His most recent visit to Russia has made it increasingly clear that junta chief and militarist Min Aung Hlaing is chasing the unrealized dream of his predecessor as military dictator, Than Shwe: to possess a nuclear weapon.
Some two decades ago, revealing his desire for an atom bomb as a deterrent against external threats and provocations, Than Shwe told his confidant, then Science and Technology Minister U Thaung, “Ko Thaung, if possible, do make an atom bomb, [I don’t mind] even if it is just the size of a bael fruit.” The military dictator said this during a regular informal evening meeting of generals at the War Office, according to a military official who was in attendance. U Thaung was also a former military officer.
Min Aung Hlaing, who was handpicked by Than Shwe, has inherited this dream.
During his trip to Russia last week, Min Aung Hlaing again met Alexey Likhachev, director general of Russian state energy company Rosatom. The junta chief previously met him during a weeklong “personal” visit to Russia in July, his second since last year’s coup.
On that occasion, the two sides signed memorandums of understanding to cooperate on skills development in nuclear energy in Myanmar, Rosatom said in a release.
Last week’s visit saw the regime sign an initial agreement with Russia’s atomic energy agency on the possible implementation of a modular reactor project in Myanmar.
Junta spokesman Major General Zaw Min Tun told the press that the project was aimed solely at developing nuclear energy for peaceful use in Myanmar.
But it is not the first time the Myanmar military and Rosatom have announced plans to work together on a nuclear project.
In 2007 the then military regime led by Than Shwe struck a deal with Rosatom to build a nuclear research center in Myanmar, which Rosatom said would be under the control of the International Atomic Energy Agency. But construction never moved forward amid pushback from the U.S. and other countries.
In his speeches, Than Shwe constantly invoked the need for a proper defense capability that would ensure total protection of the country, and to apply science and technology to modernize the military.
This perceived need led Than Shwe to approach Russia and North Korea about acquiring technology to produce nuclear energy. Russian and North Korean experts arrived in Myanmar under his rule, and hundreds of Myanmar military officers left for Russian academies to study nuclear science and missile technology.
The regime defended its actions by saying the nuclear energy would used for peaceful purposes in the interests of the people—the same justification offered by Min Aung Hlaing’s current regime.
The No. 3 man in Than Shwe’s regime, General Shwe Mann, and other military leaders made a secret visit to Pyongyang in 2008 and signed agreements on defense cooperation. In 2012, Shwe Mann, by that time the Speaker of Myanmar’s Lower House under U Thein Sein’s government, said the visit was only intended to study air defense systems, and that only a memorandum of understanding on cooperation between the countries’ militaries was signed during the visit.
In 2010, however, Major Sai Thein Win, an engineer in the Myanmar military’s Science and Technology Workshop (known locally as the “nuclear unit”) who received a doctorate in atomic energy in Russia, publicly disclosed information, including photos, showing that the military regime was conducting research, with technological help from North Korea, on possessing nuclear weapons.
The nuclear research program was abandoned under U Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian government when the country embarked on its purported “democratic transition” in 2011.
Myanmar signed the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in 2016 under the democratically elected government led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy.
But since the military coup last year, the two countries have grown closer, with Moscow backing the putsch and Naypyitaw supporting Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, as both become increasingly isolated internationally under US and European sanctions. Russia has become the regime’s major arms supplier, selling to the regime weapons to crush the resistance movement.
Though Min Aung Hlaing publicly says he intends to use nuclear energy peacefully for the socio-economic development of the Myanmar people, it is clear that his real intentions aren’t that simple.
He surely feels irritated that the world has shunned him for his coup and subsequent bloody crackdowns on civilians. He may wonder whether possessing militarized nuclear technology would make a difference in that regard—a strategy adopted by North Korea. At the very least, as a military dictator who has demonstrated his total lack of concern for the wellbeing of the people, Min Aung Hlaing’s promise that such technology would be used for peaceful purposes in health and electricity generation is highly suspicious. He clearly believes possessing a nuclear weapon has the potential to guarantee his position as dictator for life.