit in Washington DC, leaders from Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand were invited by US President Barack Obama to share their views on non-proliferation and peaceful use of nuclear energy. They supported the summit's plan of action to prevent nuclear terrorism. All these Asean members have long-term plans to build nuclear power plants for peaceful use as energy sources. Vietnam has long decided on building two, while Thailand is planning one in the next ten years. Indonesia has serious parliamentary support to explore a nuclear option. Even the Singapore Economic Strategies Committee has recommended nuclear energy should be considered as a possible long-term solution to the island's energy security. Obama will certainly raise the issue again when he visits Indonesia in the second week of this month.

What is most intriguing has been the lack of serious attention from the Thai security apparatus regarding the nuclearisation of Burma. Apart from the two informal meetings convened by the Defence Council at the end of last year, the topic has been discussed only among a handful of military intelligence officials who have worked closely with their Australian counterparts. The National Security Council still does not believe Burma has that kind of ambition, not to mention the overall nuclear capacity to embark on the controversial programme. Concerned officials argued that domestic problems still have precedence.
Editorial, The Nation, Bangkok

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