This article was originally published in Global Security Newswire, produced independently by National Journal Group under contract with the Nuclear Threat Initiative. NTI is a nonprofit, nonpartisan group working to reduce global threats from nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons.
A large number of military officials from Myanmar have received training at Russian universities in atomic science and missile design, Time magazine reported on Wednesday.
Under a 2001 deal, Russia agreed to construct a small atomic reactor for the Southeast Asian nation. The agreement also called for Moscow to provide training for "300-350 nuclear-energy specialists." The $150 million contract, finalized in 2007, required that the reactor be used only for medical and scientific purposes, but the deal was cause for concern, given that the Burmese junta spends far more money on military operations than on public health.
A report by a dissident group, the Democratic Voice of Burma, accused the junta of covertly researching nuclear weapons, with technical assistance from North Korea. The Burmese government rejected the claim, and later declared that it would not pursue an atomic program because of lack of funding; it seemed that the issue had been resolved. Russia also backed off the reactor deal.
The Obama administration played down concerns of a nuclear-weapon program in Myanmar as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton visited the country last week for talks with the new civilian government.
A Time investigation, however, revealed that a significant number of Burmese military officials are still receiving atomic and missile education at Bauman University in Moscow. The school and other Russian institutions first began admitting large groups of Burmese military students in 2001.
Burmese army defector Sai Thein Win, who provided the stolen documents and photographs that formed the basis of the Democratic Voice of Burma's report, told Time he believed approximately 10,000 Burmese citizens have taken classes at technical colleges in Russia. The majority of the students come from the armed forces and many focus on nuclear science, he said.
Sai Thein Win, who is in hiding, said in 2001 he was in a doctorate program in Bauman University's missile-engines department. "There was one guy from North Korea, one guy from Iran, and me," the defector said. "The only guy who completed the degree in the end was the North Korean, so his rockets would be the ones flying tests over Japanese islands by now." When he left Moscow, Sai Thein Win said, he began working at a military plant in Myanmar that focused on building components for a nuclear-arms effort. While many machines were acquired from German firms, the majority of the workshop's sensitive equipment was purchased from Pyongyang.
Bauman University missile-design lecturer Valery Gostev told the magazine that he is teaching about 12 students from Myanmar this semester, which he said is a typical number. He confirmed that other departments are educating Burmese students in atomic science.
Russia would not be in breach of any international pacts for providing schooling to Burmese students in missile design. "The Russians would just be showing pretty bad taste in what they are teaching people," said former International Atomic Energy Agency official Robert Kelley, who authored the Democratic Voice of Burma report.
He noted that the type of missiles Burmese students are studying at Bauman University could be configured to carry biological and chemical warfare agents. "We do think Russia should be careful about providing a lot of this training to Burma," Institute for Science and International Security analyst Andrea Stricker said. "There are still a lot of suspicions about a possible [nuclear]-weapons program."
Kelley and Stricker said they both leaned toward believing that Moscow would refuse if asked by Myanmar to educate students in nuclear-warhead design.
Bauman spokeswoman Anna Lustina declined requests to provide information on what specific classes Burmese students were taking at the school. "There is a clause in our contract that keeps us form disclosing what the [Burmese] students study or for how long. With any other foreign students it would be fine, but we have a special agreement with the Burmese."