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Myanmar Eases Concerns on Secret Nuclear Program: State Department

By Chris Schneidmiller

Global Security Newswire

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton visits the Shwedagon Pagoda in Myanmar in December 2011. A new State Department report says Myanmar has to some degree addressed concerns that it had operated a secret nuclear program (AP Photo/Khin Maung Win). U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton visits the Shwedagon Pagoda in Myanmar in December 2011. A new State Department report says Myanmar has to some degree addressed concerns that it had operated a secret nuclear program (AP Photo/Khin Maung Win).

WASHINGTON -- Myanmar has eased worries that it might pursue a secret nuclear program in collaboration with pariah state North Korea, the U.S. State Department said in a new report.

Information provided by defectors, highlighted in a 2010 report by the opposition organization Democratic Voice of Burma, indicated the junta that ruled the Southeast Asian state for decades was working to develop nuclear weapons. U.S. diplomatic dispatches leaked that year indicated there was cause to believe that North Korean specialists were assisting a Burmese atomic drive.

Myanmar's leaders have denied any nuclear-weapon intentions. A nuclear power project with Russia never got off the ground and as of June a senior Burmese official said his nation had given up plans to establish atomic energy operations.

In its 2011 report on global compliance with arms control, nonproliferation and disarmament accords, the State Department said there was no evidence Myanmar had violated its obligations as a member nation to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty or under its safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency. However, "the U.S. government continues to be alert to any indications of Burmese nuclear weapons-related activities or intentions to develop a nuclear weapons capability," the department said last year.

In the new version of the report issued at the end of August, State said "concerns that the United States expressed in last year’s compliance report regarding Burma’s interest in pursuing a nuclear program, including the possibility of cooperation with North Korea, were partially allayed at the end of the current reporting period" -- Dec. 31, 2011.

The civilian government that assumed leadership in Myanmar last year has pledged full compliance with U.N. Security Council Resolutions 1718 and 1874, which prohibit trade with North Korea in materials that could be used to produce ballistic missiles, nuclear arms or other unconventional weapons. The government in Naypyidaw was also looking at entering into the Additional Protocol to its IAEA safeguards deal, which would allow for more intrusive inspections to ensure that any atomic operations are not being diverted toward military purposes.

'U.S. confidence in Burma's compliance would be enhanced significantly by its adoption and full implementation of an Additional Protocol," the report says.

The co-author of the Democratic Voice of Burma analysis has said it remains incumbent on the new government to offer a full explanation of any and all nuclear work in the country.

“I did think and I still think that there’s something there,” Robert Kelley, a veteran nonproliferation specialist who worked at the U.N. agency and the U.S. Energy Department, told Global Security Newswire earlier this year. “I don’t think it’s big and serious and threatening, but I think that Burma has very likely violated its agreements.”

The State Department report also notes Washington's long-held views that Iran, North Korea and Syria have breached their commitments under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and their respective safeguards deals with the U.N. nuclear watchdog. North Korea declared itself a non-NPT state in 2003.

Pyongyang might still be prepared to employ disease agents as a means of warfare in violation of its obligations under the Biological Weapons Convention, according to the report. The North is believed to maintain an operational offensive biological weapons effort and possibly to have stockpiled causative materials for diseases such as anthrax, smallpox and typhoid.

"In the past, North Korea has rejected the view that it is not meeting its BWC obligations," the State Department said."It has also stated that it opposes the development and use of biological weapons, and that it does not possess a single biological weapon."

Syria has signed but not ratified the convention. "Based on information available during the reporting period, the United States is concerned that Syria ... may be engaged in activities that would violate its obligations under the BWC if it were a state party to the convention," the department said without elaborating.

Damascus in July appeared to confirm suspicions that it possessed biological and chemical weapons, though the government quickly stepped back from that statement. The United States and other governments have warned the Assad government against using any unconventional arms as it attempts to crush the armed rebellion that began last year.

The report also notes "biological activities" in China, Egypt, Pakistan, Iran and Russia. There was no evidence that such operations in the first three nations would breach the Biological Weapons Convention, the department said.

"Available information indicated that Iran continued during the reporting period to engage in activities with potential dual-use [biological weapons] applications," State said. "It remained unclear whether any of these activities were prohibited by the BWC."

Russian organizations are involved in "dual use biological activities," the report notes, but "it is unclear whether these activities were conducted for purposes inconsistent with the BWC." Moscow has also not made clear whether it has eliminated or converted to civilian purposes bioweapons assets left behind by the former Soviet Union, the report adds.

The Russian government on Tuesday said the report's BWC-related conclusions were unfair and based on bad information or absence of proof, RIA Novosti reported.

The State Department said the United States during the period covered by the report was compliant with the mandates set by various arms control pacts, including the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, the Biological Weapons Convention, the Chemical Weapons Convention and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.

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