Is Burma's Junta Trying to Join the Nuclear Club?

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Democratic Voice of Burma / AP

This Dec. 21, 2009, photo released by the Democratic Voice of Burma shows Burmese defector Sai Thein Win at the control panel of an industrial machine at an undisclosed location in Burma

Updated on July 10, 2010.

It may seem counterintuitive, but Burma has a lot going for it. Blessed with abundant natural resources, the nation is home to the last of the world's ancient teak forests; it produces tens of thousands of tons of jade every year; it's at the center of the global ruby trade; and most important, it has natural gas. Lots of it. Burmese gas already powers half of Bangkok, and it will soon start flowing to China, making billions of dollars of profit. For many though, it's how the money is being spent that's worrying.

Up until a few years ago, Burma's military government, cut off from trade with the West, led a "hand-to-mouth existence," says Sean Turnell, an economics professor at Macquarie University in Australia. Now, thanks in no small part to its resource-hungry neighbors, the pariah state has $6 billion in cash reserves, according to Turnell. As cash is flowing in, the military junta that has run the country since 1962 is spending lavishly. With about a third of the country in poverty, the junta could invest in health, education or job creation, but instead, new evidence suggests Burma is spending billions on outlandish military projects, including, perhaps, a secretive nuclear weapons program. Turnell says the junta is "absolutely paranoid about international interference in the country."

A documentary released last month by the Norway-based NGO Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) purports to detail the beginnings of a Burmese nuclear program. Though much of the documentary's evidence comes from a single defector living in hiding, the NGO contends that hundreds of color photographs lend support to the rumors swirling for the past few years that Burma has been pursuing the bomb. The Burmese Ministry of Foreign Affairs calls DVB's accusations "baseless," but Robert Kelley, a former director of the International Atomic Energy Agency and weapons scientist at Los Alamos National Lab, concluded from the DVB evidence that the technology in the photos "is only for nuclear weapons and not civilian use or nuclear power."

The documentary's primary source, a former Burmese army major named Sai Thein Win, is a Russian-trained missile expert — not a nuclear engineer —who says he was second in command at a top-secret military factory that made parts for Burma's nuclear weapons program. The photographs that Sai Thein Win supplied to DVB dovetail with other evidence that suggests Burma is undertaking a massive nuclear project. Dictator Watch, a U.S.-based opposition watchdog group, provided TIME with a list of some 660 Burmese students studying engineering and military-related fields in Russia, more than 65 of whom are studying nuclear-related subjects. According to Roland Watson of Dictator Watch, the list is just a batch from 2009; he claims he has heard from multiple independent sources that there are more than 3,000 Burmese military researchers who have studied in Russia over the past decade. In the film, Sai Thein Win estimates that the number could be as high as 10,000. In fact, Sai Thein Win says he was in the first group of Burmese students sent to Russia, in 2001, where he studied missile technology at the Moscow Engineering Physics Institute, once the primary training ground for Soviet nuclear weapons experts.

Even if DVB is right about Burma's nuclear ambitions, the country is likely years away from any kind of bomb. Kelley told TIME that Burma's apparent attempt to enrich uranium using laser isotope separation — a complex and expensive method that has stumped many richer nations — was "kind of dumb." That may be news to the junta leader Than Shwe, according to the Irrawaddy, a Burmese newsmagazine in exile based in Thailand, which reported that Than Shwe was furious at his officials after learning that Kelley's report for the DVB said a nuclear weapon "may be beyond Burma's reach" at this time.

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