Claims that Myanmar’s military junta is interested in acquiring nuclear weapons should be treated warily given the history of poor punditry on the issue, writes Andrew Selth.
A front page story in the Sydney Morning Herald in 2009 confidently predicted that within five years Myanmar would have its own nuclear weapon and be capable of producing one atom bomb every year thereafter, if all went according to plan. The story, by two respected Myanmar watchers, was based on the claims of a military “defector”, but followed years of rumours, gossip and speculative commentaries.
As history has shown, this prediction was spectacularly wrong. If Myanmar’s military government was ever contemplating a nuclear weapons program – and some observers still argue that it was not – the scheme had barely reached the experimental stage. Following the SMH story, the International Institute for Strategic Studies wrote that Myanmar “has no known capabilities that would lend themselves to a nuclear weapons program”.
Two years later, the US government stated that, despite concerns that North Korea might be willing to transfer sensitive nuclear technologies to Myanmar’s military regime, it saw no signs of a major nuclear weapons program. Other governments agreed, and there the matter seemed to rest. International concerns, where they existed, were assuaged further in 2011 by the transfer of power to an unexpectedly reformist quasi-civilian government in Myanmar.
Between 2015 and 2020, Aung San Suu Kyi’s government took important steps in this field. In 2016, Myanmar ratified the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, which it had signed in 1996. The same year, it acceded to the Convention on Nuclear Safety and the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material. In 2018, it signed the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. All these instruments made clear the National League for Democracy’s opposition to nuclear weapons manufacture, testing and use.
Despite all these measures, however, the spectre of the world’s first “Buddhist bomb” still hangs over Myanmar. It has been given an impetus by the coup in February 2021 and the military regime’s increasingly close relations with Russia. More to the point, perhaps, fears of a new clandestine nuclear weapons program are being stoked by pro-democracy activists, who are keen to blacken the junta’s name and garner additional international support.
Once again, the situation in Myanmar demands careful analysis of the available data and sober judgements.
Myanmar’s military leadership has long been attracted to the idea of nuclear energy. In 2000, for example, it was announced that Myanmar planned to purchase a small reactor from Russia “for peaceful research”. The deal collapsed in 2002, but in 2007 Russia signed an agreement with the ruling State Peace and Development Council to build a nuclear studies centre comprising a 10-megawatt reactor and two laboratories. It would also provide training in Russia for Myanmar technicians.
An MOU to this effect was signed in 2015, but no reactor was ever built, contrary to the claims of activists that as early as 2010 construction had actually been completed on three reactors in Myanmar’s north.
From 2003, however, it was Myanmar’s shadowy relationship with North Korea that raised the most concerns regarding the transfer of nuclear technology. These fears were fuelled by claims made by a few “defectors”, some ambiguous “evidence” and a flood of tendentious reporting on the subject. Despite signs suggesting that any nuclear program was in its early stages, and was being badly mis-managed, some observers were prepared to believe the worst. This led to the dramatic SMH story in 2009.
Since the 2021 military coup, the junta has clearly considered its nuclear options. When Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing was in Russia in July 2022, he reportedly discussed “the peaceful use of nuclear energy” with his Russian interlocutors. In February, the junta signed an agreement for Russia’s State Atomic Energy Corporation (ROSATOM) to build a small modular reactor in Myanmar. In June, the two countries signed a preliminary agreement to cooperate in the peaceful use of nuclear energy.
Interestingly, the junta has called upon China to share its advanced nuclear technology. This was reportedly to assist in various civil fields. The junta has also re-established ties with North Korea, which were downgraded by Aung San Suu Kyi’s government, probably in response to US pressure. Inevitably, both moves have been seen by some as nuclear weapons-related, but so far no credible evidence has been offered to sustain such a view.
While the goal of Myanmar’s nuclear program has never been clear, there have always been public references to Myanmar’s increasing energy consumption and the need for more reliable power generation. Given the country’s ample gas reserves and potential for hydroelectricity, such a rationale has never been persuasive. References to the use of nuclear technology in the agricultural and health sectors have been equally vague. The lack of an adequate explanation for a nuclear plant has left the field open to accusations that the junta has more nefarious plans.
Indeed, some recent news stories have reported that “Myanmar’s political opposition and military analysts have expressed concern that the [Russian nuclear] technology could be leveraged militarily”. Such warnings need to be kept in perspective. How nuclear technology might be used in such a fashion has not been spelt out, and already the imagination of some commentators is running well ahead of the situation on the ground.
It is not enough to say, as some activists have done, that the junta is inherently evil, and has already demonstrated a readiness to do anything to stay in power, and then leap to the conclusion that it plans to build a nuclear weapon. Also, it has yet to be explained how a nuclear weapon could possibly assist the junta to defeat its enemies, almost all of whom are based in Myanmar itself, and pose the kind of threats that cannot be removed by possession of such a device.
It has also been suggested that a nuclear weapon would help the military regime keep its foreign enemies at bay, and win various concessions, as North Korea has done for many years. Yet, the junta does not face a significant threat from the international community. Most of the sanctions imposed to date are largely symbolic, and no country is going to invade or use military force to support the opposition movement. In any case, if pressed, the junta could always turn to Russia and China for support.
Having said all that, the question must still be asked: why is the junta expending precious resources on a nuclear reactor of arguable utility when it is already struggling with a costly civil war, an economy in dire straits, the collapse of government services and widespread poverty and hardship? Status and a wish to strengthen relations with Russia may be elements in the mix, but they alone are unlikely to account for the measures taken to date.
International responses to the junta’s nuclear deal with Russia have been relatively muted. The US has expressed its concerns, but more in terms of the support being provided to the regime, than because of its nuclear aspects. The attitude of other countries is not known but they seem to be watching and waiting to see what, if anything, eventuates. The International Atomic Energy Agency has yet to reveal whether the proposed new reactor will be built under its customary safeguards.
Significantly, no government or international organisation has raised the bogey of a Myanmar nuclear weapon. They have doubtless learned the lessons of the past, and are reluctant to leap to any conclusions, particularly when evidence for such a program is lacking. That has not stopped activists and popular pundits, however, from sounding warnings which, from an analytical viewpoint, must be seen as premature, at least.
Andrew Selth is an Adjunct Professor at the Griffith Asia Institute, Griffith University, in Brisbane, Australia. His latest major work is Intelligence and Intelligence Agencies in Myanmar Since the Coup (Brisbane: Griffith Asia Institute, 2023).