It is generally agreed that North Korea and Myanmar have the two most
oppressive regimes in Asia. They rule over two of the poorest countries
in the continent, and that is no coincidence whatever. But there is one
marked difference between them. No foreign leaders pay court to the
Myanmese generals in their weirdly grandiose new capital of Naypidaw,
whereas even Bill Clinton, the world’s most recognisable celebrity
statesman, makes the pilgrimage to Pyongyang.
Mr Clinton was there to secure the release of two American journalists
who were seized on the Chinese-North Korean border four months ago,
probably with the explicit purpose of taking US hostages and forcing a
high-level US visit to the North Korean capital. That’s why it was
private citizen Bill, rather than his wife, US Secretary of State
Hillary Rodham Clinton, who made the visit to Kim Jong-il: the US paid
the Devil his due, but deniably.
The big difference is this: the Myanmese regime is seen by most foreign
governments as ugly but basically harmless (except to the Myanmese
people), whereas the North Korean regime is seen as ugly and extremely
dangerous. The most dangerous thing about North Korea is its nuclear
weapons – so if the Myanmese generals also want to have emissaries from
the great powers genuflecting at their doorstep, they need some nuclear
The notion of a nuclear-armed Myanmar is faintly ridiculous, because the
country has no foreign enemies that it needs to deter, let alone wants
to attack. But respect matters too, especially to regimes that feel
their legitimacy is always under question. Myanmese nukes would elicit a
lot of respect.
Articles published in the past week in the Sydney Morning Herald and the
Bangkok Post by Professor Desmond Ball of the Australian National
University and by Thai-based Irish journalist Phil Thornton suggest that
the Myanmese military regime has sought North Korean help to build its
own nuclear weapons. Specifically, it wants the North Koreans to create
a plutonium reprocessing plant in caves near Naung Laing in northern
Myanmar, not far from the site of a civilian nuclear reactor that is
being built with Russian help.
So far, it sounds like the plot for a sequel to Team America: World
Police, but the usually reliable website Dictator Watch has been warning
about the Myanmese nuclear weapons project for several years. Most of
the information comes from defectors, including a former army officer
sent to Moscow for two years’ training in nuclear engineering. A
thousand others were being sent as well, he said.
Why would Myanmar be doing it? Not to nuke Thailand or Malaysia or
Bangladesh, surely. But one can imagine that the generals would feel far
more secure if the US and other powers, instead of condemning and
boycotting the dictatorship, were begging it to be responsible and give
up its nuclear weapons.
Could it be as simple as that? Of course. That’s why North Korea
developed nuclear weapons, too.