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    Southeast Asia
     Jul 23, 2010
A loophole for Myanmar's nukes
By Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK - Thanks to a loophole in the international regime to control the proliferation of nuclear weapons, military-ruled Myanmar could very well carry out its reported nuclear program behind a veil of secrecy, free of scrutiny from the United Nations' International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

That is the privilege Myanmar enjoys under the Small Quantities Protocol it signed with the Vienna-based IAEA in April 1995, three years after the Southeast Asian nation, which is also known as Burma, became party to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

The protocol allows parties to the treaty, which seeks to build a global nuclear non-proliferation regime, to have up to 10 tons of

 
natural uranium and 2.2 pounds (one kilogram) of plutonium without having to report such possessions to the IAEA. That means that countries like Myanmar do not have to open their doors to IAEA inspection teams and can avoid disclosing details about new nuclear facilities until six months before they start operations.

It's little wonder that a former IAEA director has urged Myanmar to clear the air about its reported nuclear plans by becoming a party to the Additional Protocol of the NPT, which gives the IAEA more powers to inspect nuclear activity in a country.

"They have nothing to lose if they have nothing to hide," Robert Kelly, a recently retired director of the IAEA, said in an exclusive interview. "It is a protocol that countries have volunteered to be a party to. Chad just became the 100th member of the Additional Protocol."

Myanmar's silence on reports it has nuclear ambitions along with its denials of violating its commitment to the NPT, "is very strange; it is very suspicious," said Kelly, a nuclear engineer, during a telephone interview from Vienna. "They are exploiting a loophole in the Small Quantities Protocol and getting away [with it]."

Kelly, a US national who has participated in IAEA nuclear weapons inspections in Iraq, Libya and South Africa, has been drawn into the controversy in the wake of reports that Myanmar intends to become the first nuclear power in Southeast Asia.

In June, Kelly gave an independent assessment of the findings made by the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), an Oslo-based television station run by Burmese journalists in exile, which first exposed Myanmar's nuclear ambitions.

"There is clear evidence that there is a place where steps are being taken towards building a nuclear program," Kelly said of the evidence he had reviewed from the DVB report, including that pertaining to chemical processing equipment to convert uranium compounds into forms for enrichment. "But there is no sign of a weapons program yet."

The DVB's revelations of Myanmar's nuclear aspirations have been confirmed within US intelligence circles, Kelly claimed. "It was not something new for them. They had known such facilities existed for at least five years," he said.

The DVB report also confirmed what many Myanmar watchers had suspected for nearly a decade: that the junta, which rules the country with an iron grip through its 450,000-strong military, had bigger ambitions.

Its suspected nuclear trail, in fact, appears to cut across many countries. In early 2002, media reports emerged of Suleiman Asad and Muhammed Ali Mukhtar, Pakistani nuclear scientists who had worked in two of their country's secret nuclear installations, spending time in Myanmar.

In 2007, Russia and Myanmar signed an agreement to build a nuclear research center, including facilities for radioisotope production, a silicon doping system and a nuclear-waste treatment and burial facility. The deal with Rosatom, Russia's atomic energy agency, came after the nuclear training that close to 1,000 Myanmar scientists and technicians had received in Russia since 2001.

Signs of closer cooperation between Myanmar and North Korea also emerged over the past decade, with the countries re-establishing formal diplomatic ties in 2007. Those ties, and reports by Burmese exile-run media that a senior Myanmar general was taken on a weapons inspection tour to North Korea in late 2008 - come even as Pyongyang faces international pressure and UN-backed sanctions for its own nuclear weapons program.

Even Germany and Singapore find themselves named in Myanmar's nuclear trail. "A German company sold equipment through its Singapore subsidiary for [Myanmar's] current nuclear program," said Kelly. "They were good machine tools to make chemical compounds."

Yet such details hardly surface when Myanmar attends the annual sessions of the IAEA's general conference. Tin Win, the head of Myanmar's delegation at last September's sessions, painted a picture of a country supporting the NPT's aims for a "nuclear weapon-free world".

"Myanmar currently has no major nuclear facility," Tin Win told the 53rd annual meeting of the IAEA. "For the world to be peaceful and secure, it is important that states do not misuse their peaceful nuclear programs for nuclear weapons purpose."

Apart from living up to those words at the next IAEA sessions, Myanmar's junta will also have to meet its obligations as a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which has its own nuclear non-proliferation regime.

Foreign ministers of the 10-nation ASEAN, which also includes Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam, underscored the importance of the Southeast Asian Nuclear Weapon Free Zone at their annual meeting in Hanoi this week.

The agreement on the zone, which Myanmar is a party to, came into force in 1997. At a regional nuclear weapons monitoring commission this week, ASEAN ministers made a case for strengthening the grouping's role toward complete nuclear disarmament, according to a Vietnamese Foreign Ministry statement.

(Inter Press Service)

Myanmar's nuclear plans under fire
Jul 21, '10

Deception and denials in Myanmar
Jun 30, '10


 

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