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Myanmar Gets a Russian Nuclear Reactor

Deal Vexes China's Efforts To Expand Its Influence By Courting Yangon


BANGKOK, Thailand - Though one of the world's poorest countries, Myanmar is embarking on a nuclear-research project with the help of Russian and, possibly, Pakistani scientists. Diplomats say the development has upset China, which has heavily courted Myanmar in recent years and resents Moscow for muscling in on its turf.

Believed by Western diplomats to be the brainchild of Science and Technology Minister U Thaung, the project was initiated by Russia's Atomic Energy Ministry, which in February announced plans to build a 10-megawatt research reactor in central Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. In July, Myanmar Foreign Minister Win Aung, accompanied by the military-ruled country's ministers of defense, energy, industry and railways, traveled to Moscow to finalize the deal.

Myanmar officials decline to comment on the nuclear project, and there is little noticeable activity around the recently established Department of Atomic Energy in the capital, Yangon, residents say. But Western diplomats in Myanmar say the groundbreaking ceremony is scheduled to take place at a secret location near the town of Magway in January. The equipment and reactor will be delivered in 2003. Russian diplomats say more than 300 Myanmar nationals have received nuclear technical training in Russia during the past year.

Though Myanmar suffers from chronic power shortages, it isn't clear why it would need a research reactor, which is used mainly for medical purposes. Though there are so far no suspicions that the facility will have a direct military application, it will, like everything else in the country, be under military control.

The program drew scrutiny recently after two Pakistani nuclear scientists, with long experience at two of their country's most secret nuclear installations, showed up in Myanmar after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the U.S. Asian and European intelligence officials say Suleiman Asad and Muhammed Ali Mukhtar left Pakistan for Myanmar when the U.S. grew interested in interrogating them about their alleged links to suspected terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden, who Washington believes wants to develop a nuclear weapon. There is no clear evidence linking them to the Russia-backed project.

When the nuclear deal was finalized in Moscow in July, Russian news agencies quoted Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov as calling Myanmar a "promising partner in Asia and the Pacific region." Indeed, Russia also sold 10 MiG-29 fighter aircraft to Myanmar for $130 million.

All this is starting to worry China, which has gone out of its way to cultivate ties with Myanmar, becoming its main military supplier. Beijing long ago identified Myanmar as vital to the well-being of its impoverished southwest. Just this month, Jiang Zemin became the first Chinese president to visit Myanmar since the present, widely reviled junta seized power in 1988. "China is not happy with having to compete with Russia in a country like Myanmar, which the Chinese so clearly consider theirs," a Bangkok-based Asian diplomat says.

Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan said the two sides had agreed to expand cooperation in "infrastructural constructions" and other areas. Asian intelligence officials say that means China's desire to link its three southwestern provinces - Yunnan, Sichuan and Guizhou, with 160 million people in total - to vital export markets by way of Myanmar. At this month's summit, they say, Yangon appeared to accept in principle that Beijing's proposal for a 30-year accord that would ease Chinese access to Myanmar's river and road networks.

Meanwhile, China has also built a road linking Yunnan to Myanmar's riverport of Bhamo on the Irrawaddy, 800 miles north of Yangon, and has given Myanmar three dredgers to clear the river for large barges carrying Chinese goods. Chinese money and technicians are building a port and shipyard near Yangon that people knowledgeable about Asian intelligence say will cater primarily to Chinese vessels.

If Russia is butting in, some in the neighborhood may not mind. India and Vietnam fear China is using Myanmar to expand its influence in Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean. India is itself courting Yangon, but it's unlikely to dislodge the Chinese, who are firmly behind Myanmar's military junta. That's bad news for the international community, which is trying to broker a deal between the junta and the country's democracy movement. Mr. Jiang said during his visit that Myanmar "must be allowed to choose its own development path suited to its own conditions."

this article first appeared in The Wall Street Journal, January 3, 2002

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