Thursday, December 23, 2010

Burma Bombshell

Via Council on Foreign Relations (CRF) -

Many minor Wikileaks scoops have attracted media notice—like the fact that Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi apparently always travels with a buxom Ukrainian “nurse”—but one frightening disclosure in particular has not received nearly enough attention. In several cables written from the U.S. embassy in Rangoon, the largest city (and former capital) of Burma, diplomats provided information about the Burmese junta's potential cooperation with North Korea, including details of what may be nascent nuclear and missile programs.

In one cable, from back in 2004, American officials reported that sources told them North Korean workers potentially were helping the junta build a ballistic missile program at one secret military site inside Burma. In another cable, a source told U.S. officials of reports that Burma is importing significant quantities of ore, possibly in order to be refined into uranium. In still another cable, sources reported on more details of covert military co-operation between Burma and North Korea, including on potential nuclear production.


Why won't foreign governments consider the possibility? Denying that Burma could be trying to construct a nuclear or missile program fits into a larger pattern of mistaken thinking about the junta—a pattern that involves seeing the regime as crazy, unpredictable, or even stupid. This attitude is evident in much of the media coverage of the country, which focuses on the junta's superstitions—it has used astrologers to help it pick propitious dates—or other bizarre tendencies. In conversations with officials from another, wealthier Asian nation last year, I was repeatedly told how hard it was to deal with the junta because its leaders have little education. Former Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew has been blunter, telling American diplomats, in one conversation captured in a Wikileaks-released cable, that the junta is “dense.”

To be sure, building a nuclear program is a serious undertaking—witness the trouble Iran is having—and the impoverished and relatively isolated Burmese junta would face an uphill climb. What's more, to produce a nuclear program, Burma would likely have to alienate its major patron, China, which certainly has no interest in having another nuclear state right on its border. And, even if the junta is importing workers and knowledge from North Korea, that doesn't absolutely mean it will, or can, build nukes or missiles.


There could be another explanation for U.S. denial of Burma's nuclear ambitions: Burma expert Bertil Lintner has suggested in the Asia Times that some lower-ranking U.S. officials may be trying to play down evidence of a nuclear program so as not to threaten the Obama administration's new policy of engagement with the junta. But even if this were the reason—in whole or in part—for Washington's quiet approach, it would still be yet another example of U.S. naivete when it comes to Burma. After all, engagement doesn't seem to be working: Another Wikileaks-released cable reveals that U.S. officials have suggested junta leader Than Shwe might be willing to make compromises in order to gain closer relations with the United States—compromises that we have yet to see.

In the end, neither the hope of engagement nor a faith in the regime's essential incompetence seem like good reasons to play down the nuclear issue. To be fair, the Obama administration doesn't lack for major headaches around the world. But it might be time to add this one to the list.

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