By Shanan Farmer, Christina McDonnell, and Alex Roesler* —
Preventing the spread of nuclear weapons is a vital concern for the global community. Iran and North Korea’s illicit nuclear programs dominate the international system’s proliferation worries, but Burma may be copying their efforts. Although Burma has held parliamentary elections for the first time in decades, the military controls the majority of seats in the national bicameral legislatures, as well as all 14 provincial legislatures. The new government is merely another embodiment of military rule. Even if it loses the elected majority in future elections, under the new constitution, the Burmese military would maintain complete autonomy from the elected government and could pursue any policies it desires. Senior Burmese General Than Shwe – who has ruled the country for the past 18 years – is likely the strongest advocate for Burma’s pursuit of a nuclear weapons program. Isolated, sanctioned and denounced by the West for two decades, his regime appears to view nuclear weapons as a tool for standing up to international pressure and ensuring the military regime’s hold on power. Meanwhile, recent reports have implicated North Korea in providing conventional and possibly nuclear assistance to Burma. While the veracity of this claim has not been verified, questions regarding United States policy towards Burma emerge.
Although Burma is one of the most obscure countries in the international system, its location between China and India, as well as its membership in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), makes it geo-strategically significant. Ostensibly, a nuclear-armed Burma would have negative second and third order effects within the region and the international community as a whole. Past proliferation cases teach us that, to be effective, nonproliferation intervention must occur during the early stages of development, before the country possesses an advanced program. Despite the nascent status of the alleged nuclear weapons activity, now is the time to combat any aspirations that the Burmese military leadership have to pursue nuclear technology beyond peaceful uses.
Current United States policy towards Burma advocates “pragmatic engagement” with the regime. This is a reversal of prior policy and a good first step in the right direction. However, more needs to be done. Burma should not be viewed solely through a human rights lens, but should be considered by United States policymakers holistically. Globalization has made the technologies used to manufacture nuclear weapons more accessible. More emphasis must be placed on preventing countries from desiring nuclear weapons in the first place. When policymakers craft new foreign policies, they should consider whether it will create incentives for the state to acquire nuclear weapons.
As many countries in the region have come to realize, putting Burma in the “human rights violator” category limits their influence and largely pushes the regime closer to China. China views Burma as integral to its energy security strategy, and is extremely active in the country. India – formerly critical of Burma and its policies – has reversed course in an effort to counter growing Chinese influence. Thailand, while formerly hostile to the regime, also realizes the economic and geo-strategic value of maintaining good relations. No country in the region imposes any sanctions against the regime. Yet the United States continues to enforce harsh sanctions against Burma, which are ineffective at improving the regime’s behavior. Rather, United States policy may be influencing the regime’s behavior for the worse by stoking the military’s paranoia of hostile takeover – just the thing that nuclear weapons are good at deterring. As the military thrives financially in commerce with its neighbors, illegal transshipments by air, rail, and ship from North Korea have occurred. With billions of dollars in reserves, a perceived need to deter invasion, and a North Korean trade partner with nuclear technology to sell, conditions seem ripe for proliferation.
Hence, engagement with the regime – and with Burmese military leaders in particular – is paramount. But the efforts so far have been largely ineffective. Military-to-military engagement may perhaps be the most productive venue to better understand and reduce the threat perceptions of the Burmese military leadership. It is notable that members of the Burmese military are the most comfortable interacting with their military counterparts. Broadening our engagement efforts to include military-to-military interaction is the best mechanism for building trust and alleviating security concerns. Besides supporting nonproliferation objectives, establishing a degree of trust between our militaries will also help the United States accomplish its human rights objectives. A Burmese military that is not suspicious of United States intentions will not oppose disaster relief efforts, like it did after Cyclone Nargis hit in 2008. This military option provides a holistic approach to achieving United States policy goals and should be pursued immediately.
If Burma were to pursue a nuclear program independently, it could take decades. The timeline could be vastly sped up with North Korean assistance. The risk of waiting to act is too high. Now is the time to shape Burma’s principle decision-maker, General Than Shwe’s, perceptions of the value and utility that a nuclear weapons program can provide. Our military can play a key role.
*Shanan Farmer, Ph.D., Christina McDonnell, MSc, and Alex Roesler, Ph.D are National Security Fellows at the Harvard Kennedy School.
Image courtesy of AP