Washington, Jun 15 : Among the hundreds of thousands who have fled Myanmar and its tyrannical rulers over the years is a military insider who claims he carried a big secret with him: evidence of a hidden nuclear weapons program.
The defector Sai Thein Win's account of his three years working in two clandestine factories, and the trove of photos he brought with him, is no smoking gun. It has deepened suspicions, however, that Myanmar's xenophobic military leaders hanker for an atomic deterrent.
His allegations touch on a matter that is bound to resurface as Myanmar, also known as Burma, tries to curry international favor and end sanctions. While human rights and democracy have dominated Western attention to Myanmar, there have also been misgivings about its growing ties with North Korea, a suspected nuclear proliferator that may have exported missile technology to Myanmar.
In late May, a U.S. navy destroyer intercepted a North Korean ship, suspected to be carrying a cargo that violated U.N. nonproliferation sanctions, U.S. officials say. A Washington-based foreign diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, said the cargo was suspected to be weapons or missiles and heading to Myanmar. The ship turned back to North Korea.
Myanmar has tried to ease international suspicions that it has an illicit nuclear program. Two weeks ago, after a visit by U.S. Sen. John McCain, it announced that it was abiding by the U.N. sanctions. The government also said that it had halted arrangements for nuclear research with Russia for its educational and health sectors. It said the “international community may misunderstand Myanmar over the issue.”
In fact, the plans to build a research reactor with Russian help, first mooted in 2000, never have gotten off the ground, apparently because of payment problems and because Myanmar, a signatory to the nonproliferation rules of the International Atomic Energy Agency, has failed to sign an additional IAEA protocol with the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency for monitoring such a program.
Perhaps of greater concern is what Myanmar may have been pursuing completely under the radar.
Sai Thein Win, 35, an army major and mechanical engineer, has provided the most persuasive proof to date of a secret nuclear program. Such allegations have swirled for years but are hard to substantiate and are treated with some skepticism because of Myanmar's dearth of trained physicists and technicians.
Sai Thein Win left Myanmar in February 2010 and appeared in a hard-hitting documentary filmed by the Democratic Voice of Burma, an exile media network. Myanmar swiftly denied it was seeking nuclear weapons, but its condemnation of the defector as an army deserter verified that he served in the military and had undertaken postgraduate engineering studies in Russia.
He spent five years at Moscow State Technical University studying liquid-fueled rocket engine design for missiles. He recounted to The Associated Press that before leaving for Russia, he attended a May 2001 address to some 300 officers by Myanmar's then second-ranking general, Maung Aye, at the National Defense College in Yangon.
“He said they wanted us to study about rockets and nuclear reactors. They also said they needed weapons and long-range missiles to protect the country,” Sai Thein Win said.
After returning to Myanmar, he said he worked for a year in a military research center, which managed the nuclear effort. He then spent three years at two factories in the western township of Myaing and in the northern township of Pyin Oo Lwin that he says attempted to make equipment for an intended uranium enrichment program using precision machinery from Germany and Singapore.
He said he initially believed in the program he worked on but became increasingly disillusioned. He said it was ill-managed and a waste of money, driven by the ruling generals' thirst for power, and it was destined to fail.
“They knew what they wanted but did not know how to achieve it,” he said in an interview from an undisclosed exile location he does not want to disclose because of fears for his safety.
Experts have been divided on whether Sai Thein Win's account, including hundreds of photos of factory sites and manufactured components, amounts to proof that Myanmar was seeking nuclear weapons technology.
Robert Kelley, a former IAEA director and nuclear weapons inspector, who interviewed Sai Thein Win and assessed the evidence he provided for the 2010 documentary, is confident it does, although the engineering drawings were unprofessional and the manufactured items appeared crude. The method identified for enriching uranium, molecular laser separation, was highly unlikely to succeed.
David Albright, an analyst at the Institute for Science and International Security think tank and former weapons inspector, concluded there could be non-nuclear applications. He wrote it was impossible to discern whether a vital piece of equipment known as a bomb reactor was intended to produce uranium or some other metal instead. He cited an industry expert who said it could have been used for producing rare earth metals which Myanmar is believed to have deposits of.
Albright also questioned the credibility of information from defectors who could have a political ax to grind against Myanmar's rulers.
Still, the Vienna-based IAEA has indicated an interest in interviewing Sai Thein Win, although it is unclear why it has failed to do so since he defected 15 months ago. IAEA spokeswoman Gill Tudor told the AP by email that the agency had taken steps to contact Sai Thein Win, but has not been able to speak to him yet.
Sai Thein Win says that since he left Myanmar, no foreign government or agency has debriefed him.
The cases of Syria and Libya, which were able to pursue nuclear programs for years before they were detected and stopped, underscores the potential risks. But the experience of Iraq, where unreliable defector information about weapons of mass destruction was used to justify the U.S.-led military invasion, also demonstrates the pitfalls of that kind of intelligence.
The U.N. nuclear watchdog agency has been sufficiently concerned about allegations over Myanmar's nuclear activities that several months ago, it requested a meeting and inspection of a particular site in the country. Tudor would provide no details about that site but said Myanmar, an IAEA member, has yet to respond.
U.S. officials say they worry that Myanmar could be seeking nuclear and missile technology, and the United States closely monitors its trade with North Korea, which allegedly helped Syria build a reactor that was bombed by Israel in 2007. Military trade with North Korea is forbidden under U.N. sanctions imposed in 2009 after its nuclear and ballistic missile tests.
Sai Thein Win said no North Koreans were present at the factories he worked at, although he recounted that in 2006 he saw North Koreans in Pyin Oo Lwin who were providing training on tunnel construction, radar systems and firing control systems for weapons.
Pyongyang restored diplomatic relations with Myanmar in 2007 after a quarter-century breach. U.S. officials believe Pyongyang may have reached an agreement with Myanmar to provide it with ballistic missile technology, according to a U.S. diplomatic cable dated October 2009 that was leaked to the Wikileaks organization and subsequently obtained by AP. Other reports suggest North Korea has sold Scud missiles to Myanmar.
“I think it's a matter of concern because of North Korea's behavior as well as Burma's behavior,” said McCain, who during his early June visit to Myanmar asked Vice President Tin Aung Myint Oo if there was nuclear cooperation between the two reclusive Asian nations.
The senator said he got a predictable answer: “Obviously, denial.” AP