By David Stout
A US Senator has called on Burmese President Thein Sein ‘to demonstrate transparency’ over suspicious cargo seized in Japan that allegedly contained nuclear material from North Korea on its way to Burma.
The 50 metal pipes and 15 high-specification aluminum alloy bars were seized from a cargo vessel in Tokyo in late August, but Japanese authorities remained mute on the capture at the request of the US government. The seized materials could be potentially used to help enrich uranium – a pivotal ingredient to any nuclear programme.
“This situation provides your government with an opportunity to demonstrate transparency regarding the shipment, its intended recipient in Myanmar [Burma] and the planned use of the metal pipes and high-specification aluminum alloy bars,” Senator Richard Lugar of the Senate Foreign Relations committee said in a letter dated 27 November.
The Burmese government has since denied that the materials were for state use and insisted the components were being shipped to a company and therefore was a ‘private sector’ concern.
However, Senator Lugar argued in his letter that the seized cargo could impact regional relations.
“Peace and stability within ASEAN [Association of Southeast Asian Nations] are potentially impacted by the intended purpose of the ship’s cargo. Consequently, this matter does involve the government of Myanmar.”
In 2010, a UN report accused North Korea of supplying Burma’s military junta with materials that could be used to assemble ballistic missiles and develop a nuclear programme.
In June 2011, the Burmese government told then visiting US Senator John McCain that it had halted the country’s peaceful nuclear programme.
Former director at the International Atomic Energy Agency Robert Kelley described the vow as “an inconsequential event designed to obscure the ongoing military nuclear program that is being carried out in secret.”
On the eve of Hillary Clinton’s landmark trip to Burma in November 2011, Senator Lugar pushed for the Burmese government to disclose information about their nascent nuclear programme as a precursor to reengagement with the country.
“An early goal of the tentative US re-engagement with Burma should be full disclosure of the extent and intent of the developing Burmese nuclear program,” said Lugar, according to a report in the AFP.
Ahead of President Obama’s visit to landmark trip to Rangoon earlier in the month, the White House said that Burma was scaling back it military ties with North Korea forged during the country’s former military regime.
“We’ve seen them take some positive steps in that direction. And what we’d like to see, again, is an end to the relationship that has existed between Burma and North Korea,” US deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes, according to a report in the AFP.
In President Obama’s speech at Rangoon University on 19 November, the American leader called on the former military junta’s key ally to abolish its nuclear programme.
“To the leadership of North Korea, I have offered a choice: let go of your nuclear weapons and choose the path of peace and progress. If you do, you will find an extended hand from the United States of America,” said President Obama.
The Burmese government recently vowed to implement new atomic safeguards, including allowing international inspectors to visit suspected nuclear sites.