Jeffrey LewisMore Burma Bombs

Those of you who have read Bob Kelley’s 30 page report on Burma’s nuclear efforts will notice that he mentions our discussions on the blog about the BOB — the Box-o’-Burma.

Bob sends along this invitation to Arms Control Wonk readers to discuss just what Burma has been up to:

It is easy to think that broken Burma would not consider nuclear weapons. The rich country is being bled dry by the military and none of the riches are going back to the people. The educational system is broken and the people are among the poorest in the world. How could they possibly think of building a bomb? But apparently money is flowing to a “Nuclear Battalion” in the hills north of Mandalay and a few other places.

The rumors have just been rumors for many months. They sparked an interesting discussion here in the Wonk about the blue-roofed BOB (Box of Burma) near Pyin Oo Lwin and Geoff is going to tell you about that. But the nuclear rumors have gotten some serious fleshing out by a defector, Sai Win, who has come out bearing documents and hundreds of pictures. He is the Burmese version of Mordecai Vanunu, taking photos and materials during his legitimate access and then releasing them through the media. Democratic Voice of Burma helped him escape to Thailand and is making the photos available for analysis by all. I got to see the photos early-on and they are quite astounding. I’ve written up my findings in a long report linked here.

After watching these pages for a few years I think there is going to be an interesting and varied dialog. I’m looking forward to it and what this community of Wonkers can milk from this material. The more eyes we have on the problem the better the results. I’m expecting controversy of course, but the best part will come from the positive brainstormers who can get us to see even more in this rich cache.

Look at the bomb reactors and the Inconel tube and see what you think. Compare his details of training in Russia and the Nuclear Battalion at Thabeikkyin with reports from other good souls who brought no proof. Now we have gotten some real data to analyze and I invite your comments.

Also, don’t forget to read Geoff Forden’s post, Now It Can Be Told: Inside BOB.

Update | 6:15 pm I would also be remiss not to mention the reports that Kelley did with ISIS in January.


  1. Matthew Doye (History)

    Imagine oneself in the place of a leader in an international pariah state like Burma and it’s easy to see why a nuclear weapons programme might be attractive.

    one might contemplate the likelihood of external intervention by one’s neighbours or the international community and observe that no nuclear armed state has been or is likely to be subject to such an action.

    Launching a secret programme and later letting it b e known that one has a weapon is a virtual guarantee of security.

  2. b (History)

    Hmm … lots of assumptions, assertions and non-conclusive pictures.

    Also a lot of propaganda: “colloquially referred to as the “Nuclear Battalion” and we will adopt that term as well.”

    “Colloquial referred” by whom? A dissent group And we will just adopt that?

    Sorry, sounds like a lot of nonsense to me.

    One needs infrastructure, human and physical abilities, to do the stuff alleged. That is simply not there in Burma.

  3. Pat Flannery (History)

    Would somebody finally figure out that it’s not called “Burma” anymore?
    It’s the “Union of Myanmar”.
    And it’s not “Czechoslovakia” anymore, it’s the “Czech Republic”.
    And I’m posting this from “North Dakota”, not “The Dakota Territory”.

  4. Allen Thomson (History)

    There’s a bit of point-making in the use of Burma vs Myanmar.
    It extends to Rangoon vs Yangon.

  5. Gridlock (History)

    But if it’s not Burma

    we can no longer murmur

    there’s a lot of alliteration about

  6. anon

    “More Burma Bombs”

    A very appropriate title.

  7. Josh (History)

    Coming back to the subject of this post…

    It’s striking that the report contains no reference to a North Korean connection outside of the missile program. The Burmese nuclear program doesn’t appear to be buying NK products — at least not based on what’s visible here. Instead, they seem to be trying to build their own technology up from scratch, with what appears to be minimal if any foreign assistance. Some people are sent abroad for training, some machining centers are imported, and then the key Burmese personnel are expected to re-create or implement what they’ve learned about elsewhere, despite a lack of hands-on experience. That’s somewhat remarkable.

    This approach appears to be grounded in ignorance of the difficulties and fear of exposure to prying eyes, foreign or domestic. Note the remote locations and the emphasis on compartmentalizing information within the program. Notice also the choice of low-signature technology. The same paranoia that has motivated the program seems to have been its undoing; judging by what’s shown here, it wasn’t headed for success. Either it would have petered out, or they would have wound up bringing in the professionals from abroad at some point.

    Of course, they’ve obviously been right to fear that they would be ratted out some of their own people.

    Contrast this approach with that of the Libyans, who also had very limited capabilities, but tried to take advantage of as much foreign assistance as possible from the get-go, both in terms of experts and imported gear. Or with that of the Syrians, who seem to have simply brought the NKs in to build stuff for them. It could be argued that Burmese were smart to try to generate as much of the know-how as possible at home, since it would reduce dependence on foreign sources, but if so, they outsmarted themselves. Instead of assimilating foreign technology, as many others have done, they’re trying to reinvent the wheel. And they don’t show many signs of the ability to pull off a feat like that.

    Next time, we may not be so lucky. Everything in this report underscores the need to do away with the Small Quantities Protocol and universalize the Additional Protocol. As I told the Washington Post, it’s just too easy to hide a program like this. In a country whose people were actually loyal to the regime, and whose science and technology base was stronger, it would have been possible to get away with it undetected.

  8. Allen Thomson (History)

    Josh makes excellent points; it would be helpful if at some point Maj. Sai could comment on what he knows of the overall nature of North Korean involvement and the Burmese program philosophy.

    One thing that should be kept in mind is that the same corpus of defector/ emigre reporting that, in the end, did lead to the discovery of Factories #1 and #2, also indicates that there are additional nuclear-related activities that we have yet to identify in at least two other locations. And the DVB publications on tunneling activity seem to show more hands-on DPRK involvement.

    So, valuable as Maj. Sai’s information is, it’s possible that it reveals only one part of a larger picture. Indeed, given the junta’s secrecy obsessions, considerable compartmentation would be expected.

  9. Allen Thomson (History)

    The Al Jazeera special on Myanmar is now available in four parts on YouTube under the title “Myanmar’s military ambitions.” Well worth the time to watch it.

  10. Bob Kelley (History)

    Thanks Josh. You have hit one of the key points that IAEA needs more tools. We hope that IAEA will realize we are trying to help them to do more when their hands are tied. Another goal was to get raw information out where bright people could comment and that is working. We have had several new bits supplied by interested people. We have not tied this program to the DPRK, yet. I have lots of RUMINT but it will take more than that to make a definitive statement. Pat, many people still call it Burma including the US State Department and Secretary Clinton so we are well within the accepted norm. Myanmar is an invented term from a caretaker government. I agree that changing Peking to Beijing is a phonetic necessity so maybe Yangon could be our standard! And to commenter “b”, I think you might note that the photos, especially inside the factories match photos taken by the end-use inspectors and show tools that the companies readily agree they supplied. There is a lot of consistency there. Look carefully. The Al Jazeera documentary video shows dozens more photos than I used and you will see all kinds of equipment and people in those. No one in this post or in private emails has challenged the accuracy of the equipment assessments, and I have had some notes from people who agree completely on the purpose as stated.

  11. Azr@el (History)

    Bob Kelley should invest the minimal effort in understanding a nation before he spouts expert opinion on its history. Myanma ( rendered as Myanmar in English) was not a term invented by a caretaker government. Myanma is roughly an eleven hundred year old name for the country. Bama is colloquial slang for Mynama, and Bama is the root of the invented English term Burma. Bob Kelley’s fundamental ignorance of the nation’s name seems to undercut his credibility on the topic of Myanma and the preposterous claims of a Myanmaese nuclear program.

    What next? Are we going to start having to call Iran Persia, or Turkey the Ottoman Republic to satisfy every dissident group with an axe to grind? Myanma is not an ideal state, so what? It doesn’t have nuclear weapons, it isn’t trying to sell nuclear weapons to apartheid states, it isn’t a proliferation concern; unlike another state with naming issues.

  12. MIC

    Thanks for the useful paper and discussion. I’d be interested in more explanation of why you believe “this technology is only for nuclear weapons and not civilian use or nuclear power.” How much of that conclusion is based on the technology — is some of the equipment uniquely indicative of a weapons program — and how much is based on other factors (military role in the project, military regime priorities, clandestine work, etc.)? Was Major Sai told by senior officials it was for a weapons program, or is that his inference?

  13. Josh (History)

    Here’s “Myanmar’s Military Ambitions,” starting here.

  14. simorgh (History)

    @Pat Flannery
    It was called Myanmar by the Military Junta, that is why many people who consider their leadership to be not legitimate (like me) still use the name Burma. Thus the situation is totally different from your examples. Imagine the military taking over the USA and renaming it taka-tuka-land. I guess you’d continue to call it USA nevertheless.

  15. Bob Kelley (History)


    The source was military and worked in the missile program for several years. See Geoff’s companion piece. For the nuclear program he had context and visited Thabeikkyin twice in the company of general officers for demonstrations – the control rod drive and the laser. He was told explicitly it was a military bomb program.

    Back at the factory he was asked to make equipment that makes UF6 (my judgment) and to make parts for lasers he believed was for LIS. He also made reduction vessels for metal production. I can’t see an enrichment program, UF6 production and metal reduction as any coherent civil program that makes any sense. Enriched metal fuel? Medical isotopes? Electric power production? I think not. In the context of what he was told, to make a bomb using a reactor and enrichment it makes a lot more sense. I have carefully said I think it is an ill-conceived plan, unlikely to succeed, but that is not the same as being ordered to do it. Look at the charge of the light brigade!


  16. MIC

    Thanks again—and apologies for basic questions. As you know, Burma and Russia had a deal for a small LEU-fueled research reactor that has stalled. If Burma decided to try building such a reactor on its own, would it have taken steps like those you identify? Is the fuel for such reactor not metal?
    Thanks again!