How, where, and why the military junta is pursuing nuclear bombs

Yesterday, a panel discussion hosted by the National Endowment for Democracy focused on recent reports of Burma’s nuclear ambitions. Paul Donowitz, Campaign Director from Earth Rights International and Robert Kelley, a former Director of International Atomic Energy Agency, came together to explain and discuss how, where, and why the military junta is pursuing the nuclear goal. Brian Joseph, Senior Director for Asia and Global Program at NED, mediated the discussion.

Paul Donowitz opened the afternoon discussion by talking elaborately on ‘how’ the military regime has been able to conceive and initiate this nuclear plan. He pointed to the role of international energy corporations that are doing business with the regime and paying the regime billions of dollars in royalties annually. He stated that Burmese economy is hugely dependent on a single source of income – gas export and revenues. In late 1990s, when international sanctions imposed on Burma took effect, the regime had no money. There was no money to pay the soldiers or to buy weapons. In addition to the sanctions, in summer of 1997, amidst the economic crisis that plagued the entire Southeast Asian region, the sharp decline of the value of Burmese Kyat threw off the already fragile economy inside Burma. However, in 1998, a sudden flow of money for the Yadana-Yetagun gas pipeline, even before it was built, alleviated the foreign currency crisis in the country.

Yadana-Yetagun pipeline operated by four major energy companies including PTTEP (Thailand), MOGE (Burma), Total (France) and Chevron (US) generated so much income for the regime that 70% of foreign exchange came from these gas sources. Paul mentioned that a leaked report by the IMF stated that less than 1% of gas revenues made it back into Burma to benefit the people. A huge chunk of gas money ends up in individual bank accounts in Singapore of people who are closely associated with the regime. He said that ERI has identified two bank accounts in Singapore registered under individuals’ names, who are not on the list of visa bans, that harbors a considerable sum of money from these gas pipelines.

Another pipeline, Shwe, which will begin its operations in 2013, is estimated to generate over $29 billion for the regime in a 30-year span. Paul explicitly stated that the nuclear ambitions in Burma are fueled by these gas revenues, without which the regime would not have the monetary capability to militarize and develop nuclear weapons. In addition, the building of these pipelines lead to the heavy human rights violations in the area including forced relocation, forced labor, torture, arrest, extrajudicial killings and rape.

The latter part of the discussion was followed by briefings from Robert Kelley, former Director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, who also featured in the recently released documentary film by Democratic Voice of Burma called, Myanmar’s military ambitions. During his presentation, he provided numerous photographs and satellite images pinpointing building that houses big machines, bomb reactors and other nuclear facilities. Mr Kelley said that the buildings were built in 2005 and machines were imported to Burma in 2006 from two Singaporean companies with German connections. He showed pictures of impeller for a ballistic missile engine and bomb reactors likely used to convert uranium compounds into uranium metal for bomb or reactor fuel. His pictures also showed military men sometimes dressed in military uniform and other times dressed in civilian clothing, especially when the German inspectors visited the site to ensure proper operations and use of the machines. Under the conditions of the sale of these machines, they can only be used for educational purposes and not for anything else.

Mr Kelley stated that the Burmese regime is a long way off from achieving nuclear weapons judging from the looks of the machines and the stages of testing activities the regime has done so far. “There is not going to be  bomb tomorrow. But it is a program of intent,” he said. He also emphasized that the international community should not delay its action on Burma to counter its nuclear ambitions merely because the efforts to do so have remained in crude stages.

Prevention may be better than cure, in the case of Burma’s nuclear goals, and he stressed the importance of acting now  to rally cooperation from the ASEAN nations and western governments to put the much needed pressure on Burma’s military regime to cease its nuclear initiations, strengthen the role of IAEA and supplier groups, and force Burma to consider signing the safeguard agreement so that it may come under the close supervision of the IAEA. Furthermore, he stated that the diplomatic community should lend its support to the German machine companies so that when they inspect the conditions of the machines in Burma next time, they can shed more light and accountability on the clandestine nuclear operations by the regime.


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