Burma implicated in nuclear weapons construction

The Myanmar military government is allegedly attempting to gain nuclear weapons with the aid of North Korea. Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo is awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in absentia. A major new pipeline is set to be agreed on by central and south Asian leaders in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan. All this and more, in today’s security update.
Oliver Scanlan
10 December 2010

One of the latest revelations from the US embassy cables disclosed by the website Wikileaks is that the Burmese government is engaged in the suspected construction of a clandestine nuclear and ballistic missile programme. Released on Thursday, the cable details the construction of underground sites in remote jungle locations with the assistance of North Korean technicians.

Specifically, one cable describes a site at Minbu, a town in the centre-west of the country. It is reported that surface-to-air missiles have been installed at the location, defending a ‘concrete-reinforced’ underground facility, insulated by 500ft of earth between the ceiling of the installation and the hill top above. The ruling junta has previously denied it is developing nuclear weapons, and allegations that it is doing so in co-operation with North Korea.

Another cable, also released on Thursday, describes increasing frustration on the part of Burma's key ally, China, with the military-governed state’s slow pace of reform. One cable, dating from 2008, detailed the comments of a Chinese foreign ministry official stating that the junta needed to take ‘bold steps’ to alleviate poverty in Burma. The official appeared to go as far to suggest that a national reconciliation was necessary between the junta and the pro-democracy movement, led by nobel laureate Aung Sang Suu Kyi.

The openSecurity verdict: As with much of the material disclosed by Wikileaks, the notion of a secret effort to gain a nuclear weapon with the aid of North Korea is not new. US secretary of state Hilary Clinton warned of such nuclear ties in 2009 and the Norwegian-based Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) has been suggesting for years that such a relationship had been established. The concrete details offered in the cables, however, provide a new and disturbing clarity to the picture.

That such activity is taking place is hardly shocking. The lesson of the 1991 Gulf War, according to the Indian defence minister, was that if you have a nuclear weapon, the US will not invade. The 2003 invasion of Iraq no doubt underscored this point for many regimes across the middle east and Asia.

This current alarming development is due in part to the chronic failure of the non-proliferation regime in the 1990s and 2000s, a failure attributable largely to US foreign policy. The development of new nuclear weapons by existing nuclear states, including the US, is a continual point of contention for non-nuclear powers. A partial list of more specific US tactical errors include withdrawing from the Agreed Framework with North Korea, spurning Iran’s ‘grand bargain’ of denuclearisation in exchange for entry to the WTO, agreeing nuclear co-operation with India, (a non-signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty) and withdrawing from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty.

In all of this China may be able to provide enough stability for and, if necessary, pressure on her otherwise isolated allies to reverse this potentially disastrous trend. The revelation of Chinese impatience with the Myanmar junta mirrors earlier disclosures of Beijing’s frustration with Pyongyang. It must be hoped that Chinese pressure, motivated by a need for international, and thereby economic, stability as a bulwark against domestic unrest, will be able to compensate for the egregious failures of US diplomacy.

Liu Xiaobo awarded Nobel Peace Prize

Represented by an empty chair, the Chinese former professor and pro-democracy activist Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo on Friday, having been barred by the Chinese government from attending. Liu, 54, was jailed for eleven years in 2009 for co-authoring Charter 08, a call for sweeping political reform in China, calling for the replacement of the single-party Communist regime that has governed the country since 1949 with a multi-party democracy. Among his past activities include attempts to stop clashes during the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.

It was in the name of those who died on 4 June 1989 that he accepted the award, said Nobel committee chair Thorbjoern Jagland at the ceremony. The Chinese government has derided the event as ‘political theatre’ and Amnesty International has stated that over 250 dissidents have been either harassed or placed under house arrest by state security forces ahead of the ceremony. Major media outlets that reported the ceremony, including the BBC and CNN, were also blocked in China.

Regional leaders expected to agree trans-Afghanistan pipeline

On Saturday, the president of Turkmenistan, Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, will be hosting Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Indian Petroleum and Natural Gas Minister Murli Deora to agree on an enormous new natural gas pipeline. The pipeline will supply natural gas to Pakistan and the increasingly voracious Indian market. The key obstacle to such an endeavour is security: the pipeline will cross 735km of Afghan territory, including the Pashtun belt provinces of Helmand and Kandahar, widely considered to be Taliban strongholds.

Although there have been discussions over burying parts of the pipeline and hiring local people to guard it, the key unresolved question is how will a possible peace deal with the Taliban affect the agreement. Such a peace deal has been in development for many months now, using indirect methods to set up a dialogue with the Quetta Shura, the Afghan Taliban’s high command.

The move represents a significant development on the Central Asian chessboard, with former Soviet Republic Turkmenistan appearing to move away from Moscow in pursuit of the energy markets of South Asia. President Berdymukhamedov would be wise not to celebrate any agreement prematurely however; depending on the final outcome of the Afghanistan war, it may prove not to be worth the paper it is printed on.

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