June 2, 2012 / 10:01 AM / 7 years ago

Myanmar abandons nuclear research - defence minister

SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Myanmar has abandoned research on a nuclear programme that never progressed very far, and has stepped back from close military and political ties with North Korea, the Southeast Asian country’s defence minister said on Saturday.

Myanmar's Defence Minister Lieutenant General Hla Min waits to speak at a plenary session of the 11th International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS) Asia Security Summit: The Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore June 2, 2012. REUTERS/Tim Chong

News reports two years ago indicated Myanmar obtained technology for enriching uranium from North Korea along with parts for a nuclear weapons programme. The reports were based on interviews with an army major who was involved in the programme and defected with files he said documented the project.

“We have already said very clearly it was not for defence, it was not for weapons, it was just research in the past,” the defence minister, Lieutenant General Hla Min, said at the Shangri-La Dialogue, an annual security forum in Singapore attended by senior regional civilian and military leaders.

Delegates said the comments were remarkably frank, and illustrated the sweeping reforms in Myanmar since it began emerging from decades of isolation and military rule last year.

The reforms have attracted the interest of foreign investors and persuaded Western governments to suspend sanctions.

Hla Min, speaking through an interpreter, said Myanmar maintained political and military ties with Pyongyang in the past but “because of our opening and our new efforts, we have stopped such relationships with North Korea.”

A U.N. panel of experts that monitors compliance with sanctions on North Korea is investigating reports of possible weapons-related deals between Pyongyang and Syria and Myanmar, the panel said in a confidential report seen by Reuters.

“According to our foreign policy, we have friendly relations with all countries so it is just a regular relationship,” the minister said of current dealings with North Korea.

Hla Min said Myanmar’s progress on the nuclear programme had been exaggerated in the media.

“In reality we were just beginning on doing academic studies,” he said. “But in this new government we have already given up all activities on nuclear issues. And we have no further plans to extend on this.”

Hla Min said the nuclear programme never got very far due to “our constraints” as a nation, adding “there were no practical ways” to advance it.

He said there was little point in having the International Atomic Energy Agency visit the country. “We have nothing to check and nothing to see so it is irrelevant,” he said.

The military, allocated 25 percent of seats in parliament under a new constitution it helped to draft, may play a lesser role in politics once Myanmar is more developed, Hla Min said.

“If you have a fish in fresh water, you cannot put the fish in salt water so we need to take time for transformation and progress,” he said. “When the time is appropriate, there would be changes and this 25 percent participation could be reduced.”

Additional reporting by David Alexander; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan

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