Deception & denials in Myanmar

Bertil Lintner

Myanmar's military government issued pro-forma denials after al-Jazeera aired an investigative report by the Oslo-based Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) alleging that Myanmar is attempting to develop nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. But as the international community weighs the evidence, the regime could soon face United Nations-imposed sanctions for its military dealings with North Korea.

On June 11, a week after the television network showed the program, Myanmar's Foreign Ministry issued a statement claiming that "anti-government groups" in collusion with the international media had made the allegation with the goal of "hindering Myanmar's democratic process and tarnishing the political image of the government". Myanmar "is a developing nation" which "lacks adequate infrastructure, technology and finance to develop nuclear weapons", the statement continued.

The North Koreans issued a similar denial, blaming the United States for the report. Ten days after the Myanmar denial, the official Korean Central News Agency reported: "The United States is now making much fuss, floating the sheer fiction that the Democratic People's Republic of Korea [North Korea] is helping Myanmar in its 'nuclear development', not content with labeling the DPRK 'provocative' and 'bellicose'."

In its next sentence, the report denounced US State Department spokesman Philip J Crowley for what Pyongyang seemed to consider an equally serious crime. Crowley, the KCNA stated, had been "making false reports that the DPRK conducted unlicensed TV relay broadcasts about the World Cup matches".

While the North Korean statement could be dismissed as comical, the Myanmar Foreign Ministry's denial is more revealing. It did not mention Myanmar's program to develop ballistic missiles or the extensive network of bunkers, culverts and underground storage facilities for the military that has been constructed near the new capital Naypyidaw and elsewhere where the North Koreans have reportedly been active.

More intriguingly, the Foreign Ministry found it necessary to deny reports that a North Korean ship that docked in Myanmar on April 12 this year was carrying military-related material. The ship, the ministry said, "was on a routine trip to unload cement and to take on 10,000 tons of Myanmar rice".

However, if carrying only innocuous civilian goods, as the statement maintains, there would seemingly have been no reason for authorities to cut electricity around the area when the Chong Gen, a North Korean ship flying the Mongolian flag of convenience, docked on the outskirts of Yangon.

According to intelligence sources, security was tight as military personnel offloaded heavy material, including Korean-made air defense radars. The ship left the port with a return cargo of rice and sugar, which could mean that it was, at least in part, a barter deal. On January 31 this year, another North Korean ship, the Yang M V Han A, reportedly delivered missile components also at Yangon's Thilawa port.

Rogue ties
In November 2008, General Shwe Mann, the third-highest ranking member of the ruling junta, the State Peace and Development Council, paid a visit to North Korea. It was supposed to be a secret trip, but the visit was leaked to Myanmar exiles and reports of his rounds appeared on several Internet news sites. During the visit, Shwe Mann was taken to a missile factory and an air defense radar facility and a memorandum of understanding was signed to outline the nature of cooperation between the two countries, which only recently reestablished diplomatic relations.

However, the full extent of the North Korean presence in Myanmar is still a matter of conjecture. The first report of a delegation from Myanmar making a secret visit to Pyongyang dates to November 2000, where the two sides held talks with high-ranking officials of North Korea's Ministry of the People's Armed Forces. In June 2001, a high-level North Korean delegation led by Vice Foreign Minister Park Kil-yon paid a return visit to Yangon, where it met Myanmar's Deputy Defense Minister Khin Maung Win and reportedly discussed defense-industry cooperation.

In 2003, the first group of North Korean technicians were spotted at naval facilities near the then-capital Yangon. North Korean planes were also seen landing at military airfields in central Myanmar. Three years later, North Korean tunneling experts arrived at Naypyidaw, and Myanmar military sources began to leak photographs of the North Koreans as well as the underground installations they were involved in digging under and near the new capital.

On June 24, the DVB reported that a new radar and missile base had been completed near Mohnyin in Myanmar's northern Kachin State. It is not clear in which direction the installations are pointed, as Mohnyin is located on the railway line that cuts through Kachin State and is approximately equidistant between the Indian and Chinese borders.

Work on similar radar and missile bases has been reported from Kengtung in eastern Shan State, 160 kilometers north of the Thai border town of Mae Sai. Since Myanmar is not known to have imported radars and missile components from any country other than North Korea, the installations would appear to be one of the first visible outcomes of a decade of military cooperation.

Until recently reports of such cooperation were met with skepticism among analysts because Myanmar had severed diplomatic relations with North Korea in 1983 after three secret agents planted a bomb at Yangon's Martyrs' Mausoleum and killed 18 visiting South Korean officials, including then-deputy prime minister So Suk-chun and three other government ministers. But the two pariah states seem to have built a bond around their common antagonism with the United States.

Expert confirmation
The DVB investigative report shed new light on the nature of this secretive cooperation and of Myanmar's nuclear ambitions. Photographs and documents smuggled out of the country by a defector from the Myanmar army, Major Sai Thein Win, were scrutinized by international arms experts and found to be credible.

Among the experts was Robert Kelley, a former Los Alamos weapons scientist who was a director with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) from 1992 to 1993 and again from 2001 to 2005. Now based in Vienna, he conducted weapons inspections in Libya, Iraq, and South Africa, as well as compliance inspections in Egypt, Turkey, South Korea, Taiwan, Syria, Tanzania, Pakistan, India, and Congo, among others.

Kelley concluded after a careful study of material produced by Sai Thein Win and other Myanmar military defectors: "Our assessment of multiple sources is that Burma [Myanmar] is really developing nuclear technology, that it has built specialized equipment and facilities, and it has issued orders to cadre to build a program."

It remains to be proven that the North Koreans are involved in Myanmar's fledgling nuclear program. Even if they are, it is not clear how advanced Myanmar's program may be. Many skeptics assume the project is an illusion of grandeur bordering on megalomania among Myanmar's ruling generals.

North Korean involvement in Myanmar's missile program is more certain, but even so it is unclear that the country's largely unskilled technicians would be able to produce a missile that works. One intelligence source described it as more of a "phallic fantasy", a large projectile that Myanmar's generals would like to show off at the annual March 27 Armed Forces Day parade. "Just imagine how proud they would be to see a truck towing a big and impressive missile past the grandstand," the source said.

Western intelligence sources are aware of the current presence of 30 to 40 North Korean missile technicians at a facility near Minhla on the Irrawaddy River in Magwe Division. At least some of the technicians reportedly arrived overland by bus from China, to make it appear as if they were Chinese tourists.

According to a Myanmar source with knowledge of the area: "There are several defense industries, DI, around Minhla. More importantly, these are not very far from the Sidotara Dam and suspected DI-20, Pwintbyu and Myaing. In other words, there are many military activities in that area."

In power-starved Myanmar, it is logical that defense production facilities have been situated near a power-generating dam. Myaing is where Sai Thein Win worked as deputy commander of a top-secret military factory before he defected earlier this year. While Myanmar authorities have denied his testimonies publicly, intelligence agents swooped on his home town of Kyaukme in Shan State soon after the DVB report was aired internationally. His family has been interrogated, but so far no one has been arrested.

On the contrary, the Shan Herald Agency for News, an exile-run news group in Chiang Mai in northern Thailand, reports that Sai Thein Win has become somewhat of a local hero since he went public with his revelations. "Among the security officials who visited Kyaukme, one was also reported to have said that he admired Sai's courage and his 'well done expose'," the news group reported.

If accurately reported, that sentiment would reflect one reason why Sai Thein Win decided to defect: Myanmar's experiments with nuclear technology and missiles amount to little more than a waste of money in a country that desperately needs more funds dedicated to public health and education.

Meanwhile, the regime's budding cooperation with North Korea threatens to cost the country more internationally. US Senator Jim Webb, a staunch advocate of engagement with Myanmar's ruling generals, was forced to cancel his scheduled visit to the country when he learned al-Jazeera would air the DVB report while he was there.

As it becomes increasingly apparent that both countries have violated United Nations Security Council Resolution 1874, which bans North Korea from exporting all types of weapons, Myanmar could soon be penalized with more international sanctions. The prospect of that happening - and already deep dissatisfaction over the close relationship with a pariah regime like Pyongyang, which is even more isolated than the one in Naypyidaw - is reportedly stoking resentment among the Myanmar officer corps. Other officers like Sai Thein Win may therefore be waiting in the wings for an opportunity to defect and shed more light on Myanmar's deep and dark nuclear secrets.

Bertil Lintner is a former correspondent with the Far Eastern Economic Review and the author of Great Leader, Dear Leader: Demystifying North Korea Under the Kim Clan. He is currently a writer with Asia Pacific Media Services.