By Bertil Lintner
Another possibility, sources familiar with the shipment suggest, was a delivery of Russian-made MI-24 helicopter gunships destined for military use against the Kachins and other ethnic rebel groups in Myanmar's restive border regions. Whatever the Russian plane carried, it was likely for military purposes and demonstrates that Myanmar continues to purchase sophisticated military equipment despite new President Thein Sein's recent charm offensive towards the United States and Europe.
As US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton lands this week for a diplomatic visit to Myanmar, there is nothing to indicate that the country's military leadership has given up its clandestine program to develop weapons of mass destruction (WMD), including missiles and nuclear research. The North Korean technicians who have assisted those clandestine efforts are still situated and working in the country, according to sources familiar with the situation.
After another North Korean ship destined for Myanmar - this one flying the Belize flag of convenience - was forced by the US navy to turn back in May this year, WMD-related materials are now being delivered over land through China, according to sources familiar with the situation. Significantly, all of these incidents have occurred since Thein Sein, a former general and prime minister under the old ruling junta, took office at the head of a nominally civilian government in March.
US concerns over Myanmar's WMD program - and especially its links to North Korea - are seen by some security analysts as the reason behind Washington's bid to improve relations with a regime that it has long sanctioned for gross human-rights violations. While issues of democracy and human rights will certainly be on Clinton's public agenda, so too privately will be the status of Myanmar's relations with North Korea, its acquisition of advanced missile technology and its military-linked nuclear energy programs.
The fact that Clinton chose to visit South Korea immediately before landing in Myanmar, where she was due on Wednesday, is a clear indication of the importance Washington places on the nuclear issue. It is believed that South Korea, a close US ally, is well-placed to edge out North Korea's military-to-military influence in Myanmar through the offer of lucrative trade, investment and other commercial incentives. While the US and European Union maintain strict economic sanctions against the regime, South Korea trades and invests freely with Myanmar.
Opposition to Myanmar's abusive ways is still strong in Washington, and any reduction in US sanctions would require congressional approval. It's not clear that approval will be forthcoming anytime soon. US Senator Richard Lugar disclosed on November 25 that the Myanmar government intended to develop a nuclear weapons capability with the help of North Korea and that the US Navy had intercepted several North Korean ships on their way to Myanmar suspected of carrying advanced military equipment and forced them back to North Korea. The statement represented perhaps the sharpest US government criticism yet of Myanmar's nuclear ambitions.
Myanmar's government is typically in denial. Zaw Htay, director of the office of President Thein Sein, countered the nuclear allegations in a November 17 commentary published in the Washington Post: "The new government decided after the incident at Japan's Fukushima site this spring not to pursue the nuclear path," he wrote, adding that all nuclear-related activities were purely for civilian research purposes.
Recalling North Korea's repeated denials of its nuclear program following the so-called 1994 Geneva Agreed Framework with the US, few independent observers are prepared to accept Myanmar's official denials at face value. Myanmar's missile program, which is bidding to produce a Scud-type missile based on North Korean designs, is still ongoing. The development of WMD, meanwhile, remains an important element of Myanmar's defense doctrine.
In an exclusive interview with Asia Times Online, Myanmar's "nuclear whistleblower" and army defector Major Sai Thein Win said that he and his military comrades received their first instructions to engage in WMD research in 2001. Then minister of science and technology U Thaung and former junta deputy chief Gen Maung Aye gave speeches around that time at the National Defense College in Yangon - where Sai Thein Win was then enrolled - asserting that Myanmar needed "advanced weapons' technology" to protect the country. "They told us no one dared to meddle in the internal affairs of North Korea because it had developed nuclear weapons," Sai Thein Win said. "So we should do the same."
U Thaung said in one of his speeches at the National Defense College that because neighboring Thailand is allied with the US, the Americans could invade Myanmar at any time. He noted that during the nationwide uprising for democracy that swept Myanmar in 1988, a US naval fleet of five warships - including the aircraft carrier Coral Sea - entered Myanmar's territorial waters just six days before the army moved to reassert power in a bloody coup on September 18 that year.
Neutral observers have argued that the ships were likely deployed to monitor the situation and if necessary to evacuate US citizens. But the ships' presence spooked Myanmar's military leaders, stoking fears of a possible future US invasion.
In response, a new defense doctrine, one that prioritized WMD development and heavy weaponry procurements over an emphasis on the light infantry, was implemented by the country's military leadership. U Thaung subsequently went to China, India and Russia to see where Myanmar army technicians and engineers could receive training to manage the transition. As a graduate in defense industrial engineering from Myanmar's Defense Services Technological Academy, Sai Thein Win was among the first batch of 360 Myanmar army officers sent to Russia for training in May 2001.
After learning the Russian language, the first batch of Myanmar officers were divided into different groups, according to Sai Thein Win. One group was assigned to study solid propellant rocket engine design, another liquid rocket engine design, and the third Transporter Erector Launchers (TELs), which are used to move missiles. Other officers were sent to the Moscow Energy Institute, an avionics institute, and the Moscow State Technical Institute, which is also known as the Bauman Moscow State Technical University. Myanmar officers were allowed to study all topics except solid propellant rocket engine design because it involved obvious military-related research, according to Sai Thein Win.
According to its own website, Bauman MSTU accepts "more than 300 international students from 20 countries all over the world" and offers courses in "space engineering, heating engineering, biophysics, aerodynamics, radio physics, radio electronics, optics, laser technology, dynamics and strength of machines". Although it has been accused of educating Iran's missile technicians, Bauman MSTU has never been sanctioned by the US government. The technical university remains a well-respected academic institution where WMD-related research is carried out openly.
Sai Thein Win studied there for three years, returned briefly to Myanmar, and then was sent back to Russia for a second time in 2004. On his return to Myanmar in 2005, he joined a top secret unit at the Defense Services Science and Technology Research Center in Pyin Oo Lwin in the hills northeast of Mandalay. He was later assigned to Myaing, west of Mandalay, where he says nuclear-related research is currently conducted. He also visited other defense industries in Myanmar, including facilities where missile production is carried out.
Sai Thein Win says he finally came to the realization that the WMD program was wasteful and in many aspects hopeless due to a lack of proper equipment and nuclear expertise. He decided to leave Myanmar in February 2010 and has since been a major source on Myanmar's nuclear ambitions, including for a documentary produced by Democratic Voice of Burma, a Norway-based news organization run by Myanmar exiles.
In an October 18 public statement, Sai Thein Win said: "I have exposed the military projects of our government, not because they threaten the world, but because this is the main reason why our people are facing starvation. Half of the government's budget is being used for military projects."
The fact that Myanmar, most likely with North Korean assistance, is studying weapons-related nuclear technologies and engaged in missile production has no doubt factored into Washington's decision to engage the military regime. North Korea's alleged involvement as technicians and specialists in Myanmar's programs has attracted the attention of regional and international security planners. Following the recent upheavals in the Middle East and North Africa, North Korea has lost - or is on the verge of losing - many of its traditional customers for missiles, missile technology and nuclear know-how.
Since joining the US-led "war on terror", Pakistan is no longer a close strategic partner to North Korea. The Libyan and Egyptian regimes, which in recent years have both acquired missile technology from North Korea, have been toppled in the so-called Arab Spring. Syria, one of North Korea's closest military partners in the Middle East, is in turmoil as popular protests threaten to overthrow that secretive regime.
Only Iran remains a faithful and secure customer for North Korea's military technology exports. Security analysts believe that North Korea is working hard to develop similar ties with Myanmar, which is closer to home than the Middle East and also rich in oil and gas revenues. The two sides are known to have done barter deals where Myanmar receives military-related equipment and North Korea accepts rice as payment.
Against this proliferation backdrop, Clinton is in Myanmar this week for talks some believe could lead to an easing and eventual removal of US sanctions. There is clearly a belief in Washington that a nuclear-minded Myanmar should be brought in from the cold and the timing is right as Thein Sein makes positive reform signals towards the West.
Recent reform signals have included engagement with pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, the easing of media censorship, and an official invitation to Myanmar exiles to return home. At the same time, Myanmar appears to be distancing itself from China, its closest regional ally. (See China embrace too strong for Naypyidaw, Asia Times Online, November 23, '11).
Full US engagement, however, willl not come easily due to entrenched opposition in the US Congress. Ahead of Clinton's visit, influential lawmakers have sounded alarm bells about Myanmar's nuclear ambitions. "The sincerity with which a wide range of reforms has been promised by the Burmese [Myanmar] government must be judged by whether the words are followed by actions," said Senator Lugar in a November 25 statement. "An early goal of the tentative US re-engagement with Burma should be full disclosure of the extent and intent of the developing Burmese nuclear program."
Answers to some of those questions rest in Russia, where thousands of Myanmar officers have received training in various nuclear-related topics in recent years. Anton Khlopkov and Dmitry Konukhov, two specialists at the Moscow-based Center for Energy and Security Studies, wrote in a recent paper that, "the last group of Myanmar students is expected to complete their Master's program at the National Research Nuclear University MEPhI in Moscow by mid-2011."
An unknown number of Russia-trained Myanmar officers are now stationed and undertaking secretive nuclear research at places like DI-20 at Sidoktaya, in the Minbu township of Myanmar's Magway Region, according to sources familiar with the site. Meanwhile, Russian cargo planes presumably laden with military equipment continue to land at Myanmar's airports under the cover of night. Clinton and her Myanmar counterparts will have plenty to discuss this week beyond democracy and human rights.