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Myanmar Safeguards Move Could Address Nuke Fears

President Obama, left, shakes hands with Myanmar President Thein Sein on Monday in Yangon. Myanmar's move to allow greater scrutiny by the U.N. nuclear watchdog could help to address suspicions that the nation had sought to develop nuclear weapons (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster). President Obama, left, shakes hands with Myanmar President Thein Sein on Monday in Yangon. Myanmar's move to allow greater scrutiny by the U.N. nuclear watchdog could help to address suspicions that the nation had sought to develop nuclear weapons (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster).

Myanmar's apparent readiness to allow greater scrutiny by the International Atomic Energy Agency could serve to address concerns that the nation had operated a nuclear arms effort with assistance from North Korea, the Associated Press reported on Wednesday.

Myanmar's civilian government said this week that President Thein Sein had authorized acceding to the Additional Protocol to the nation's safeguards agreement with the U.N. nuclear watchdog. Lawmakers in Naypyidaw must now consider the move.

The protocol gives agency officials greater access to a member state's nuclear facilities and information to help ensure they are not supporting  weapons production. It would mandate that Myanmar acknowledge any atomic plants and substances, according to the report.

"This latest move by Burma is extremely positive for its on-going push for openness about the nuclear issue and for building confidence and transparency with the international community," the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security said.

The long-ruling military junta of Myanmar, also known as Burma, gave way to a civilian government in 2011. The democratic reforms and other changes made since then have paved the way for the nation's re-engagement with the international community, leading to a visit by President Obama earlier this week.

Even as relations resumed Washington warned Myanmar to curb its military relationship with North Korea and to come clean about any illicit nuclear activities. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in December 2011 that rapprochement with Naypyidaw was dependent in part on whether "the entire government respects the international consensus against the spread of nuclear weapons."

A 2010 report by the opposition organization Democratic Voice of Burma contained data and pictures from defectors that suggested the Burmese junta had a rudimentary nuclear arms program. U.S. diplomatic dispatches leaked that year indicated there was cause to believe that North Korean specialists were assisting a Burmese atomic drive.

Some issue experts believed that Myanmar's procurement roughly six years ago of precision technology from Germany, Singapore and Switzerland pointed toward the junta's nuclear arms aspirations. The findings were not universally agreed-upon by Myanmar watchers.

The U.S. State Department in a report issued in September 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," had partially been resolved by the end of 2011. Foggy Bottom said those worries could be further reduced through adoption of the Additional Protocol.

Myanmar's leaders have consistently rejected all claims of having an interest in a nuclear arsenal, and as of last year the government said it did not have any operational atomic program.

"As part of the process of implementing the Additional Protocol, Burma should answer questions the IAEA has about any past nuclear activities and the procurement of sensitive equipment possibly used or intended for nuclear purposes," according to the ISIS report. "Independently, it should invite the United Nations Panel of Experts on North Korea to visit the country and answer questions about past suspicious transfers and cooperation with North Korea."

The Obama administration believes Myanmar in the past has done business in light weapons and missiles with North Korea, which would breach U.N. economic penalties imposed on Pyongyang. A 2008 deal called for North Korea to support production of a midrange ballistic missile in the Southeast Asian nation, Washington believes.

However, deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said this week that Washington has seen "positive steps' in Myanmar's efforts to cut off military connections with the North.

It is unknown when Myanmar might actually ink the protocol following parliamentary consideration, and what data it might subsequently release.

‘At the moment Burma has already been asked in public what they have and they say ‘nothing,’ so the list provided to IAEA could be short or blank,’’ said Robert Kelley, who has worked at the U.N. agency and was co-author of the Democratic Voice of Burma report.

Myanmar's armed forces can be expected to push back against allowing too much transparency of select locations, AP reported.

‘The concern of the international community will not pause until full disclosure of the North Korea-Burma relationship is achieved,’’ said U.S. Senator Richard Lugar (R-Ind.).

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