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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.