Secret Documents Add to Suspicions About Myanmar’s Nuclear Aspirations

BY Sarah C. Sullivan  December 13, 2010 at 12:28 PM EDT


Buddhist monk in Yangon, also known as Rangoon, Myanmar. (Drn/Stringer/Getty Images)

Secret cables from the U.S. Embassy in Rangoon, released by the web site WikiLeaks, have added to long-standing suspicions about Myanmar’s nuclear ambitions and its alleged covert cooperation with North Korea.

Though not definitive, as the relationship has been difficult to prove, the cables add new evidence of a series of links between Myanmar, also known as Burma, and nuclear-aspiring North Korea, that have been rumored for several years.

One cable from September 2008 reports “a Burmese civilian met with members of USDAO (U.S. US Defense Attaché Office) Rangoon and offered to sell Uranium-238.” (The embassy bought it.) Another from 2004 quotes a Burmese officer saying that he had witnessed North Korean technicians helping to construct an underground facility in the foothills more than 300 miles northwest of Rangoon.

While the leaked documents report nuclear intentions, the cable’s author notes that it does not confirm North Korean cooperation. “This account is perhaps best considered alongside other information of various origins indicating the Burmese and North Koreans are up to something,” the cable says.

David Steinberg, a professor at the Georgetown School of Foreign Service specializing on Burma-Myanmar, North Korea and U.S. policy in Asia, said the cables generally do not reveal any new information, but rather confirm what people already knew.

“North Koreans have provided military equipment, no question about it,” he said. “[Burma] does have uranium deposits in the country naturally. Whether they are being exploited is the question, but there are places that are fenced off that may be sights for uranium excavation.”

As the Washington Post reports, Myanmar has largely dismissed the reports of its nuclear intentions that are based mainly on “information from defectors, intercepted materials and analysis of satellite photos,” the article says.

The Rangoon cables also offer other insights. One from January 2008 reported that China, Burma’s most powerful ally, was growing impatient with the small, secluded nation. “Chinese Fed Up,” a subhead reads.

Steinberg explained that this is a legitimate concern. China has the same policy for both North Korea and Myanmar, he explained: “Stability on the border, economic development across the border and no refugees.”

The cables could raise questions about the U.S. policy in the region, he said. After nearly 20 years of a U.S. policy that advocated for regime change, the Obama administration has eased diplomatic isolation of Myanmar’s military junta.

“As long as we talk about regime change they are going to resist,” Steinberg said. “We have to accept the government. (The U.S. does not have an ambassador there). We don’t have to like it, but we do have to recognize the government.”