Burma-Heads and the Alleged Nukes
Burma-Heads around the world likely took notice of another incremental shift in US policy toward Burma, when President Obama stood in the same room as Burmese Prime Minister Thein Sein, at a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations on Sunday in Singapore.
I know I did.
The president repeated the US demand that the Burmese government release detained democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. While the White House said President Obama raised the issue “directly,” the encounter does not amount to a “formal meeting.”
Burma-Heads read the tea-leaves behind the US President not-speaking-formally-with-but-reiterating-the-US-position-while-standing-in-the-same-room-as the Burmese prime minister much the same way Burma’s leaders divine policy by consulting astrology.
For two decades, the US has followed a policy of isolating the Burmese military regime, which gunned down 3 thousand protesters in 1988, stole an election in 1990, and proceeded to lock up Suu Kyi for 14 of the 20 years to follow (so far.) Isolation hasn’t worked – the situation’s only gotten worse.
But with the election of President Obama, Washington has shifted to a policy of “cautious engagement” with Burma, aimed at encouraging democratic reform. And a sign of that is the Prez and the PM, standing in the same room.
What we don’t know yet from those tea-leaves is how the US will counter growing concern by Burma-Heads about the military regime’s alleged nuclear program.
First cited by Burmese opposition groups, the story was allegedly “scooped” by the Sydney Morning Herald, written about extensively by the magnificently well-informed journalist and academic Bertil Lintner, and referenced by the New York Times columnist Nick Kristof, Burma-Heads all:
Burma has allegedly teamed up with North Korea to build nuclear reactors. In Burma.
It’s hard to come up with a more dysfunctional partnership. Pariah States ‘R’ Us!
Not only is Burma 135th out of 179 on the UN’s Poverty Index – and can hardly afford the most basic of health care, let alone nuclear technology - Burma is the country that refused international aid after Cyclone Nargis killed at least 125 thousand people in May 2008, for fears that foreigners would try to topple the government. Burma is the country that killed hundreds of Buddhist monks while arresting thousands of others protesters demonstrating for democracy in October 2007.
North Korea is the country that shoots the occasional missile toward Japan as part of a game of nuclear brinksmanship designed to manipulate the West, while largely ignoring widespread hunger affecting much of its population.
The leaders of both nations seem to run on pure paranoia.
(On a reporting trip to Burma in 2007, some the Burmese people I spoke to were jealous of the ousting of Saddam Hussein: “When is George Bush going to invade us?”)
Now Burma’s ruler General Than Shwe seems to be borrowing from the North Korean playbook whereby Kim Jong Il uses nukes as the ultimate insurance policy: there will be no regime change wrought by those pesky outsiders, if someone’s got a finger on the button.
North Korea, for its part, wins access to Burmese uranium deposits for its own nuclear weapons program.
The Burma-Heads among us can even look at the alleged nuclear sites on GoogleEarth. The easiest one to find is 10.2 miles almost due East of GoogleEarth’s red dot marking the city of Pyin Oo Lwin.
A Burma-Head, as you have probably gathered, is someone deeply invested in reporting on the politics of Burma.
As one, I wonder if perhaps Burma’s nuclear program is actually a good thing. Maybe the push for nuclear technology will politically and financially bankrupt the regime, once and for all.
I don’t know.
For the moment I’m trusting that while Washington and its allies make their incremental shifts in relations with Burma — like President Obama standing in the same room as a Burmese official - they’re keeping an eye on the nukes issue, just as well as the Burma-Heads.