Thursday, December 16, 2010

U.S. Double Talk on Myanmar Nukes

BANGKOK - Is Myanmar truly trying to acquire a nuclear weapons capability and produce ballistic missiles with North Korean assistance, as alleged in a controversial June documentary made by the Norway-based Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) and aired by al-Jazeera, or is it all poppycock, as claimed in a November 12 report by United States-based ProPublica, an award-winning US investigative journalism outfit?

The DVB report was based on testimonies from Myanmar army defectors who had been scrutinized by Robert Kelley, a highly regarded former US weapons scientist and former United Nations weapons inspector. ProPublica, on the other hand, quoted an anonymous senior "American official" as saying that the US Central Intelligence Agency had reviewed Kelley's report "line by line and had rejected its findings". Classified cables recently released by WikiLeaks from the US Embassy in Yangon, however, reveal a wide discrepancy between what US officials have said in public and the concerns they raise internally about Myanmar's nuclear ambitions. Judging by these leaked documents, it appears that ProPublica has fallen victim to manipulations by US officials who want to hide the true extent of the intelligence that US agencies have collected in order to enhance the political agenda of those who favor engagement over further isolation of Myanmar's military regime.

The US currently imposes economic and financial sanctions against the rights-abusing regime. Long before the Barack Obama administration launched its new Myanmar policy and began sending emissaries to talk with the generals, other US officials had tested a similar conciliatory tack. By any measure, those diplomatic efforts completely failed. In February 1994, US congressman Bill Richardson, who later served as the US's ambassador to the United Nations, paid a highly publicized visit to the country. Accompanied by a New York Times correspondent, he met with pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi - then under house arrest - as well as then intelligence chief General Khin Nyunt. At the time, Richardson's visit was hailed in the press as a major "breakthrough" - although he himself was very cautious in his remarks. After a second visit to Myanmar in May 1995, Richardson stated at a press conference in Bangkok that his trip had been "unsuccessful, frustrating and disappointing".

Similarly, a string of UN special envoys have for over two decades attempted and failed to engage the generals towards political change and national reconciliation. Myanmar's partners in the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have also long advocated a policy of "constructive engagement" with the military regime, though so far with few tangible results apart from increased trade and investment with the impoverished nation. The WikiLeaks cables and other internal US documentation show that Washington is indeed concerned by reports of North Korea's shadowy involvement in Myanmar as well as the military regime's nuclear ambitions. Comparing the content of the recently leaked cables with what US officials and other sources apparently told ProPublica shows that expressing such concerns publicly would make it more difficult to entice Myanmar's ruling generals to give up their newly established, cozy relationship with North Korea's weapons-proliferating regime.

Myanmar's close relations with North Korea's main ally, China, is also a concern, according to US senator James Webb, a staunch advocate of the US's new and to date ineffectual engagement policy with Myanmar's military government. At a breakfast
meeting with Washington defense reporters in October, Webb called on the Obama administration to be more active in Myanmar and engage the country's military junta to prevent China from making Myanmar a full-blown client state. Downplaying perennial human-rights concerns and dismissing the well-documented reports of Myanmar's nuclear ambitions are part and parcel of this new policy departure. From the afore-mentioned breakfast meeting, Foreign Policy magazine reported on its web site on October 27 that Webb "criticized what he sees as a double standard in the administration's approach toward human rights - and pointed to Beijing". "When was the last time China had an election? How many political prisoners are there in China? Does anybody know? What's the consistency here?" Foreign Policy reported. Tellingly, the November 12 ProPublica report quoted Webb as saying that the DVB report on North Korea and Myanmar's nuclear ambitions "made such an [engagement] approach impossible".

Difficult Truths

The US Embassy in Yangon stated in a report dated August 27, 2004 - which has recently been made public by WikiLeaks - that one of their sources had said that North Korean workers were assembling surface-to-air missiles at a "military site in Magway Division" where a "concrete-reinforced underground facility" was also being constructed. An unidentified expatriate businessman had told the US Embassy that "he had seen a large barge carrying reinforced steel bar of a diameter that suggested a project larger than a factory". While stating that these reports could not be "definitive proof of sizable North Korean involvement with the Burmese [Myanmar] regime... many details provided by [a confidential source] match those provided by other, seemingly unrelated sources". According to those reports, the embassy stated in its report, Myanmar and North Korea "are up to something of a covert military or military-industrial nature".

The report added that, "exactly what, and on what scale, remains to be determined" and that the embassy would continue to "monitor these developments and report as warranted". Asia Times Online reported as early as July 2006 (see Myanmar and North Korea share a tunnel vision, July 19, '06) on North Korea's involvement in the construction of an extensive underground complex in and around Myanmar's new capital Naypyidaw. In another internal US document made public by WikiLeaks, a local Myanmar businessman reportedly offered uranium to the US Embassy in Yangon. The offer was not linked to any North Korean activity, but nevertheless added to the mystery and speculation surrounding nuclear issues in Myanmar. The embassy reportedly bought it and wrote in its cable to Washington: "The individual provided a small bottle half-filled with metallic powder and a photocopied certificate of testing from a Chinese university dated 1992 as verification of the radioactive nature of the powder."

The unnamed businessman also said that "if the US was not interested in purchasing the uranium, he and his associates would try to sell it to other countries, beginning with Thailand". It was unclear where the alleged uranium came from, but Myanmar is known to have several deposits of the radioactive metal used in nuclear reactors and weapons. According to a Myanmar government web site, there are uranium ore deposits at five locations in the country, namely: Magway, Taungdwingyi (south of Bagan), Kyaukphygon and Paongpyin near the ruby mines at Mogok, Kyauksin, and near Myeik (or Mergui) in the country's southeast. Perhaps even more revealingly, according to an August 2009 report from US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to the US Embassy in Berlin marked "confidential" (but not included in the documents released by WikiLeaks), ambassador Susan Burk, special representative of the US president for nuclear non-proliferation, discussed "concerns about Myanmar's nuclear intentions" in a meeting with German officials. The DVB documentary mentioned the involvement of German companies in Myanmar's alleged weapons of mass destruction programs. But, in ProPublica's version of events, the only noteworthy event related to Germany was that "officials" had said "they were aware that Burma had bought the equipment shown in the [Myanmar army] defector's pictures [some of it was exported by German companies], but have concluded that it is not being used to launch an atomic weapons program."

Furthermore, a UN report released in November alleged North Korea is supplying banned nuclear and ballistic missile equipment to Myanmar, among other countries. "China had blocked publication of the report which has been ready for six months," the French news agency Agence France-Presse reported on November 13. According to the report, drafted by experts who answer to the UN Security Council's sanctions committee, North Korea is involved with "the surreptitious transfer of nuclear-related and ballistic missile-related equipment, know-how and technology to countries including Iran, Syria and Myanmar".

The UN report went on to state that suspicious nuclear activities in Myanmar were linked to Namchongang Trading, a state-owned North Korean company known to have been involved in nuclear activities in Iran and Syria and the arrests of three people in Japan who tried to export illegally a magnetometer to Myanmar through Malaysia. In reference to the disclosures by the UN experts, the Washington Times reported on November 10: "Magnetometers can be used to produce ring magnets, a key element in centrifuges that are the basis of nuclear arms programs in Iran and Pakistan. That transfer was linked to a North Korean company involved in ‘illicit procurement' for nuclear and military programs." In 2009, Namchongang and its director, Yun Ho-jin, were formally sanctioned by the UN for proliferation activities. According to a German Customs Bureau report, the company uses its offices in Beijing and Shenyang in China to place orders for the equipment, which is critical to building the centrifuges required to enrich uranium. The arrival of Namchongang Trading in Myanmar set off alarm bells in many Western capitals and convinced several previous skeptics of Myanmar's nuclear ambitions to take the recent reports more seriously.
At the same time, US officials continue to deny that such concerns exist, as was reflected in ProPublica's November report that cited a supposed Central Intelligence Agency assessment of the threat. ProPublica did not reply to e-mailed questions from Asia Times Online about its November 12 piece. But, if their source's intention was to appease the Myanmar regime, it clearly succeeded. On December 5, the state-owned daily newspaper Kyaymon (The Mirror) ran a full translation of the ProPublica report that trashed the DVB documentary and nuclear expert Kelley's assessment. That response would seem to demonstrate that Myanmar's secretive military regime is still in denial about its true intentions: it has repeatedly stated that it has no nuclear ambitions and that there are no North Korean technicians situated in the country. Meanwhile, Myanmar's government has yet to publicly react to the recently leaked internal US documents disseminated by WikiLeaks.

However, it is now clear that there is one version of US perceptions about Myanmar's nuclear ambitions crafted for public consumption and diplomatic effect, and quite another making the rounds among Washington's security establishment. The recent
disclosures of the latter cast the US's recent engagement efforts towards Myanmar in a newstrategic light and raise hard questions about the policy's wisdom and sustainability.

By Bertil Lintner former correspondent with the Far Eastern Economic Review and the author of Great Leader, Dear Leader: Demystifying North Korea under the Kim Clan. He is currently a writer with Asia Pacific Media Services.

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