2014 Myanmar-US/UK Nonproliferation Dialogue

February 7-8, 2014
Yangon, Myanmar

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The Pacific Forum CSIS, in partnership with the Myanmar Institute of Strategic and International Studies (MISIS), and with support from the US Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration (DOE/NNSA) and the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s Counter Proliferation Program (FCO/CPP), held the 1st Myanmar-US/UK Nonproliferation Dialogue in Yangon, Myanmar on Feb. 7-8, 2014. Some 45 Myanmar, US, and UK experts, officials, military officers, and observers, all in their private capacity, joined two days of off-the-record discussions on security perspectives, threats posed by weapons of mass destruction (WMD), the nuclear nonproliferation regime, the biological and chemical nonproliferation regimes, the role of transparency and confidence-building measures, and implementation of UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1540. Key findings and recommendations from the two-day meeting include:

- Myanmar’s interest in opening to the world and in endorsing international rules and norms is real. Little time was spent on why Myanmar needs to embrace nonproliferation regimes; discussions focused on how to do so.

- While recognizing that proliferation is a threat that they are anxious to address, Myanmar participants explained that they have multiple priorities as they open to the world and transition toward democracy. Other priorities include peace-building within Myanmar, maintenance of social cohesion among local ethnic groups, economic development, poverty alleviation, and addressing international concerns regarding human rights and other issues, plus making a successful democratic transition.

- Myanmar has begun and is fully committed to the process of ratifying and implementing the CWC, the CTBT, and the BTWC along with its continued steps to bring its Additional Protocol into force. (Significantly, adoption of a modified Small Quantities Protocol is not on Myanmar’s priority list.) Still, as it moves forward on nonproliferation, there are multiple regimes that need to be addressed. In many instances, lead ministries or agencies have not yet been determined, which further complicates the coordination process. Myanmar is stretching its capacity in seeking simultaneously to address these multiple issues. Priorities need to be established both within the nonproliferation arena and between nonproliferation and other issues.

- Motive matters. The desire to be a good international citizen and rejoin the community of nations drives Myanmar’s efforts to participate in nonproliferation regimes. It views these efforts as critical to its future economic development. While other countries attack or condemn various “noncompliance” lists, Myanmar focuses on how to get off these lists. The willingness is there; what’s needed is the capacity.

- As in other Southeast Asia nations, there is little sense in Myanmar of a direct threat posed by WMD. This can erode the priority and urgency attached to efforts to fully implement nonproliferation regimes.

- While admitting the need to change direction, Myanmar participants are very sensitive to criticism of their country and its international isolation. They are quick to see interference in their internal affairs, especially regarding ethnic conflicts, and worry that the policies of other nations toward Myanmar are determined by the views of “one person” (Read: Aung San Suu Kyi).

- Offline discussions emphasized the key role the military plays in decision-making throughout the Myanmar government, even while acknowledging the difficulty in reaching out to this group and influencing its thinking. Outreach to the military, while problematic in many ways (in particular because of sanctions), is critical to the success of efforts to get Myanmar to comply fully with nonproliferation requirements. Recent UK efforts involving limited military education activity could provide a model for US initiatives; especially should Congressional restrictions loosen over time.

- It was argued that the Tatmadaw (the Myanmar armed forces) is attempting to reinvent itself. International engagement, in part, is aimed at developing new strategies and operational doctrines, areas where cooperation could prove beneficial.

- Myanmar participants acknowledge the role that China plays in the region and, more specifically, in their economy. While not wanting to jeopardize this relationship and remembering when China was Myanmar’s only international supporter, there is widespread distrust of Beijing, especially “among the people”; many see China as a “revisionist power” and as “a cultural and military threat.”

- Myanmar participants exhibited strong interest in developing close and lasting relationships with the United States and the United Kingdom, including to address proliferation. While work at the bilateral and/or trilateral level appears the most appropriate manner to do so, other countries, organizations (including NGOs), and platforms can play a positive role. Specific offers of assistance by representatives of the OPCW and VERTIC were made and positively taken on board. Coordination among the various countries and entities offering assistance is minimal, however. This is an important area for future work.

- There was a positive reaction to the observation that the West is “re-engaging” with Myanmar and resuming a previous relationship. Cooperation on nonproliferation was seen as a relatively easy way for Myanmar to demonstrate a sincere desire to change. 

- Myanmar participants insisted that their country does not have nuclear ambitions. Plans, including cooperation with Russia on development of a research reactor, were abandoned primarily due to cost but also in light of “international concerns.” Some participants noted that the cost-benefit calculus could change, and that Myanmar reserved the right to consider peaceful uses of nuclear energy in the future.

- Beyond rejecting any type of nuclear weapons deals or aspirations, Myanmar participants did not comment on Myanmar-North Korea relations, even though the subject was raised several times by US and UK participants. Off line, however, several civilian officials volunteered that Myanmar did a “U-turn” on North Korean relations.

- Myanmar participants pointed to disarmament as the primary way to prevent nuclear dangers and as an area where nuclear-armed states could be more transparent. In making this oft-heard NAM argument, however, they did so with less fervor than is often encountered. They also recognize that this does not preclude Myanmar from playing its part. Myanmar’s recent signature of an Additional Protocol and stated intention to endorse other instruments and invest in regimes such as the Southeast Asian Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone or the newly-established ASEANTOM is evidence that it is willing to play a proactive role not only in nonproliferation, but also in nuclear safety and security.

- As chair of ASEAN in 2014, Myanmar sees opportunities to raise specific WMD nonproliferation issues in the lead-up to the 2015 NPT Review Conference. On NPT matters, Myanmar participants were in a “listening mode” regarding how to define success in 2015 and Myanmar’s potential contribution.

- Myanmar has initiated processes to ratify the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention and the Chemical Weapons Convention. Interagency coordination is underway but it is time-consuming. Further assistance is needed to facilitate or speed up both processes.

- Private companies moving into Myanmar as part of its opening process could provide expertise and insight to facilitate compliance with biological and chemical nonproliferation regimes. Again, coordination of such efforts is lacking.

- Authority to implement various nonproliferation-related laws and regulations is in the counter-terrorism law. The government of Myanmar is working on a national CBRN plan that will identify points of contact for all regimes, as well as a needs assessment to develop a national implementation plan of legislation. Myanmar was encouraged to draw up an UNSCR 1540 national action plan to help donors figure out national needs.

- Myanmar participants have many questions about the purpose and usefulness of UNSCR 1540 and the Proliferation Security Initiative. They are also unclear about expectations regarding requests for greater transparency beyond the endorsement of nonproliferation regimes. Their low-key response to a generic discussion of the role of transparency in regional and global security suggests that, as they see it, they are “doing transparency” and that transparency beyond ratification and implementation of nonproliferation conventions is not necessary. They do not make arguments against the concept of transparency, however.

- All participants concurred that this dialogue offers a unique platform to advance Myanmar-US/UK nonproliferation cooperation and that it should continue.

- Future iterations should clarify misunderstandings that Myanmar may have with nonproliferation regimes, but emphasis should be on finding ways to assist Myanmar in joining and coming into full compliance with these regimes. Prioritization of efforts remains important, even as we continue to focus on building capacity. Deeper involvement in regional nonproliferation efforts through the ASEAN Regional Forum and non-governmental, track-two Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific (CSCAP) should be facilitated to help build capacity and deepen understanding of nonproliferation issues.

- Future iterations of this dialogue should also seek to advise Myanmar on setting priorities to address nuclear dangers. This dialogue should help ensure that any future use of nuclear technology by Myanmar is conducted in a safe, secure, and proliferation-resistant manner, by fully discussing the realities, challenges, and myths surrounding peaceful use of nuclear energy. Future iterations should also delve into the nature of and rationale behind Myanmar-DPRK relations and examine ways to more fully engage the Myanmar military.

For more information, please contact Ralph A. Cossa at the Pacific Forum CSIS. These are preliminary findings aimed at providing a general summary of the discussion. The views expressed are those of the workshop chair and do not necessarily reflect endorsement of the US or UK governments. This is not a consensus document.