Atomic energy cooperation between Myanmar and Russia raises concerns

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

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

The deal would promote Russia-Myanmar cooperation on nuclear energy and assess the feasibility of a small-scale nuclear reactor project in Myanmar, Rosatom said in a statement. pronunciation issued on 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 sets out the defined steps for further cooperation between Russia and Myanmar in the nuclear field,” the statement said. In particular, the document provides for the extension of the bilateral legal framework, the possibility to implement a small modular reactor project in Myanmar, as well as staff training and work related to improving public acceptance of nuclear energy in Myanmar. Myanmar.”

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

Nevertheless, Myanmar’s political opposition and military analysts expressed concern about the agreement, fearing that it could mark the start of attempts to use nuclear technology for nefarious purposes, given the country’s ongoing internal armed conflict and widespread opposition from the population against the regime after the coup of February 2021.

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

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“This deal demonstrates their goal of developing nuclear weapons,” he said. “They will try to develop nuclear weapons after initially using the technology to generate electricity. They have tried to recruit the nuclear technicians needed for this purpose. They have teams of technicians who have completed training in Russia.”

“This is part of the strategy of ruling the people through fear,” he said. “They think having nuclear weapons will increase people’s fear.”

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

Myanmar and Russia signed an earlier preliminary agreement in June 2015 to cooperate on 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 February 1, 2021 coup, and met with Rosatom officials on his second visit in July.

‘A very risky and expensive decision’

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

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

“We see the trend that countries that do not have good relations with Western countries are taking into account the need for nuclear weapons for survival,” Hla Kyaw Zawl told RFA. “If the military regime really cares about the well-being of the people, they can use other renewable energy sources.”

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“Choosing nuclear power is a very risky and costly decision,” she added. “Myanmar has no infrastructure to support that technology. This is an exaggerated ambition that would serve nothing but their own interest. ”

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

“If they go further, there will be more concerns among ASEAN countries,” he said. “Their concerns would not be limited to the possession of nuclear weapons in Myanmar. There would also be concerns about securing a nuclear reactor.”

“If There Was a Nuclear Fallout” [following a blast]it would affect the entire region,” he said. “The world will watch and criticize Myanmar more closely if the regime pursues this goal.”

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

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

As Myanmar restored relations with North Korea, achieving 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 army under Than Shwe was trying to develop nuclear weapons using 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 developing weapons.

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“They always continue to develop nuclear weapons after they reach a nuclear reactor, and not just in Myanmar,” he said. Min Aung Hlaing is quite determined that he can deter pressure from the US and Western countries if they fulfill their nuclear ambition and are able to extend military rule. That is why Russia is helping them achieve this goal.”

But Thein Tun Oo, executive director of the pro-military think tank Thaenaga Institute for Strategic Studies, said the world should not worry about the prospect of Myanmar developing nuclear weapons as long as the military regime is overseen by the 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 should not be a problem as long as the waste is returned to Russia under IAEA supervision.”

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

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

Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung for RFA Burmese. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.