When a Clandestine Nuclear Program Is Good News

The United States is selective about which states engaging in nuclear proliferation that it condemns. It’s as if they’re subject to an unwritten sanity or rationality index. Naturally, no U.S. allies that have developed nuclear weapons since the nuclear non-Proliferation Treaty came into force, such as Israel or India, score low on that index, however imaginary. Pakistan’s rating, however, as it fails to pursue Islamic militants and with concerns arising about the security of its nuclear weapons program, is falling at a steady rate. Of course, North Korea, Iran, and Syria occupy the bottom of the index.

Meanwhile the leaders of another state are less questionable because of their sanity and rationality than because of a lack of concern for their people that’s comparable to that of Kim Jong-il. Indications are that Burma is in the early stages of a nuclear-weapons program. Roland Watson runs the invaluable website Dictator Watch, devoted, for the most part, to activism on behalf of the people of Burma. In August of last year, he wrote (no link available):

In June, we published lists of 660 Burma military officers who in 2009 began masters or doctoral programs in Russia at fourteen different technical universities. [Of that class] 111 were directly assigned to the SPDC’s nuclear project. … (Nuclear, Tunnel, Computer, etc.). … this is conclusive evidence that the SPDC has a clandestine nuclear program, and that it lied to the International Atomic Energy Agency when it said that it did not.

We have now received additional hard documentation about the nuclear program: A construction status report, building plan, and maps, of … Thabeikkyin … which is believed to be the center of the overall program. [The documents] describe a facility for upwards of five hundred personnel, but which also envisioned a potential ten-fold expansion. … Our initial intel about Thabeikkyin (also from 2006) said that there was a uranium milling facility associated with the operation, and which Jane’s Intelligence has now prospectively identified. … We can also comment that the use of a secret mountain site for uranium enrichment parallels the actions of both Iran and North Korea.

Oddly enough, Watson sees benefits to not only discovering the nuclear program early — well, five years on — but to the actual existence of such a program. In fact, in his recent Ten-Year Review of Dictator Watch he explains why it might be good news that Burma has taken its first steps toward a nuclear weapons program. (Emphasis added.)

We and others had argued for years that the regime’s brutality and its humanitarian consequences constitute an international threat to security and peace, and that the IC [International Community] therefore had an obligation to intervene, including under the United Nation’s recognized Responsibility to Protect. All such arguments were derided by the regime’s Security Council protectors, China and Russia.

Therefore, it was in a sense a huge break when we learned of the existence of the clandestine nuclear and missile programs. Surely, the International Community would respond to them.

Unfortunately, learning about the programs wasn’t as helpful as it seemed in not only drawing attention to human rights abuses in Burma but in focusing attention on its nascent nukes. Watson:

I am certain that Western Intelligence, particularly U.S. Intelligence, knows a lot more as well [as Dictator Watch]. Under the provisions of the 2008 Tom Lantos JADE Act, the U.S. is required to disclose what it knows in the form of a Report on Military and Intelligence Aid.

But, Watson writes, “I guess I was naïve.” The United States “refused to publish the report. We therefore filed a Freedom of Information Act request, in April 2010, which too has been ignored.”

Why is the United States dragging its feet? Watson again.

It is ironic, to say the least, that for the lack of a little funding we cannot conclusively prove the existence of a major threat to world security. Of course, from the perspective of the West, this is a good thing. If we do ever get the goods on Burma’s nuclear ambitions, a real smoking gun, it will be forced to respond.

Among other things, if the United States pressured Burma it would be at odd with India and China, both of which trade with Burma. Once again, a nascent nuclear-weapons program is used as an implement with which to bludgeon states when it serves our purpose such as Iran. But when dealing with it puts the United States at odds with states that it doesn’t wish to alienate (further, in the case of China), it’s all too willing to turn a blind eye to its nuclear program. Burma no doubt banks on that.