Russia has agreed to assist Myanmar to build a nuclear research centre. The centre will have a 10-megawatt light water research reactor (which would run on 20% enriched uranium 235) as well as facilities for processing and storing radioactive waste.
Aung Naing Oo, a Myanmar analyst based in Thailand noted that Myanmar is trying to establish relations with those countries that are at odds with the US… (they think) the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” With the deteriorating relationship between Russia and the US, the Russians are also trying to re-assert their influence in their “great power role” as opined by C Raja Mohan, a professor at Singapore’s S Rajaratnam School of International Studies. Along with China, Russia has become a major supporter and supplier of arms to the military junta in Myanmar.
The United States has predictably raised its concerns over the nuclear deal. The US State Department Deputy Spokesman Tom Casey said, “"Burma has neither the regulatory nor the legal framework or safeguard provisions or other kinds of things that you would expect or want to see for a country to be able to handle successfully a nuclear program of this type… it’s not a good idea.”
The Russian media has assured that the centre will be overseen by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). However, when interviewed by the Democratic Voice of Burma, an IAEA official said, “The IAEA has not been informed by [Burma] about the construction of any nuclear facility.”
Dissent and exile groups have pointed to the possibility that the Myanmar government is embarking on a nuclear weapon programme though that possibility has been discounted by other analysts. There have not been many reactions from the regional governments though the Thai Foreign Ministry spokesman Piriya Khempon said that Thailand was not concerned about the nuclear reactor in Myanmar ‘as long as it is under the close supervision of the IAEA.’
It is unclear if this deal would jeopardise US President Bush’s agreement to meet with the ASEAN members at the commemorative 30th anniversary meeting of the dialogue between ASEAN and the US. The US has been strongly critical of the ruling junta in Myanmar for its human rights and particularly for its continued arrest of democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi. Repeated calls have been made to Myanmar for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest, the latest being that called by 59 formers heads of state including several ASEAN countries – Chuan Leekpai, Mahathir Mohammad, Gus Dur, Megawati Sukarnoputri, Corazon Aquino and Fidel Ramos. However, the junta has usually just turn a deaf ear to all these exhortations. (17 May 2007)
World Atomic Agency Not Told of Burma Nuclear Deal (Democratic Voice of Burma, 17 May 2007)
Is Myanmar Really After Nuclear Power? (The Star online [from Reuters], 17 May 2007)
US Opposes Russia-Backed Nuclear Center Planned for Myanmar (Dow Jones International News, 16 May 2007)
Update-1 US Questions Myanmar Deal with Russia (Reuter News, 16 May 2007)
Russia Seen Asserting Role With Myanmar Deal (Agence France Presse, 16 May 2007)
Russia to Build Nuclear Facility in Burma (Irrawaddy, 16 May 2007)
Russia To Aid Myanmar in Building Nuclear Research Centre (Vietnamese News Agency, 15 May 2007)