Are there secret facilities? Noted a January study from the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) in Washington, D.C.: the “sheer number of alleged secret sites posited by these defectors by itself raises doubts about their claims.” North Korea has assisted the SPDC in building tunnels near its new capital of Naypyidaw, but the little available intelligence suggests that they have non‐nuclear purposes. Concluded the ISIS: “Despite the public reports to the contrary, the military junta does not appear to be close to establishing a significant nuclear capability. Information suggesting the construction of major nuclear facilities appears unreliable or inconclusive.”
In past years the Singapore government said the possibility was “unlikely” and the British government found no evidence of uranium reprocessing or enrichment. Washington consistently has excluded Burma when discussing nonproliferation issues.
America and other states still have reasons to be watchful and wary. There is no crisis, however. Noted the ISIS: “Because Burma’s known program is so small, the United States and its allies have an opportunity to both engage and pressure the military regime in a manner that would make it extremely difficult for Burma to acquire a nuclear weapons capability, let alone nuclear weapons.”
Unfortunately, the West’s ability to influence the SPDC in any regard is quite limited. The regime places its survival above all other objectives, while the U.S. and EU already apply economic sanctions against Burma. Most of Burma’s neighbors invest in and trade with the regime. Russia and China have blocked UN sanctions; the latter also has helped arm the junta. Regime change obviously is desirable for the people of Burma as well as Western governments, but if the junta believes that it faces a military threat — one reason it apparently rejected American cyclone aid sent via U.S. warships — it is likely to be less willing to consider political reform and more willing to pursue a nuclear weapons program. Thus, Washington should seek to reduce the junta’s fears.
Andrew Selth makes a reasonable argument that the “aggressive rhetoric, open support for opposition figures, funding for expatriate groups and military interventions in other undemocratic countries have all encouraged the belief among Burma’s leaders that the America and its allies are bent on forcible regime change.” The United States should continue to press for improved human rights, but should demonstrate by word and deed that there are no plans to take military action against Burma. In fact, Selth believes that “the SPDC’s fears of an invasion seem to have diminished in recent years.”
At the same time, America, the EU, Canada, and Australia should together offer to relax trade and diplomatic sanctions if the regime takes steps which genuinely open the political system and reduce ethnic conflict. At the same time, the Western states should encourage India, Japan, South Korea, and the ASEAN states to apply coordinated diplomatic and economic pressure on the SPDC, backed by the threat of imposing targeted sanctions against junta leaders and business partners. The pain should be personalized against decision‐makers rather than applied against the entire population. Washington should use the potential, however slim, of a Burmese nuclear program to encourage greater Indian and Russian involvement, in particular.
Both nations routinely resist intervention to promote human rights, but they might be more willing to press for political reform if doing so would reduce the likelihood of nuclear complications.
The United States should similarly engage China. American officials should make the argument that Beijing, too, is harmed by instability in Burma, especially if the latter becomes a nuclear state. China recently was angered by a Burmese military offensive which pushed refugees across its border. Surely Beijing does not want another isolated, unpredictable nuclear weapons state as a neighbor.
Moreover, promoting political change in Burma would enhance China’s international reputation. Washington also should pledge — a promise worth repeating for North Korea — that that United States would not take military advantage of any Burmese liberalization. There would be no American bases, naval deployments, or training missions irrespective of the government.
Burma might not respond positively. Yet in the months after Cyclone Nargis the International Crisis Group reported that “it is possible to work with the military regime on humanitarian issues.” Frank Smithuis of Doctors Without Borders similarly said that “the military at times has actually been quite helpful to us.”
Burma is one of the world’s greatest international tragedies. Nuclear weapons would turn it into one of the greatest international challenges. Unfortunately, current U.S. policy is doing nothing to help the Burmese people. It is time to try a different approach in an attempt to simultaneously aid political liberalization and end talk of a Burmese Bomb.