The question of whether the military regime in Myanmar (Burma) has embarked on a secret strategy to develop nuclear weapons has generated intense debate amongst specialists on both nuclear proliferation and Burma studies. Reports based on defectors’ accounts in 2009 stimulated closer scrutiny of satellite imagery and possible dual-use imports, in particular from North Korea. Though key issues remain unresolved, the burden of evidence leads to considerable grounds for suspicion.

Government sources



Burma: A Nuclear Wannabe; Suspicious Links to North Korea; High-Tech Procurements and Enigmatic Facilities, David Albright, Paul Brannan, Robert Kelley and Andrea Scheel Stricker, ISIS, 28 January 2010

There remain sound reasons to suspect that the military regime in Burma might be pursuing a long-term strategy to make nuclear weapons.  Despite the public reports to the contrary, the military junta does not appear to be close to establishing a significant nuclear capability.  Information suggesting the construction of major nuclear facilities appears unreliable or inconclusive. Assigning a purpose to suspicious procurements likewise remains uncertain.  The procurements are multi-purpose and difficult to correlate conclusively with a secret missile or nuclear program.  Although Burma and North Korea appear to be cooperating on illegal procurements, who is helping who cannot be determined with the available information.  Is North Korea helping Burma acquire nuclear, conventional weapon, or missile capabilities or is Burma assisting North Korea acquire this equipment? 

Nonetheless, the evidence supports that the regime wants to develop a nuclear capability of some type, but whether its ultimate purpose is peaceful or military remains a mystery.  The outstanding questions about the regime’s activities require that there be more scrutiny of Burma to ascertain if there is an underlying secret nuclear program.  Because Burma’s known nuclear program is so small, the United States and its allies have an opportunity to both engage and pressure the military regime in a manner that would make it extremely difficult for Burma to acquire a nuclear weapons capability, let alone nuclear weapons. A priority is to establish greater transparency over Burma’s and North Korea’s activities and inhibit any nuclear or nuclear dual-use transfers to Burma. 

Burma’s Nuclear Programs: The Defectors’ Story,” Desmond Ball, Security Challenges, Vol. 5, No. 4 (Summer 2009)

A Reply to Des Ball: Burma’s Nuclear Programs: A Need for Caution, Andrew Selth, Security Challenges, Volume 5, Number 4 (Summer 2009), pp. 133-137

Is Myanmar moving toward nuclear status? Denis D. Gray, Associated Press, 21 July 2009

The recent aborted voyage of a North Korean ship, photographs of massive tunnels and a top secret meeting have raised alarm bells that one of the world’s poorest nations may be aspiring to join the nuclear club — with help from its friends in Pyongyang. No one expects military-run Myanmar, also known as Burma, to obtain an atomic bomb anytime soon, but experts have the Southeast Asian nation on their radar screen.

Meanwhile, Japanese police arrested a North Korean and two Japanese nationals last month for allegedly trying to export a magnetic measuring device to Myanmar that could be used to develop missiles.

And a recent report from Washington-based Radio Free Asia and Myanmar exile media said senior Myanmar military officers made a top secret visit late last year to North Korea, where an agreement was concluded for greatly expanding cooperation to modernize Myanmar’s military muscle, including the construction of underground installations. The military pact report has yet to be confirmed.

In June, photographs, video and reports showed as many as 800 tunnels, some of them vast, dug in Myanmar with North Korean assistance under an operation code-named “Tortoise Shells.” The photos were reportedly taken between 2003 and 2006.

Since the early 2000s, dissidents and defectors from Myanmar have talked of a “nuclear battalion,” an atomic “Ayelar Project” working out of a disguised flour mill and two Pakistani scientists who fled to Myanmar following the Sept. 11 World Trade Center attack providing assistance. They gave no detailed evidence.


See also

Project coordinator: Richard Tanter
Additional research:
Arabella Imhoff
Updated:28 January 2010