Jim Webb cancels Burma visit after report claims junta 'planning nuclear bomb'

US Sen. Jim Webb canceled his June 3 visit to Burma following a report on the claims of a high-level defector that the junta is mining uranium and working with North Korea to develop a nuclear bomb.

Chaiwat Subprasom/Reuters
US Sen. Jim Webb gestures during a news conference at a hotel in Bangkok Thursday. Webb abruptly cancelled a planned visit to Burma (Myanmar) on Thursday because of concern about the country developing nuclear weapons in tandem with North Korea.

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After years of concern that Burma (Myanmar) has been developing nuclear weapons in tandem with North Korea, a top US nuclear scientist has produced a new report that appears to validate evidence of such a program divulged by a Burmese defector. If substantiated, it could pose new roadblocks just as Burma appeared to be warming up to the West.

Already, the report has led Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.), chairman of the US Senate foreign relations subcommittee on east Asia and Pacific affairs, to cancel his planned June 3 visit to Burma.

Sai Thein Win, a former major in the Burmese army, claims to have smuggled out secret memos, equipment orders, sketches, and photographs from secret facilities near the towns of Thabeikkyin and Myaing. One memo requests a “bomb reactor” for the “special substance production research department.” One photo shows "bomb reactors" likely used to convert uranium compounds into uranium metal for bomb or nuclear reactor fuel.

IN PICTURES: Who has nukes?

Mr. Sai's information was analyzed by Robert Kelley, an American nuclear scientist and a former director in the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), in a 30-page report published June 3 for the Oslo-based watchdog Democratic Voice of Burma. The antigovernment broadcaster investigated Burma's nuclear aims for a report aired on Al Jazeera.

"The information brought by Sai suggests that Burma is mining uranium, converting it to uranium compounds for reactors and bombs, and is trying to build a reactor and or an enrichment plant that could only be useful for a bomb," Mr. Kelley states, likening Sai Thein Win to Mordechai Vanunu, the Israeli technician who took photos of Israel's nuclear sites that were published in the Sunday Times in London in 1986.

The Washington Post calls it a "trove of insider material."

"There are many reports of a nuclear program in Burma. Most of them have been sketchy and in some cases technically incredible," Kelley states. But Sai's "information on nuclear program organization is impressive and it correlates well with information from other published and unpublished sources. But the most important thing he has brought forth is hundreds of color photographs taken inside critical facilities in Burma."

On a recent visit to Burma, Kurt Campbell, Assistant State Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, had told the junta in no uncertain terms to comply with UN Security Council Resolution 1874, reports The Nation in Thailand. The resolution calls on member states to prevent North Korea from developing nuclear weapons. The US had become concerned over a "growing link" between North Korea and Burma, especially on the transfer of nuclear-related technology, the paper reported on May 31.

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.

Russia, North Korea cited as helping Burma

Russia is alleged to have trained Burmese nuclear scientists, including Sai himself, who was reportedly trained in missile technology in Moscow along with Burmese friends who trained in nuclear technology. All returned to work for Burma's nuclear program.

It is no secret that North Korea has shipped arms and nuclear technology to Burma. But the report further argues that the junta is using North Korea as an example for how it, too, can ward off international interference.

"Like their model, North Korea, the junta hopes to remain safe from foreign interference by being too dangerous to invade. Nuclear weapons contribute to that immunity," according to the report. It also mentions that Burma is trying to build medium-range missiles such as SCUDs under a memorandum of understanding with North Korea.

Senator Webb in August 2009 became the first senior US official in a decade to visit Burma. He met with junta leader Than Shwe and gained the release an imprisoned American man who had unlawfully entered the home of Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.

“It is unclear whether these allegations have substantive merit," Webb said in his June 3 statement. "However, given the fact that Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell recently accused Burma of violating UN Security Council Resolution 1874 with respect to a suspected shipment of arms from North Korea, there are now two unresolved matters related to activities of serious concern between these two countries. Until there is further clarification on these matters, I believe it would be unwise and potentially counterproductive for me to visit Burma.”

A sign of failed US policy?

An editorial in The Irrawaddy, a magazine founded by Burmese exiles based in Chiang Mai, Thailand, argues that Webb's canceled trip is an attempt to "save face" in the wake of a misled US foreign policy. Webb has in the past opposed sanctions on Burma and applauded the junta's "substantive gestures."

Some Burmese living abroad have been asking in Internet discussion whether Webb had seen the light and had finally changed his thinking on the Burma question. The answer is: No.

....Webb opposes sanctions against Burma and is seen as leaning toward the regime. It's also rumored that he and senior US State Department officials concerned with Asia-Pacific affairs are not on good terms. Nor does Webb enjoy much popularity among Burmese dissidents. Veteran Burmese politician Win Tin has said he wouldn't welcome a meeting between Webb and detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

“He doesn't have good sympathy for Burma's democracy movement,” Win Tin said bluntly.

Not yet nuclear capable, but intent clear

Two Singaporean companies with Germany connections sold machine parts and tools to the Burmese government. The report notes that much of the purchasing was done by the Department of Technical and Vocational Education (DTVE), which is closely associated with Burma's Department of Atomic Energy (DAE).

"DTVE is probably a front for military purchasing for weapons of mass destruction; that is to say nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and the means to deliver them, largely missiles," the report states.

But while the report sheds light on Burma's ambitions, its author casts doubt on the likelihood of Burma actually developing nukes:

It is DVB consultants’ firm belief that Burma is probably not capable of building the equipment they have been charged to build: to manufacture a nuclear weapon, to build a weapons material supply, and to do it in a professional way. But the information provided by Sai and other reporters from Burma clearly indicates that the regime has the intent to go nuclear and it is trying and expending huge resources along the way.

Curtailing Burma's nuclear ambitions, however, may be easier than opening up the country to democracy, The Christian Science Monitor reported last year. Burma is expected to hold elections this year, although the National League for Democracy (NLD), whose leader Aung San Suu Kyi is under house arrest, has refused to participate.

Bilateral issues that might be finessed include efforts to curb Burma's illegal drugs production and a stop to any illicit dealings with nuclear-armed North Korea. But it will be much harder to find common ground on what constitutes free and fair elections, says [author on Burmese history and a former UN official Thant] Myint-U.

..."They might be willing to compromise on some issues. Whether they're willing to compromise on political issues is a huge question," says Myint-U.

The report comes a day after Burma topped the "worst of the worst" list of human rights violators.

IN PICTURES: Who has nukes?


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