Is Burma the Next Iran?

A new gas discovery could pay for the nuclear technology they crave.

The United States and its European allies worry that if they simply accept a nuclear Iran, other states will be encouraged to pursue nuclear ambitions of their own. But that ship may already have sailed. As the world watches the twists and turns of Iran’s path toward the Security Council, the military regime in Burma may be quietly selling its energy resources to finance the acquisition of nuclear technology.

During her Senate confirmation hearings in January 2005, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice labeled Burma an “outpost of tyranny.” Not without reason. Since 1962, a military junta has ruled the country and carefully maintained Burma’s isolation from the international community. A popular uprising in the late 1980s forced the regime to gamble on multiparty legislative elections. But when the opposition National League for Democracy won a landslide victory in 1990, the regime voided the result and jailed many of the NLD’s leaders—including Nobel Prize-winner Aung San Suu Kyi. A decade and a half later, Suu Kyi is again under house arrest without access to even a telephone. Most of Burma’s more than 50 million people live in poverty—though the government has blocked international efforts to document their plight.

Burma’s generals, known in state-controlled media as the State Peace and Development Council, routinely harass and imprison opposition activists. Citizens have been used as slave labor. The junta’s security police have been known to strafe demonstrators with gunfire. In December, an Asian human rights group issued a 124-page report on the Burmese government’s “brutal and systematic” torture of political prisoners.

To deepen the country’s isolation, last November the generals began to move Burma’s capital from the southern coastal city of Rangoon to the mountain stronghold of Pyinmana, deep in the country’s interior. Perhaps the regime’s oft-stated fear of a U.S. invasion prompted the retreat from the coast. That would explain press reports that the junta has surrounded its new capital with land mines. Perhaps the regime is even more afraid of the ethnically diverse and impoverished students of Rangoon. We can’t look for answers to the United Nations’ envoy to Burma. He resigned in January after failing for nearly two years to gain entry into the country.

Despite the regime’s aversion to international attention, Burma generated international headlines Jan. 11 when the Korean conglomerate Daewoo announced a substantial gas find off Burma’s northwest coast. Media reports describe the field as “massive,” though Daewoo won’t know just how massive until intensive exploration and testing are completed next year. The company announced that a petroleum consultant, the Ryder Scott Co., estimates that the find may produce between 2.9 trillion and 3.5 trillion cubic feet of gas, the equivalent of about 600 million barrels of crude oil. Whatever the final numbers, the discovery provides yet another reminder that Burma has become an important natural-gas provider for Asia’s wealthiest countries.

Just as Iran’s energy wealth frustrates U.S. and European efforts to sanction Tehran, foreign competition for gas contracts will obstruct international attempts to pressure Burma toward democratic reform. China has profited time and again by forging commercial deals with states that are the objects of international scorn, and other energy-dependent Asian countries (India and South Korea, in particular) don’t want China to monopolize Burma’s energy reserves. These states and others will continue to chase energy deals there, including agreements to build the infrastructure needed to pipe gas or petroleum directly to their consumers and industries. Even the United States and European Union have resisted pressure to ban all investment in the country—so energy firms Unocal and Total can join in the scramble.

The Burmese junta knows when it approves these deals that it’s giving its Asian neighbors an important stake in the regime’s survival. China, a veto-wielding permanent member of the Security Council, is an especially useful provider of diplomatic cover. Energy revenues also help finance the domestic repression that keeps the opposition in check and the generals in charge.

What else might this new wealth buy? The riches generated by Burma’s natural-gas deposits may provide the junta with enough cash to realize its long-standing ambition to purchase nuclear technology. In 2002, the Russian government approved an agreement with Burma to help the regime build a civilian nuclear reactor. The deal was never consummated, according to the Russian foreign ministry, because Burma lacked the money to pay for it. But when Russia’s atomic agency announced last October that talks on the subject had resumed, Western governments reacted with alarm and dismissed official Burmese claims that the facility is meant only for medical research and the production of radiopharmaceuticals for cancer treatment. More worrying still, the junta’s long-rumored high-level contacts with North Korea may well include discussion of the transfer of nuclear technology.

Maybe the Burmese government believes a nuclear weapon offers the ultimate insurance against a U.S. invasion. After all, the United States invaded Iraq, which did not have nuclear weapons, but has not attacked North Korea, which does. Burma’s fear of an American attack tells us more about the junta’s paranoia than about U.S. intentions. But the Burmese generals cannot have been pleased when President Bush, during last month’s State of the Union address, included Burma on a shortlist of states in which “the demands of justice and the peace of this world require freedom.”

Another reason Burma matters for regional stability is that it adds to the growing list of irritants in U.S. relations with China. Burma provides China with the use of a military base on the Indian Ocean. Sino-Burmese trade grew by more than 10 percent between 2004 and 2005 to more than $1.1 billion. Late last year, China outmaneuvered India for an agreement to buy 6.5 trillion cubic feet of gas. As China’s dependence on Burma’s energy grows, we can expect Beijing to help the junta resist international pressure—just as they have done for authoritarian regimes in Iran, North Korea, Sudan, and Zimbabwe. (China has invested around $300 million in Zimbabwe in return for mining concessions and direct supply of gold, diamonds, chrome, bauxite, and possibly uranium.) That will only add to Washington’s diplomatic frustrations.

The United States and several other countries would like to move Burma onto the Security Council’s formal agenda and pressure the junta into reform and greater transparency. But the more dependent Burma’s neighbors become on the country’s energy resources, the less likely it is that any international body can force change on this repressive regime. As a similar scenario unfolds in the diplomatic battle over Iran’s nuclear weapons, Burma’s generals will be watching closely from their new mountain fortress.