An agreement signed by Myanmar’s military regime and Russia’s state-owned nuclear energy corporation to jointly assess building a small reactor in the Southeast Asian country underscores the junta’s long-term pursuit of nuclear weapons, analysts said.

Myo Thein Kyaw, the regime’s minister of science and technology; Thuang Han, minister of electric power; and Alexey Likhachev, chief executive officer at Russia’s State Atomic Energy Corporation, signed the “roadmap for cooperation” while they attended the Eastern Economic Forum on Sept. 5-8 in Vladivostok. Junta leader Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing oversaw the signing of the agreement.

The deal would further Russian-Myanmar cooperation in the field of nuclear energy, and assess the feasibility of a small-scale nuclear reactor project in Myanmar, Rosatom said in a statement issued Sept. 6.

The same day, the junta announced that it would use nuclear energy for electricity generation, scientific research, medicine production and industry.  

“The roadmap fixes the defined steps for further Russian-Myanmar cooperation in the nuclear sphere,” the statement said. “In particular the document provides for the expanding of bilateral legal framework, possibility of implementing a small modular reactors project in Myanmar, as well as personnel training and work related to the improvement of public acceptance of nuclear energy in Myanmar.” 

Small modular reactors are smaller than conventional nuclear reactors and can be built in a factory and shipped to the site where they will operate and produce electric power.

Nevertheless, Myanmar’s political opposition and military analysts expressed concern over the agreement, fearing it could be the beginning of efforts to use nuclear technology for nefarious purposes, given the country’s ongoing internal armed conflict and widespread popular opposition to the regime following the February 2021 coup. 

Captain Kaung Thu Win, an army officer who joined the anti-junta Civil Defense Movement (CDM), told RFA Burmese that the agreement is part of the junta’s efforts to eventually develop nuclear weapons. 

“This deal demonstrates their goal to develop nuclear weapons,” he said. “They will try to develop nuclear weapons after they initially use the technology to generate electricity. They have been trying to recruit the nuclear technicians required for this goal. They have teams of technicians who completed the training in Russia.”

“This is part of the strategy to govern the people by fear,” he said. ‘They think that if they possess nuclear weapons, it will increase people’s fear.”

Successive military regimes that ruled Myanmar in the past harbored the same ambition of obtaining nuclear weapons, and the current junta is no different, Kaung Thu Win said.

Myanmar and Russia signed a previous preliminary agreement in June 2015 to work together in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy.

Min Aung Hlaing has visited Russia three times in the 19 months since the military seized power from the democratically elected government in the Feb. 1, 2021 coup, and met with Rosatom officials during his second visit in July.

‘A very risky and costly decision’

Hla Kyaw Zawl, a China-based political analyst, said Myanmar’s military regime should use non-nuclear resources that are cheaper and more easily available if their intention is only to generate electricity.    

A decision to build costly and risky nuclear reactors in Myanmar, while the country’s economy is in shambles, is a self-serving act that will not serve the interest of the people, she said.

“We see the trend of countries that don’t have good relations with Western countries considering the need for nuclear weapons to survive,” Hla Kyaw Zawl told RFA. “If the military regime genuinely cares about the people’s well-being, they can use other sustainable energy sources.”

“Choosing nuclear energy is a very risky and costly decision,” she added. “Myanmar doesn’t have any infrastructure to support that technology. This is an overblown ambition that would serve nothing but their own interests. ”

Min Zaw Oo, executive director of the Myanmar Institute for Peace and Security, said Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member states would need to monitor fellow bloc member Myanmar more cautiously and thoroughly if the military regime builds a nuclear reactor.  

“If they move forward, there will be more concerns among the ASEAN countries,” he said. “Their concerns would be not limited to Myanmar possessing nuclear weapons. There also would be concerns about safeguarding a nuclear reactor.”

“If there was any nuclear fallout [following a blast], it would affect the entire region,” he said. “The world will be watching and criticizing Myanmar more thoroughly if the regime moves forward with this goal.”

Myanmar’s military has been working to obtain nuclear weapons for decades, political analysts said. 

The regime under Senior Gen. Than Shwe in 1999 negotiated with Russia to build a nuclear reactor that year, but the plan was canceled in 2002.

When Myanmar re-established relations with North Korea, attaining nuclear technology once again became a goal, and Thura Shwe Mann, a top military general, visited Pyongyang in 2008 to observe the rogue country’s military and missile facilities. Maj. Sai Thein Win, a military officer who defected, leaked information about how the Myanmar military under Than Shwe was trying to develop nuclear weapons with technology from Pyongyang.

Political analyst Than Soe Naing said Min Aung Hlaing is following in the footsteps of other military dictators in pursuing nuclear technology, and then developing weapons.

“They always advance to developing nuclear weapons after they achieve a nuclear reactor, and not just in Myanmar” he said. “ Min Aung Hlaing is pretty determined that he can deter  pressures from the U.S. and Western countries if they achieve their nuclear ambition and are able to prolong military rule. That’s why Russia is helping them achieve this goal.”

But Thein Tun Ooexecutive director of the pro-military Thaenaga Institute for Strategic Studies think tank, said the world need not be concerned about the prospect of Myanmar developing nuclear weapons as long as the military regime works under the supervision of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).  

“Building a nuclear reactor in Myanmar is acceptable because it would help meet the country’s electricity needs,” he said.

“As for the prospect of developing nuclear weapons from nuclear waste, it shouldn’t be a concern as long as the waste is returned to Russia under the supervision of the IAEA.”

Myanmar was a founding IAEA member, though it did not generate any nuclear power. In 2016, it signed a country program framework with the agency and joined the Convention on Nuclear Safety, which commits parties operating land-based civil nuclear power plants to maintain a high level of safety. 

Since 1992, Myanmar has been a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the objective of which is to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and weapons technology. The country also signed the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty in 2016, which bans nuclear weapons test explosions, and the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in 2018, a legally binding international agreement that comprehensively prohibits nuclear weapons with the final goal of total elimination.

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