Myanmar seeking to develop nuclear weapon - report
BANGKOK (Reuters) - Military-ruled Myanmar is seeking to develop a clandestine nuclear programme with the intent to produce a nuclear bomb, according to an investigation by an exiled anti-government group.
A five-year investigation by the Norway-based Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) concluded that Myanmar, formerly Burma, was a long way from producing a nuclear weapon but had gone to great lengths to acquire the technology and expertise to do so.
If true, it would mark the first Southeast Asian country with nuclear ambitions and alter the strategic landscape of a fast-growing region whose big countries -- from Indonesia to the Philippines and Thailand -- are closely allied with Washington.
A report by DVB, made public this week, cited a U.S. nuclear scientist in assessing evidence provided by Sai Thein Win, a Burmese defence engineer trained in Russia in missile technology. He said he had defected from the military after working in factories built to develop weapons of mass destruction.
"Burma is trying to build pieces of a nuclear programme, specifically a nuclear reactor to make plutonium and a uranium enrichment programme," said the report's co-author, Robert Kelley, an ex-director of the International Atomic Energy Agency.
"The information brought by Sai suggests Burma is mining uranium, converting it to uranium compounds ... and is trying to build a reactor and/or an enrichment plant that could only be useful for a bomb."
The report prompted senior U.S. Senator Jim Webb to cancel a trip to Myanmar on Thursday, which he said would be "unwise and inappropriate" in light of the claim.
Accounts of suspected nuclear plans surfaced last year, but Myanmar has never confirmed or denied any nuclear ambitions.
Previous claims by defectors suggest Myanmar had enlisted the help of nuclear-armed North Korea, with which it reportedly agreed a memorandum of understanding on military cooperation during a visit by a top junta general to Pyongyang last year.
Sai Thein Win came to neighbouring Thailand recently and provided photographs and documents of two factories where he used European machining tools to make prototypes for missile and nuclear facilities, the DVB said in its 30-page report.
Although not a nuclear expert, the defector described technical demonstrations at a secret facility which Kelley said appeared to back up suspicions of nuclear ambitions.
According to the report, the European machinery was sold to the Myanmar government through two companies in Singapore. The equipment did not include all necessary components and precision parts for missiles and nuclear applications.
Kelley said Myanmar was not close to developing a nuclear weapon and he ruled out any notion that it sought to develop nuclear energy.
"Whether the uranium metal is used in a plutonium production reactor or a nuclear device, Burma is exploring nuclear technology that is useful only for weapons," he said.
Aung Naing Oo, a Harvard-educated Burmese academic, said the military might try to emulate the tactics of North Korea and try to arm itself to gain leverage with the international community.
"It serves a purpose. The military knows that nuclear weapons are a short-cut to getting on the international radar and earning respect geopolitically," he said.
(Editing by Robert Birsel and Ron Popeski)
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