Friday, June 11, 2010

Nuclear Games and Natural Gas

Allegations of Burmese nuclear weapons research are more than what they seem. Read the original news story on our website.

Lately, nuclear weapons have made for front page news. We’ve seen evidence of Israeli-South African weapons cooperation during the apartheid era, talk of new sanctions against Iran at the Security Council, and the conclusion of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Conference at the United Nations. This week Burma – or Myanmar, depending on your political sensibilities – joined the list of countries charged with conducting clandestine nuclear weapons research.

First, a UN report indicated that North Korea may have sold nuclear secrets to the military junta in Rangoon. Then, prominent U.S. Senator Jim Webb canceled a trip to Burma in light of the alleged Korean connection. Finally a Norway-based group, called the Democratic Voice of Burma, released an extensive report detailing evidence that the junta has been actively developing a nuclear weapons program, albeit quite primitive.

These reports should not be surprising. Perhaps the only country in the world with a more repressive, isolated government is nuclear-armed North Korea. Nuclear technology has proliferated, and a regime as paranoid as the Burmese junta seems to be almost a stereotypical candidate for secretly dabbling in weapons research. The apparent predictability of this situation should not dispel the need to apply a critical eye to related developments. After all, news sources routinely sensationalize news stories that are based on nothing more than ambiguous, disputed “facts.”

First of all, who made these allegations?

Most news stories are based on the report by the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB). This organization’s sleek website expounds the ideals of an organization committed to providing “accurate and unbiased news to the people of Burma.” The website does not provide any information about it staff members beyond their names and contact information, and it gives no details whatsoever about the sources of its funding. Although DVB’s promotion of democracy in Burma should in general be lauded, observers should investigate whether this organization is “pro-people” or “anti-government” before concluding that its principal goal is indeed to provide “accurate and unbiased news to the people of Burma.”

Secondly, why was Senator Webb planning to visit Burma in the first place? This is an interesting, if not tangential piece of news that has come to light in the wake of the nuclear allegations.

During the Bush administration, the neo-conservatives bordered on dogmatic in their opposition to the military junta. Webb, on the other hand, has advocated engagement with the junta. Any speculation in this regard is difficult, but one cannot help but recall the words of Hillary Clinton:

“In her own trip to Thailand for an Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) conference in July, Clinton had hinted that the United States might ‘expand our relationship with Burma, including investments in Burma,’ leading some observers to speculate that the secretary might share some of Webb's controversial views.”
(See the rest of Josh Rogin’s work for Foreign Policy:

Burma’s large natural gas deposits have long been the subject of geopolitical wrangling, and China has typically been the beneficiary due to its close relations with the junta. Although Webb has distanced himself from the State Department, it seems that these nuclear reports may have brought out a lot more than a weapons program.

Not that this, like the allegations of Burmese nuclear research, should be particularly surprising. Where energy resources exist, there is often more at stake than nuclear proliferation and the democratic rights of an oppressed people.

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