The sovereign can no longer say, "You shall think as I do on pain of death;" but he says, "You are free to think differently from me, and to retain your life, your property, and all that you possess; but if such be your determination, you are henceforth an alien among your people."

(Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1835)

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

The box in the jungle

There have been a number of rumours in recent weeks regarding the possibility that Myanmar may be embarking upon an illicit nuclear weapons programme. Reports from Burmese dissidents have added fuel to the fire but there is no conclusive evidence. Much of the suspicion has focused on a box-shaped building which, from aerial footage, appears similar to the site the Israelis attacked in Syria. However, the building in Myanmar is much larger than the Syrian facility (which is said to have been based on the North Korean reactor at Yongbyon). Several analysts have also suggested that the box may be linked to a Burmese attempt at indigenous missile production. While I will not go into too much detail about what has been said, I would like to point out why Myanmar may choose to go down this path.

First, there is good reason for us to question the rationality of the military junta that rules Myanmar, primarily due to its acute sense of paranoia. A good example was its decision to move the capital from Yangon (formerly Rangoon) inland to Naypyidaw in 2005. This was a move that was done in secret and for reasons of isolation and protection; its location is very remote and most Burmese citizens had no idea that it was being built.

By disengaging itself from Yangon, the junta disengages itself from the people -- something that it appears to want. But another reason for moving the capital is that it fears a U.S. led invasion of the country. As a result, the junta may look at the North Korean example and see nuclear weapons as the most effective means of preventing such an invasion from taking place.

Second, Myanmar is believed to have close links with North Korea and there have been several reports of North Korean ships docking in Burmese ports. In order for Myanmar to kick-start any nuclear programme it would need substantial external assistance as it simply does not have the infrastructure to carry out such a feat alone. If it did seek this support, then it would almost certainly turn to Pyongyang.

Although this is all currently unsubstantiated, it does appear that Burmese paranoia regarding a U.S. led invasion has been heightened since the 2003 invasion of Iraq. If this is the case, then we have yet another negative effect of the conflict. Given that the justification for the war was to dismantle Saddam's supposed WMD capability, it would be ironic if the invasion turns out to be the trigger for another country to start its own programme (note that this same argument has been used with North Korea). It would be interesting to know whether the possibility of this happening was ever discussed prior to the 2003 invasion. If it wasn't then it certainly should have been.

Myanmar presents an interesting case study and one that is very different from Iran. The main difference seems to be rationality: while the Iranian leadership, with its multiple power bases, can be considered to be rational, this is not necessarily the case with the Burmese junta. If it were, then the junta should conclude that while an invasion is pretty much an impossibility as things stand today, this could all change if there was conclusive evidence that it was trying to construct a nuclear weapon. That said, it should be much easier for the West to use peaceful measures to prevent it from succeeding; due primarily to the regime's international isolation (China would be a key actor again). After all, another invasion of a country suspected of having a nuclear weapons programme could add further value to the weapons' value, precipitating further proliferation......and so it goes on.

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