Myanmar’s junta has established a “Nuclear Technology and Information Center” in cooperation with Russian energy firm Rosatom State Corp. in the country’s commercial capital Yangon, as part of what observers say is the regime’s long-running dream of obtaining nuclear weapons.
The opening of the information center follows an agreement signed in September between the junta and Russia’s State Atomic Energy Corporation to jointly assess building a small reactor in Myanmar.
The junta announced at the time that it would use nuclear energy for civilian purposes, but Myanmar’s political opposition and military analysts have expressed concern that the technology could be leveraged militarily, given the country’s ongoing internal armed conflict and widespread popular opposition to the regime following its February 2021 coup.
Junta chief Sr. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing and Rosatom Director General Alexey Evegenievich Likhachev attended an opening ceremony for the new center on Monday, during which Min Aung Hlaing noted that nuclear technology “can be used in all sectors” and that the military regime is meeting with experts from both Myanmar and Russia to discuss “building nuclear infrastructure.”
The same day, Myo Thein Kyaw, the junta’s minister of science and technology, and Russia’s Likhachev signed an intergovernmental cooperation agreement on 14 areas of nuclear utilization. Details have not been made public, but Rosatom told the Russian media that the two sides will “work together to implement a nuclear power plant project in Myanmar” according to the agreement signed Monday.
Despite claims by the junta that it plans to use nuclear energy for peaceful applications, experts told RFA Burmese that the latest round of cooperation with Russia is part of the regime’s secret plan to build a nuclear arsenal.
“They may be telling the people that it’s for civilian purposes, such as electricity generation, but I am sure they will also be trying at the same time to possess nuclear weapons,” said former Capt. Kaung Thu Win, who defected from Myanmar’s military following the coup and joined the country’s armed resistance.
“They will publicly announce that it’s for civilian use, but they will secretly be pursuing nuclear weapons. They are no doubt exploring how they can weaponize [the technology] for their advantage.”
Kaung Thu Win said that while the military has long sought to become a nuclear power, “it’s going to take time.”
Nonetheless, he added, the junta’s recent overtures to Russia suggest it may be trying to fast-track its nuclear ambitions in order to solidify its hold on power.
In the two years since the military coup, Min Aung Hlaing has visited Russia three times to discuss nuclear projects.
‘The people will not benefit’
Thien Tun Oo, the executive director of Myanmar’s Thayninga Institute for Strategic Studies, made up of former military officers, told RFA it is wrong to assume that the pursuit of nuclear energy technology includes plans to obtain weaponry.
“Most people picture weapons in their minds when they talk about ‘nuclear,’ but that is an incorrect assessment,” he said.
“Countries with bad diplomatic relations with Myanmar use it as an excuse against us, questioning what might happen if Myanmar possesses nuclear technology,” he said. “But experts in western countries already understand whether Myanmar can go to that extreme or not.”
The military has said that it will follow safety, security and emergency response guidelines according to standards set by the International Atomic Energy Agency when building nuclear infrastructure.
But Kyaw Zaw, spokesman for the office of shadow National Unity Government President Duwa Lashi La said that any form of nuclear technology is dangerous in the hands of a regime that is using fighter jets, helicopters, and other modern weapons against its own citizens.
“The people will not benefit from this project,” he said. “The only question becomes whether it will create more risk to public safety.”
At the very least, Kyaw Zaw said, the latest round of cooperation between the two sides shows that the junta “is in a situation where it is desperately relying on powerful Russia, at a time when there are hardly any countries in the world that will work with it.”
Myanmar’s military has been working to obtain nuclear weapons for decades.
The country’s previous junta under Senior Gen. Than Shwe negotiated with Russia to build a nuclear reactor in 1999, 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.
In 1992, Myanmar signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, 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.
Joint ‘propaganda show’
Analysts agreed that the opening of the nuclear information center and signing of the intergovernmental cooperation agreement on Monday were likely part of a bid by the junta to highlight its ties with Russia.
“In my opinion, the implementation of this plan, when the country has barely enough electricity, is just a contrived economic move to expand the scope of cooperation between Russia and Myanmar,” said political analyst Than Soe Naing.
Costly nuclear projects are not feasible for Myanmar given the state of the country’s economy after two years of junta mismanagement, he added.
“This is not the time for Myanmar to [pursue nuclear projects], nor does it have the capacity to do so,” Than Soe Naing said. “The junta is not in a situation to assume that its adversaries would take it more seriously if it possesses nuclear weapons, like North Korea.”
He dismissed the junta’s latest announcements as a “ploy to promote cooperation with Russia for its own benefit.”
Hla Kyaw Zaw, a China-based analyst, agreed with the assessment, calling the latest announcements part of a junta “propaganda show” for domestic and global audiences. Russia is a global pariah because of its invasion of Ukraine, so it might take pride in being invited to such an event by another country, he said.
Myanmar is also isolated, he said, and so the junta “wants to show that other countries are willing to help it with this kind of technological assistance.”
Translated by Myo Min Aung. Edited by Joshua Lipes and Malcolm Foster.