It has been reported that Myanmar is working on nuclear weapons with assistance from Russia. We all know that Myanmar is known to us as a regional peace destabilizer and we can’t simply be silent about those developments. It has many implications. Firstly, regional countries’ relationship with Myanmar as a neighbor is not satisfactory, there is frequent dissatisfaction. Secondly, we have regional disputes such as the Rohingya refugee crisis, smuggling, the Myanmar military’s continuous arrogance in the region, defying international law, and customs, etc.
Moreover, Myanmar military dictatorship has been ruling this country for a significant period of time exhibiting less chance for a democratic govt. in the near future. We already have lot many neighboring countries in this part of the globe having nuclear power like India, China and Pakistan. Now, Myanmar is going to join this club too! Will the world be able to deal with this other North Korea? Myanmar is going to Southeast Asian North Korea. What will be the next courses of action for us? Is there any discussion or a strategic or diplomatic policy that has been taken by our regional government highlighting this matter? I think it is time to think again, we can’t ignore the things around us.
Read more: Bangladesh & Myanmar’s hybrid war troubles: Lessons for Global South
Understanding the matter better
So, it is high time for all regional countries to take necessary steps regarding these issues in a peaceful manner so that it will not be too late. It is our right to be safe as nations.
Russia and Myanmar have agreed to continue their nuclear cooperation recently. According to international media outlets reports, Myanmar’s cherished nuclear ambitions are backed by Russia, whose own ambitions are to create as many problems as it can for the western world. If Russia continues to help Myanmar to be nuclear Myanmar, its implications in South and Southeast Asia would be definitely dangerous. A nuclear-free zone in Southeast Asia would be a nuclear zone. An arms race would be mandatory for Southeast Asia. Although this would be strategic gain for some powers, ultimately nuclear tension is confirmed in the ASEAN region.
If Myanmar acquires a nuclear capability, it would be a disaster for South and Southeast Asia. All regional countries would be facing security threats from Myanmar directly. Nuclear Myanmar is going to direct threat to not only all regional countries. South and Southeast Asia are going to be vulnerable permanently if Myanmar continues to pursue its long-cherished nuclear ambitions. Definitely, the military junta would use the weapons against various ethnic rivals, and insurgents. Not only that, but the whole Southeast Asian region would also be volatile, and unstable for the stupidity of the Myanmar junta. Myanmar’s aggressive behavior would be growing day by day.
Recent border tensions between Myanmar-Bangladesh are the best example to understand and realize that. Myanmar’s military is so brutal, and cruel that it has been carrying out airstrikes on its people. Thus, the nuclear weapons in the hand of the Myanmar military are more dangerous than North Korea even.
For example, the foreign ministry summoned Myanmar’s ambassador to Bangladesh, Aung Kyaw Moe, on September 18, 2022, for the fourth time in protest of the troubled neighbor’s continuous violations of Bangladesh’s air and land space in recent weeks. Myanmar has been embroiled in a civil conflict since mid-August, and throughout this time, shells have crossed the Bangladesh border. On September 16, a mortar bomb launched from Myanmar exploded in a Rohingya camp, killing one 18-year-old and injuring five others. Additionally, on September 3, military aircraft from Myanmar conducted coordinated shooting attacks from fighter jets and helicopters while in Bangladeshi airspace, putting the Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) on notice.
Read more: Strategic Consequences Of Myanmar’s State Of Emergency: The Quad vs. China & Russia?
One of Bangladesh’s closest neighbors is Myanmar. Unfortunately, the nation does not behave in a very neighborly manner. In a raid on the Rakhine state on August 25, 2017, the Myanmar army massacred the Rohingya community and burned their homes on fire. More than 700,000 Rohingyas fled this cruelty and sought refuge in Bangladesh. Thousands of Rohingyas have previously traveled from Myanmar to Bangladesh at various points in time.1.25 million Rohingyas are currently listed as living in Bangladesh’s numerous refugee camps. Releasing them has been difficult for Myanmar. Bangladesh is obligated to pay. Bangladesh has been the victim of numerous lies from the nation.
Myanmar has consistently infringed on Bangladesh’s sovereignty. This is a big surprise. At the border, no state has the authority to infringe on another state’s sovereignty. This is obviously against international law, standards, and traditions. The government of Myanmar must take into account the cordial ties between the two nations. It must keep in mind that Bangladesh is a sovereign nation and that firing shells into the border by itself, whether on purpose or accidentally, is unacceptable. Myanmar has no right to infringe on the territory of another state. In the international community, this mindset is unacceptable.
An agreement signed by Myanmar’s military regime and Russia’s state-owned nuclear energy corporation to jointly assess building a small reactor in the Southeast Asian country underscores the junta’s long-term pursuit of nuclear weapons, analysts said.
Myo Thein Kyaw, the regime’s minister of science and technology; Thuang Han, minister of electric power; and Alexey Likhachev, chief executive officer at Russia’s State Atomic Energy Corporation, signed the “roadmap for cooperation upon its own citizens” while they attended the Eastern Economic Forum on Sept. 5-8 in Vladivostok. Junta leader Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing oversaw the signing of the agreement.
The deal would further Russian-Myanmar cooperation in the field of nuclear energy, and assess the feasibility of a small-scale nuclear reactor project in Myanmar, Rosatom said in a statement issued Sept. 6.
The same day, the junta announced that it would use nuclear energy for electricity generation, scientific research, medicine production, and industry.
There is no doubt Myanmar has a nuclear program. It sent scientists, technicians, and army officers to Russia for training in recent years. And Moscow has agreed to supply Myanmar, formerly Burma, with a small nuclear reactor for civilian use. The question is, why is the world silent in this regard? Why did ASEAN not raise the concern this time?
Read more: Why Asean and Cambodia should dismantle the Myanmar military
Myanmar (Burma) has been carrying out rudimentary steps toward developing nuclear weapons, a documentary released in June by an opposition group alleges. The documentary by the Democratic Voice of Burma featured information provided by Sai Thein Win, a former officer in the Myanmar army. Win claimed to have been deputy manager of special machine tool factories involved in Myanmar’s secret nuclear weapons efforts and ballistic missile development program.
The opposition group also issued a corresponding report on June 3 featuring an analysis of Win’s information by former International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspector Robert Kelley. Kelley claimed in the report that, taken collectively, the technology featured in Win’s information “is only for nuclear weapons and not civilian use or nuclear power.”
Burma’s nuclear ambitions, spotlighted by last month’s announcement that Russia has agreed to help the regime build a nuclear research facility, date back at least seven years. In December 1995, the junta signed the Bangkok Treaty, banning the development, manufacture, possession, control, stationing, transport, testing, or use of nuclear weapons under the terms of the international Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Five years later, after a visit to Moscow by Burma’s minister for science and technology, U Thaung, the junta’s nuclear plans became clearer” The junta’s recent confirmation that it will build a small-scale nuclear power plant in the next few years caps Myanmar’s long pursuit of nuclear technology dating back to early 2000.
The Southeast Asian country’s two-decade-long journey to nuclear capability was made possible by Russia after a series of engagements that accelerated under the current junta and its military predecessor.
Though the current regime insists nuclear energy would be used for peaceful purposes in Myanmar, which has been hit by chronic electricity shortages, many believe this is the first step in a plan to utilize nuclear energy for military purposes including the production of nuclear weapons.
In 2009, it was reported that Myanmar was suspected of having initiated a nuclear weapons program. If such a program does exist, Burma’s technical and financial limitations may make it difficult for the program to succeed. The United States expressed concern in 2011 about potential violations of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), though by 2012 these concerns had been “partially allayed.” Burma has faced persistent accusations of using chemical weapons.
In 2007, Russia and Burma did a controversial nuclear research center deal
According to them, “The center will comprise a 10MW light-water reactor working on 20%-enriched uranium-235, an activation analysis laboratory, a medical isotope production laboratory, silicon doping system, nuclear waste treatment, and burial facilities”.
According to an August 2009 report published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Burma had been working to develop a nuclear weapon by 2014. The reported effort, purportedly being undertaken with assistance from North Korea, involves the construction of a nuclear reactor and plutonium extraction facilities in caves tunneled into a mountain at Naung Laing, a village in the Mandalay division. The information cited in the newspaper story reportedly originated from two high-ranking defectors who had settled in Australia.
On June 3, 2010, a five-year investigation by an anti-government Myanmar broadcaster, the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), found evidence that allegedly shows the country’s military regime began a programme to develop nuclear weapons. The DVB said evidence of Myanmar’s nuclear programme came from top-secret documents smuggled out of the country over several years, including hundreds of files and other evidence provided by Sai Thein Win, a former major in the military of Myanmar. A UN report said there was evidence that North Korea had been exporting nuclear technology to Burma, Iran, and Syria.
Now, Russia supports Myanmar’s nuclear program openly
Based on Win’s evidence, Robert Kelley, a former weapons inspector, said he believed Burma “has the intent to go nuclear and it is… expending huge resources along the way.” But as of 2010, experts said that Burma was a long way from succeeding, given the poor quality of its current materials. Despite Kelley’s analysis, some experts are uncertain that a nuclear weapons program exists; for example, the Institute for Science and International Security notes ambiguity as to whether certain equipment is used for uranium production, or for innocently producing “rare earth metals or metals such as titanium or vanadium.” The U.S. expressed concern in 2011 about possible NPT violations, but by 2012 stated that its concerns had been “partially allayed.”
Myanmar signed the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons on September 26, 2018, but has not ratified it.
On 15 December 1995, ASEAN Member States signed the Treaty of Southeast Asia Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone (SEANWFZ Treaty) as a commitment to preserve the Southeast Asian region as a region free of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction. The Treaty is also known as the Bangkok Treaty. Through this treaty, ASEAN reaffirms the importance of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) in preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons and in contributing towards international peace and security. It also marks the establishment of a Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone (NWFZ) in Southeast Asia – one among five NWFZs in the world. The other four NWFZs are in Latin America and the Caribbean, South Pacific, Africa, and Central Asia.
Read more: Intensifying maximum pressure on Myanmar military for regime change
The Protocol to the SEANWFZ Treaty welcomes the signing and early ratification of the Nuclear Weapon States (NWS), which will contribute to the promotion of the realization of a Southeast Asia Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone. Efforts are underway toward the accession of the NWS to the Protocol.
Myanmar’s attitude is contradictory to the Protocol to the SEANWFZ Treaty
Whatever may be the truth, the fact remains that nuclear Myanmar is not in India, China, or all neighboring countries’ interests. They cannot afford to have another nuclear power along its border. Other regional countries would definitely feel insecure. The direct nuclear threat from Myanmar would destabilize the whole region in the long run. If nuclear deterrence works, then the arms race is a must in the region.
West should join with all regional countries and ASEAN to pressure Myanmar to give up its nuclear (weapons) ambitions. They must take action like in the Iran case, Otherwise, the world is going to see another nuclear threat in the Southeast region. Instead of developing nuclear weapons, the world must compel Myanmar to focus on bringing back democracy and resolving problems like HIV, AIDS, human trafficking, rape, drug abuse, child soldiers, forced labor, ethnic crisis, refugee issues, and corruption. All bordering and neighboring countries of Myanmar must be cautious in this regard.
Read more: Why UN should address the Myanmar-Bangladesh border tensions
The only peaceful course of action is for Myanmar to promptly implement appropriate measures to cease all forms of unwelcome behavior in the border area in order to preserve regular ties between the two nations. All regional countries must raise the issue in the international community to stop Myanmar to commit such heinous activities. Russia must stop its heinous secret mission in Myanmar to keep the stable Aseanregion as its status co‘ nuclear-free.
Dr Arpita Hazarika is an India-based researcher in Gauhati University, Assam. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.