Deception and denials in Myanmar
By Bertil Lintner
BANGKOK - Myanmar's military government issued pro-forma denials after
al-Jazeera aired an investigative report by the Oslo-based Democratic Voice of
Burma (DVB) alleging that Myanmar is attempting to develop nuclear weapons and
ballistic missiles. But as the international community weighs the evidence, the
regime could soon face United Nations-imposed sanctions for its military
dealings with North Korea.
On June 11, a week after the television network showed the program, Myanmar's
Foreign Ministry issued a statement claiming that "anti-government groups" in
collusion with the international media had made the allegation with the goal of
"hindering Myanmar's democratic process and tarnishing the political image of
the government". Myanmar "is a developing
nation" which "lacks adequate infrastructure, technology and finance to develop
nuclear weapons", the statement continued.
The North Koreans issued a similar denial, blaming the United States for the
report. Ten days after the Myanmar denial, the official Korean Central News
Agency reported: "The United States is now making much fuss, floating the sheer
fiction that the Democratic People's Republic of Korea [North Korea] is helping
Myanmar in its 'nuclear development', not content with labeling the DPRK
'provocative' and 'bellicose'."
In its next sentence, the report denounced US State Department spokesman Philip
J Crowley for what Pyongyang seemed to consider an equally serious crime.
Crowley, the KCNA stated, had been "making false reports that the DPRK
conducted unlicensed TV relay broadcasts about the World Cup matches".
While the North Korean statement could be dismissed as comical, the Myanmar
Foreign Ministry's denial is more revealing. It did not mention Myanmar's
program to develop ballistic missiles or the extensive network of bunkers,
culverts and underground storage facilities for the military that has been
constructed near the new capital Naypyidaw and elsewhere where the North
Koreans have reportedly been active.
More intriguingly, the Foreign Ministry found it necessary to deny reports that
a North Korean ship that docked in Myanmar on April 12 this year was carrying
military-related material. The ship, the ministry said, "was on a routine trip
to unload cement and to take on 10,000 tons of Myanmar rice".
However, if carrying only innocuous civilian goods, as the statement maintains,
there would seemingly have been no reason for authorities to cut electricity
around the area when the Chong Gen, a North Korean ship flying the
Mongolian flag of convenience, docked on the outskirts of Yangon.
According to intelligence sources, security was tight as military personnel
offloaded heavy material, including Korean-made air defense radars. The ship
left the port with a return cargo of rice and sugar, which could mean that it
was, at least in part, a barter deal. On January 31 this year, another North
Korean ship, the Yang M V Han A, reportedly delivered missile components
also at Yangon's Thilawa port.
In November 2008, General Shwe Mann, the third-highest ranking member of the
ruling junta, the State Peace and Development Council, paid a visit to North
Korea. It was supposed to be a secret trip, but the visit was leaked to Myanmar
exiles and reports of his rounds appeared on several Internet news sites.
During the visit, Shwe Mann was taken to a missile factory and an air defense
radar facility and a memorandum of understanding was signed to outline the
nature of cooperation between the two countries, which only recently
reestablished diplomatic relations.
However, the full extent of the North Korean presence in Myanmar is still a
matter of conjecture. The first report of a delegation from Myanmar making a
secret visit to Pyongyang dates to November 2000, where the two sides held
talks with high-ranking officials of North Korea's Ministry of the People's
Armed Forces. In June 2001, a high-level North Korean delegation led by Vice
Foreign Minister Park Kil-yon paid a return visit to Yangon, where it met
Myanmar's Deputy Defense Minister Khin Maung Win and reportedly discussed
In 2003, the first group of North Korean technicians were spotted at naval
facilities near the then-capital Yangon. North Korean planes were also seen
landing at military airfields in central Myanmar. Three years later, North
Korean tunneling experts arrived at Naypyidaw, and Myanmar military sources
began to leak photographs of the North Koreans as well as the underground
installations they were involved in digging under and near the new capital.
On June 24, the DVB reported that a new radar and missile base had been
completed near Mohnyin in Myanmar's northern Kachin State. It is not clear in
which direction the installations are pointed, as Mohnyin is located on the
railway line that cuts through Kachin State and is approximately equidistant
between the Indian and Chinese borders.
Work on similar radar and missile bases has been reported from Kengtung in
eastern Shan State, 160 kilometers north of the Thai border town of Mae Sai.
Since Myanmar is not known to have imported radars and missile components from
any country other than North Korea, the installations would appear to be one of
the first visible outcomes of a decade of military cooperation.
Until recently reports of such cooperation were met with skepticism among
analysts because Myanmar had severed diplomatic relations with North Korea in
1983 after three secret agents planted a bomb at Yangon's Martyrs' Mausoleum
and killed 18 visiting South Korean officials, including then-deputy prime
minister So Suk-chun and three other government ministers. But the two pariah
states seem to have built a bond around their common antagonism with the United
The DVB investigative report shed new light on the nature of this secretive
cooperation and of Myanmar's nuclear ambitions. Photographs and documents
smuggled out of the country by a defector from the Myanmar army, Major Sai
Thein Win, were scrutinized by international arms experts and found to be
Among the experts was Robert Kelley, a former Los Alamos weapons scientist who
was a director with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) from 1992 to
1993 and again from 2001 to 2005. Now based in Vienna, he conducted weapons
inspections in Libya, Iraq, and South Africa, as well as compliance inspections
in Egypt, Turkey, South Korea, Taiwan, Syria, Tanzania, Pakistan, India, and
Congo, among others.
Kelley concluded after a careful study of material produced by Sai Thein Win
and other Myanmar military defectors: "Our assessment of multiple sources is
that Burma [Myanmar] is really developing nuclear technology, that it has built
specialized equipment and facilities, and it has issued orders to cadre to
build a program."
It remains to be proven that the North Koreans are involved in Myanmar's
fledgling nuclear program. Even if they are, it is not clear how advanced
Myanmar's program may be. Many skeptics assume the project is an illusion of
grandeur bordering on megalomania among Myanmar's ruling generals.
North Korean involvement in Myanmar's missile program is more certain, but even
so it is unclear that the country's largely unskilled technicians would be able
to produce a missile that works. One intelligence source described it as more
of a "phallic fantasy", a large projectile that Myanmar's generals would like
to show off at the annual March 27 Armed Forces Day parade. "Just imagine how
proud they would be to see a truck towing a big and impressive missile past the
grandstand," the source said.
Western intelligence sources are aware of the current presence of 30 to 40
North Korean missile technicians at a facility near Minhla on the Irrawaddy
River in Magwe Division. At least some of the technicians reportedly arrived
overland by bus from China, to make it appear as if they were Chinese tourists.
According to a Myanmar source with knowledge of the area: "There are several
defense industries, DI, around Minhla. More importantly, these are not very far
from the Sidotara Dam and suspected DI-20, Pwintbyu and Myaing. In other words,
there are many military activities in that area."
In power-starved Myanmar, it is logical that defense production facilities have
been situated near a power-generating dam. Myaing is where Sai Thein Win worked
as deputy commander of a top-secret military factory before he defected earlier
this year. While Myanmar authorities have denied his testimonies publicly,
intelligence agents swooped on his home town of Kyaukme in Shan State soon
after the DVB report was aired internationally. His family has been
interrogated, but so far no one has been arrested.
On the contrary, the Shan Herald Agency for News, an exile-run news group in
Chiang Mai in northern Thailand, reports that Sai Thein Win has become somewhat
of a local hero since he went public with his revelations. "Among the security
officials who visited Kyaukme, one was also reported to have said that he
admired Sai's courage and his 'well done expose'," the news group reported.
If accurately reported, that sentiment would reflect one reason why Sai Thein
Win decided to defect: Myanmar's experiments with nuclear technology and
missiles amount to little more than a waste of money in a country that
desperately needs more funds dedicated to public health and education.
Meanwhile, the regime's budding cooperation with North Korea threatens to cost
the country more internationally. US Senator Jim Webb, a staunch advocate of
engagement with Myanmar's ruling generals, was forced to cancel his scheduled
visit to the country when he learned al-Jazeera would air the DVB report while
he was there.
As it becomes increasingly apparent that both countries have violated United
Nations Security Council Resolution 1874, which bans North Korea from exporting
all types of weapons, Myanmar could soon be penalized with more international
sanctions. The prospect of that happening - and already deep dissatisfaction
over the close relationship with a pariah regime like Pyongyang, which is even
more isolated than the one in Naypyidaw - is reportedly stoking resentment
among the Myanmar officer corps.
Other officers like Sai Thein Win may therefore be waiting in the wings for an
opportunity to defect and shed more light on Myanmar's deep and dark nuclear
Bertil Lintner is a 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