Burma’s Secretive Nuke Program

Word carving at Golden Palace, Burma. Creative Commons Photo by Rebecca Stanek.

Joel Brinkley, a visiting Professor of Journalism at Stanford, weighs in with an article in today’s San Francisco Chronicle about yet another nation said to be interested in developing nuclear weapons: Burma, aka Myanmar.

Just about everything about Burma is confusing to the western layperson. As you might know, the nation changed its name in 1989, following the 8888 Uprising. I just found out that in 2005, the entire nation moved its capital city, too — weird. More on that in a moment.

Anyway, back to the name: the U.S. and many other countries refuse to recognize the use of “Myanmar.” So do plenty of Burmese opposition groups both in the country and in exile, because they don’t recognize the authority of the ruling military junta to change the name of the country. The U.N., for what it’s worth, calls it Myanmar.

The name was changed to match the desires of the most dominant ethnic group, the Bamar, who form about 2/3 of the population. It was an attempt to eliminate English colonial influence and establish the dominance of the Bamar, who, again, are an ethnic majority in Burma but not an overwhelming one. Both “Burma” and “Myanmar” are derived from the Burmese pronunciation of the Bamar name, but “Burma” dates from the colonial period.

According to Wikipedia, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The International Herald Tribune, CNN, the Associated Press, and Reuters use “Myanmar.” The Voice of America, the Washington Post, the BBC, the Times of India, Time and most British newspapers use “Burma.”

Techyum will use “Burma.” Burma is easier to type, and I’m not sure I recognize any government that engages in “widespread and systematic human rights abuses” as being much of an improvement over English colonialism, which I’m already not a fan of.

Burma it is, for now.

Okay, now for the nukes. Joel Brinkley’s concern about Burma’s potential nuclear weapons program stems from secret meetings between Burmese officials and North Korea, and from a string of other evidence. Brinkley says:

‚ĶBurma might be the world’s most secretive state. In fact, a few years ago, the ruling military junta abruptly abandoned Yangon, the nation’s capital for centuries, and built another one deep in the jungle – isolated and largely empty.

The generals never explained why they took that unusual step. The fact is, they never explain much of anything – for example, why they spend 3 percent of the nation’s income on health and 23 percent on defense, even though Burma has no natural external adversaries.

But Burma experts say the generals still fear an invasion from somewhere, perhaps the United States, at any time. So they moved the capital to a near-secret location. That way, no one could see what they were doing. But they forgot about spy satellites. Photos showed them digging fortified tunnels in the hills surrounding Naypyidaw, the new capital.

Then, a year ago, well-placed defectors said the generals were seriously at work on nuclear weapons. And guess who was helping them. North Korea. Who else?

Burma’s large natural gas reserves may be of interest to North Korea, but Venezeula — which has oil and a President who bitches about the U.S. a lot — seems to be of more interest to American conservatives.

Brinkley also reports that two Burmese government employees were sentenced to death this year for “leaking details of a secret government trip to North Korea,” that an expatriate Burmese opposition group claims Burma is in violation of treaties against nuclear proliferation, and the U.S. Navy has tailed (but not intercepted) a Burma-bound North Korean ship that South Korean intelligence claimed was carrying material for developing nuclear weapons.

Jane’s Intelligence Review also published an article asserting that photos obtained of Burmese equipment look like nuke-building technology to them.

Burma is consistently rated by human rights and humanitarian groups as one of the worst nations when it comes to suppressing dissidents and denying civil rights to its populace. The 8888 Uprising in August 1988, also known as the People Power uprising, resulted in at least 3,000 deaths through government violence.

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