Myanmar: Quest for Nuclear Energy and Concerns

Dr. Pankaj Kumar Jha

The Cold War mindset is difficult to fade away. With the announcement of designing and building the nuclear energy centre in Myanmar by Russia’s Federal Atomic Energy Agency, the US has raised concerns about the peaceful nature of Myanmar’s nuclear energy programme. The proposed 10 megawatt light water reactor has attracted international attention to Myanmar. The negotiation for acquiring the nuclear technology between Russian Agency and Myanmar was shelved since 2003 due to certain payment problems. Most of the Southeast Asian countries including Myanmar, Thailand, Indonesia and even Vietnam are looking for nuclear energy to meet their ever increasing domestic demand for energy and an alternative source for depleting non-renewable resources.

For the US, the predicament is that the isolationist regime does pose certain apprehensions because of lack of information about its nuclear programme. These apprehensions were fuelled by the unconfirmed reports of clandestine nuclear negotiations between Myanmar and North Korea which appeared largely in the media (Far Eastern Economic Review, November 2003; the Democratic Voice of Burma, March 2006). These reports have remarked on the testing facility being set up near Sekhtya Mountains in 2000. Even last year one of the employees of the Ministry of Defence in Yangon who fled to Thailand had stated through few media reports that military Junta has been sending the army officers and scientists to North Korea and Russia and even clandestinely procuring equipment for its nuclear plant. The authenticity of the report was questionable because the MoD staff in question wanted to seek asylum in the US.

The Myanmar’s Junta has been questioned time and again for its human rights record and its commitment on democratic values. The US has seen that with a non-cautious approach towards North Korea led to the nuclear tests and so it has been extra cautious in questioning the transfer of nuclear know-how even for peaceful purposes. With the advent of Russia in this case, one thing can be discounted that Myanmar might not go the North Korean way. Also in the recent past the initiatives taken by Myanmar’s Junta on the issue of supply of sand to Singapore as well as visits of the leaders of countries of Southeast Asia, it has been much accommodating. This changed stance does lead to the mellowing disposition of the ASEAN nations in the recent past and so the countries are looking for active engagement of Myanmar.

Myanmar, on the other hand would like to secure its energy supplies as well search for more advanced options. It would not be rationalistic to declare that Myanmar has nuclear ambitions especially when it has not been trying to isolate itself from the rest of the world.

It is well known that Russian Atomic Agency is short of funds to run its own nuclear energy programme and for the few years is scouting for buyers for its peaceful nuclear technology. The stance of both the US and Russia should be to trust each other in terms of nuclear proliferation responsibility rather than sowing the seeds of another Cold War. Also owing to the energy requirements of Myanmar it has been trying to develop its hydropower also and has been seeking investments from both China and Thailand. It should be noted that Myanmar has been facing severe shortage of electricity due to the new capital Pyinmana and also because of many new development projects. The country is trying hard to develop its gas resources and has given exploration rights of the coveted Arakan reserves to China recently. China on the other hand would like to have more gas and oil reserves near to its borders for its energy security.

With regard to India it is imperative to engage a trusted neighbour which is trying to pay back in terms of its initiatives against the north-eastern insurgents.

Myanmar has been looking for the nuclear energy and with the resources generated due to sale of gas it has got the purchasing power for the elusive technology in the nuclear energy domain. The question that the US is apprehensive of the peaceful nuclear energy programme of Myanmar has certain reasons attached to it. As, off late, North Korea has established its diplomatic relations with Myanmar and couple of its cargo ships docked at Thilawa port and elsewhere recently. The official version has been that they were docked because of storm conditions. But many, like the US, suspected by arguing that it is not always coincidence. Surprisingly, the US while apprehensive about the collusive ties between North Korea and Myanmar, it has discounted the role of Pakistani nuclear scientists who have visited Myanmar in the past.

In reality, Myanmar would like to be a mainstream player in the world politics. It is still to be seen how Myanmar embarks on its peaceful nuclear research and energy generation programmes. In the wake of the situation in Iraq and Iran, most of the developing countries of South Asia and Southeast Asia are looking for nuclear energy as a viable alternative. The high costs and high pollution thermal power plants might not become a viable alternative in the near future for energy needs of a country especially so when Kyoto Protocol is likely to be fiercely implemented in future.

Author Note
Dr. Pankaj Kumar Jha, Associate Fellow, Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis, New Delhi.