The Pacific Forum, with support from the US Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration (DOE/NNSA) and the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s Strategic Programme Fund (FCO/SPF), held the third US/UK-Myanmar Nonproliferation Dialogue in Yangon, Myanmar on Dec. 9-10, 2015. Some 35 US, UK, and Myanmar experts, officials, military officers, and observers attended, all in their private capacity, along with 18 Pacific Forum Young Leaders. The off-the-record discussions focused on the future of nonproliferation implementation after the Myanmar election; the Additional Protocol (AP), the modified Small Quantities Protocol (SQP), and radioactive source management; the Biological and Chemical Weapons Conventions (BWC and CWC); strategic trade controls; and the Hague Code of Conduct against Ballistic Missile Proliferation (HCOC). Key findings from this meeting include:
While Myanmar’s November election is a promising step, many questions remain about the country’s democratic transition. Right now, it is still unclear who will become president; an amendment to the Constitution to allow Aung San Suu Kyi (ASSK) to take office is unlikely to be made. Also unclear (and too often overlooked) is who will be nominated to form a cabinet that can govern effectively. The newly-elected National League for Democracy (NLD) does not have a deep bench but it is unclear who, if anyone, from outside the NLD they will draw for key political appointments.
Myanmar’s new government is facing multiple challenges priorities, including fighting corruption, promoting national reconciliation, advancing the peace process with ethnic minorities, passing economic reforms, and improving center-periphery relations. These challenges and priorities will keep the incoming government extremely busy.
Foreign policy is not considered an immediate priority for the new government, but Myanmar participants made clear their view of Myanmar’s geopolitical realities. Sandwiched between two major, nuclear-armed powers (China and India), the new government will likely continue to promote good relations with its neighbors. The new government must also be careful not to appear to be “tilting” toward the West. It will likely be committed to improving relations with the West, especially the United States. Significantly, Myanmar participants emphasized that they should not be made to choose between the United States and China “because it’s too risky.”
Myanmar views US sanctions as an impediment to moving away from its isolationist policies. In the words of one Myanmar participant, the US remains the “sanctioner-in-chief.” Given the broad range of sanctions, it would be helpful to both sides to gain a better understanding of the basis for each set of sanctions and the actions needed to facilitate their removal now that free and fair elections have taken place.
US (and UK) participants stressing that the termination of military cooperation with North Korea and clarity on past cooperation will help improve relations with the West and stand as the most important impediment to lifting sanctions. Myanmar participants insisted that the NLD government will likely continue to burnish its nonproliferation credentials and “may even intensify its efforts.” Several Myanmar participants insisted, both during the formal dialogue and in private conversations, that there are no more military ties between Myanmar and North Korea.
Progress on nonproliferation will be challenging because Myanmar needs to move from instrument adoption to implementation. Myanmar has endorsed the AP (2013), the BWC (2014), and the CWC (2015), and the new government’s commitment to these instruments seems assured; of note, Myanmar has already designated a national authority for implementation of the CWC. Implementing these instruments, however, requires considerable time, resources, and expertise, all of which are currently in short supply.
Nonproliferation capacity-building should be the top priority for any donor seeking to assist Myanmar. Training the next generation of Myanmar policymakers and scholars is particularly important for sustained success. Accordingly, the participation of Pacific Forum Young Leaders in this meeting, including a strong contingent from Myanmar, was an important addition to this dialogue.
An immediate obstacle to implementation of the CWC and BTWC is the apparent limited knowledge and visibility that Myanmar officials and experts have of facilities that are engaged in relevant activities in their country. A first step should be a national inventory of facilities involved in the handling of toxic chemicals and precursors that are included in the Schedules of Chemicals Annex of the CWC and a cataloguing of biological research facilities according to established biosafety containment levels.
Myanmar lacks established criteria for controlling strategic goods and materials. For instance, a Myanmar participant explained that there is no official registry for radioactive source materials, no national lists of biological and chemical agents, and no control lists for these materials and other sensitive items and technologies. Therefore, in addition to assisting Myanmar with treaty implementation per se (e.g., drafting legislation), research is needed to help map Myanmar’s key technology and material holdings to begin the process of controlling strategic goods.
There are important nonproliferation instruments that Myanmar is yet to endorse. They include the modified SQP, the main nuclear safety and security conventions, and the HCOC. While stressing that all are “on their radar” or, in the case of nuclear security conventions, “already in the works,” Myanmar participants insisted that the West should not expect too much, too soon. The challenge remains capacity, not intent.