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Burma’s Vanunu

Major Sai Thein Win: Photo courtesy Democratic Voice of Burma.


Since 2001, there have been persistent rumours of a Burmese nuclear program, as Burma first announced intent to buy a nuclear reactor from Russia. That deal fell through and was resurrected in 2007 but still has not been consummated. There is a small Department of Atomic Energy in Burma with a few well-known international figures, but, the rumours of a nuclear program to build an indigenous reactor and nuclear weapons remained only rumours.

Since 2005, Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) has been receiving thousands of files containing classified information on a secret military project. These documents include blue prints, budget files, military warfare program, underground tunnel construction plans, university thesis and term papers in Russian. Also, photo and other records of senior generals’ visit to Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea; and, meeting memos and reports describing cooperation between Burma and those countries and many others. Upon examining these documents and counter check with other sources, DVB realised that this is a very comprehensive and ambitious military project involving underground tunnel construction for military use, rocket and missile production, and a nuclear program. It was then, DVB decided to produce an investigative documentary.

After watching a DVB TV programme on underground tunnel construction in October 2009, Major Sai Thein Win, a deputy in charge of a secret factory in Myaing, decided to contact DVB and provide more information. He is a mechanical engineer skilled in programming Computer Numerically Controlled (CNC) machine tools, used to build high quality equipment and components of programs such as missiles or nuclear reactors. He did graduate training in missile technology in Russia in the early 2000s and then returned to Burma where he worked on missiles and had some knowledge of the nuclear program.

Since the first contact, Sai Thein Win became a vital part of the DVB investigation. In February 2010, as he defected to Thailand, he turned over hundreds of colour photos, mechanical drawings and other documents to DVB.

Earlier, in January 2010, DVB had already turned to the US-based National Endowment for Democracy, for expert analysis of a larger cache of information on tunnels, missiles, and nuclear program activities. As Sai Thein Win handed over the fresh cache of information, DVB asked one of the experts from the earlier team to evaluate the new data.

The expert immediately recognised a number of pieces of equipment that are almost certainly for use in a nuclear program, primarily to process uranium in a chemical plant to make uranium compounds for reactor fuel, isotope separation, and reactor fuel. The combination of equipment and the program context described by Sai Thein Win are consistent with a covert nuclear program to produce bombs.

Some of these pieces have clearly been used, judging by their conditions in the colour photographs. It is impossible to determine if a piece was used with uranium from a photo, but, if that was the case, it would be an instant violation of the Small Quantities Protocol agreement Burma has entered with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), under a larger safeguards agreement.

In addition, other Burmese sources have reported uranium mining and the production of yellowcake, the first chemical step in moving from uranium ore to industrial compounds. Sai Thein Win reveals that there is a yellowcake plant, near the nuclear laboratory north of Mandalay, in a town called Thabeikkyin. He visited the nuclear lab on two occasions with general officers for demonstrations of nuclear technology to the top leadership of the country. He did not visit the yellowcake plant but heard it was nearby.

Satellite imagery shows a military facility at Thabeikkyin that could be the nuclear lab. Analysts are examining the photos and comparing them to other sites alleged to be in the program. There are some similarities. There is also a small ore concentration plant at Thabeikkyin that is consistent with a uranium plant, although not unique. Information provided by Sai Thein Win is consistent in locating these facilities right where he said they would be.

More importantly, analysts have been looking at colour photos and satellite images of two factories where Sai Thein Win worked for about five years. These factories were built to house German and Swiss CNC machine tools.

Germany granted export licenses for the equipment that went to these factories, and conducted follow-up end-user inspections to see how the equipment were used. For this reason, there is high consistency among photos from the companies, the Germans and Sai Thein Win, that these are, in fact, the factories and tools in question.

What can be seen, is that when the Germans are inspecting, the factories appear to be civilian, but, when they are gone the same machine tools are being used by military personnel to build equipment for the nuclear fuel cycle.

It is heartening that experts who look at the pictures find the quality of workmanship to be poor, especially for high-tech activities in missile and nuclear facilities. Apparently, Burmese nuclear plans involve the use of unnecessarily complex processes, such as laser isotope separation to enrich uranium. The experts judge that many of these efforts will be unsuccessful and beyond Burma’s reach. So the program is not an immediate military threat.

There are issues, however. Burma bought high quality German machine tools for civilian student training and is using them instead for military purposes. There need to be penalties from supplier nations for this act. Burma is a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and a party to its nuclear weapons free zone. This commitment is in doubt.

Burma has some very old-style agreements with the IAEA. The Burmese agreement formats are of the pre-Iraq era. Following the difficulties the IAEA faced with Iraq, the international community strengthened these agreements and asked all nations to sign the updated versions. Burma is among the holdouts that decline to sign, diplomatically and politely ignoring the requests.

Unfortunately, the old agreements limit the IAEA to asking a few simple questions and then there is no provision for verification inspections or deep investigations. The Burmese government has already issued a strongly worded denial of the DVB story, so it is unlikely to have any more to say to the IAEA. Therefore, the agency will need the full backing of the United Nations Security Council, to advance beyond this stage.

Sai Thein Win was an insider in military programs and came forth after viewing the DVB broadcast about the special factories. He is a military man and can describe what he saw, but, he often is unable to explain much about the end use, just its name and photo. He can describe a program to build nuclear weapons, driven from the top, and he can describe three sites that appear to be real and are known in other sources. His colour photos match up with the tools and visits of the Germans.

All in all, Sai Thein Win has a very compelling tale to tell and a lot of credibility, given the consistency in this story. In this sense, he has emerged as a modern version of Mordecai Vanunu, the Israeli technician who brought photos out of Dimona in 1986, showing Israeli activities.

———-

Robert Kelley – former director of the International Atomic Energy Agency – works with Democratic Voice of Burma, as a consultant.

In print: Independent World Report — Issue 5, September 2010.

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