Inscrutable they salute, but might they want a bomb
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Last week Burma and the Russian company Rosatom announced
a new contract. Rosatom would build Burma a nuclear power station. This news comes at the end of a period in which suspicions have been raised about the intentions of the Burmese regime. Over the last couple of years, both the universities of Rangoon and Mandalay have added nuclear physics departments to their faculties and 2,000 Burmese students have been sent to Moscow to study Nuclear technology. In April of this year Burma resumed relations with North Korea and dissidents have spotted shipments arriving from North Korea into Burma, with the US state department reminding the Burmese that under UN rules the United States is entitled to stop and search any North Korean ship going to Burma. Russian companies have discovered uranium in Northern Burma and it looks possible that the Burmese are delivering uranium to Pyongyang in return either for plutonium or for nuclear knowhow.
So why have the Burmese regime done it? The Iranians and North Koreans have become international pariahs- rumours of American strikes on both countries especially Iran have stirred up fears in both the West and the Middle East: why would a regime volunteer for such attention? Why would they volunteer to stand on more precipitous ground with regard to the United States and the rest of the West? What are they thinking? Personally I think that there are two reasons why Burma or a similar regime might aim for a nuclear bomb- their present situation and their future membership of the nuclear club.
At present Burma is ruled by a military junto with a horrific human rights record- and thoroughly anti-democratic credentials. Burma is ruled by a group of people who are thus seen internationally as pariahs- with various restrictions on their activity from both the American and European governments- and pressure on both sides of the Atlantic for governments to shun the regime. There is no question as well that Burma depends for its position upon the support of some nations within Asia- particularly China that prop it up despite the anger of the Western public and their governments.
The interesting issue here is what Burma would therefore lose from international pressure- actually unless China turned against Burma in a substantial way- and it has not done so against North Korea- I don't see any way that Burma might lose from this situation. There isn't something to lose given that the regime is already under international pressure, already is subject to sanctions and to disruption of its presence at international gatherings- so what have they to lose save for an invasion which few beleive that the West has the energy or inclination to conduct.
Should Burma obtain a nuclear weapon though its regime would gain substantially. It would give the world an interest in a stable succession in Burma and the survival of the regime so that the bomb didn't fall into the hands of more dangerous groups. Furthermore it would give the Burmese the chance to imitate the North Korean trick- to barter the nuclear bomb for food and money. From recent American negotiations with both India and Pakistan the Burmese will have learnt that the possession of a weapon soon becomes an accepted fact about a country. Furthermore possession of a weapon could enable the Burmese to threaten neighbouring countries- Bangladesh say- when it has disputes with them. There is some evidence that some within the Burmese regime contemplate a more ambitious stance. They see a new Burmese empire as an end result to look forward to- a nuclear weapon could become the spearhead for that movement.
The dangers of a Burmese bomb are of course manifold- it would transform the affairs of a secluded unstable dictatorship into affairs which concern the stability of the world- like in North Korea instability might be a prelude to the nuclear weapon falling out of the control of the national leadership or even worse being used in internal domestic strife. A nuclear Burma might encourage others in the region to go nuclear- it would raise the chance of a nuclear Japan, or a nuclear Bangladesh or Thailand. But notice that the dangers of the bomb are global dangers- whereas the advantages all rebound to the regime- indeed were the regime to fall messily they might all die anyway and so the nuclear instability to follow would hardly be their concern.
The case of Burma points to something very dangerous that for certain pariah nations it makes sense to go for a nuclear bomb- already excluded from the global club- they have nothing to lose and may perceive the bomb as a way to frighten people into making them respectable. For a Western policy maker allowing that logic to take its course seems to me to be unwise- Burma may or may not get its bomb, but the fact that the logic inclines one to suspect it might means that we need to do something about our diplomacy towards these kinds of regime- to make sure that they do have something to lose by going nuclear.