March 2007

The following was an interview for the Burma Digest website.

1. First of all, can you let us know a little bit about yourself? Who you are, where you are, what you are our doing, etc.?

I wouldn’t ordinarily answer questions about myself, as it distracts from the main issue: the defeat of the SPDC. I’ll make an exception in this case, though, to make a point. I have the expertise to organize and manage large-scale projects. I was on the executive staff of a major American corporation for many years. Following this, I was an international investment banker in Europe. I left banking when I realized I didn’t want my life to be about money. Perhaps I should have worked a few additional years and made some more.

I traveled the world on a low budget, and visited extremely remote areas in many traditional societies. In Burma, I visited Rangoon, Mandalay, Myitkyina and Putao. I was struck by Burma, by the wonderful character of its people and the appalling repression that they endure. On a river ferry from Katha to Mandalay, I met some university students, in 1994, just before the country’s universities were closed yet again. One wrote in my journal, “Don’t forget about me.” I never have.

My goal in life is to understand it, to understand what is going on in the universe and on earth, including why people do such terrible things. I ultimately reached certain conclusions, and wrote about these at length in a book called Freedom From Form. I was also compelled to act on my ideas, and thus founded Dictator Watch.

2. About your organization: where it is based, what does it do, how does it work, etc.?

I’m the core of Dictator Watch, but there are a number of people who assist it on a regular basis. I will work with anyone who has ideas that are consistent with the organization’s objectives, and who is reliable. (I mention reliability because several important Dictator Watch initiatives have failed, when certain individuals refused to honor their commitments.)

Dictator Watch is a “change” organization. Its mission is not to arrange humanitarian relief, although we make an exception to this for behind-front-lines programs, to help those groups that suffer the most yet receive the least. Our goal is to change the entire situation, to attack its underlying cause, so there is no longer even a need for relief.

In other words, we are trying to do what is legitimately the responsibility of government, but which the nations of the world, because of geopolitics, refuse to fulfill.

I have little money, and Dictator Watch does not have an office. My only power lies in my ideas, if I can convince other people that what I believe is right.

For Burma, we have organized a number of change initiatives. Most of these are secret, but I am willing to refer to three. For the first, we prepared a systematic plan, in October 2003, to provide assistance to all the internally displaced persons in Eastern Burma. Its cost was $1.6 million for the first year (although this would have risen in later years). We could not find a sponsor for the project.

In January 2005, we devised a plan to topple the SPDC, one that was inherently non-violent. The budget for this was $1 million, or two cents per person for the entire population of Burma. Again, we could not find a sponsor. However, this plan remains viable. If anyone can organize contacts with large foundations or other such funding parties, we would be happy to present it.

When we didn’t get the funding, we decided to do part of the plan on our own. We recruited another group, which completed an essential task. But an associated group refused to take the final step to put the plan into action, as I understand it because they considered it too aggressive.

These experiences have made me cynical. I do not believe the international community cares about Burma. Many nations, particularly Germany, France and Japan, just want the pro-democracy movement to give up, so they can pursue commercial development with the SPDC. Proof of this is that they fund those NGOs that promote appeasement and the idea that power sharing with the generals is possible. Now that China and Russia have vetoed the Security Council resolution, these groups are becoming more forthright. They are calling for an end to sanctions, and the normalization of relations, which amounts to nothing less than surrender.

I also question the commitment to freedom of the people of Burma, although I believe the main problem here is poor leadership. The leaders of the aforementioned NGOs have a secret agenda to surrender, so they can return home and get involved in development, become media tycoons, etc. For example, I find it astonishing that some people, not Karen, have called upon the KNU to drop their treasured four principles. They understand that if the KNU ever gives up, the entire democracy movement is finished.

The other side is that the leaders who retain their commitment to freedom seem chained to the idea of non-violence, and interpret it in the strictest way possible. I still cannot understand why the image of the fighting peacock never makes an appearance in the cities and towns of Burma.

There are many tough young men and women in Burma. The fact that they are not acting up and agitating for change tells me that they feel constrained, that the dedication to nonviolence by the movement’s leaders is somehow stopping them from even painting revolutionary slogans on walls.

My own resolve is undiminished. Dictator Watch has other projects in progress, which for a few thousand dollars can be completed and which will have a significant impact. While they might not be enough to tip the balance and expel the SPDC, they will change the dynamic inside the country and put the junta under far greater pressure.

There is one thing that is not subject to negotiation or debate: Burma will be free!

3. Please kindly give us a brief background history of Burma's nuclear programs.

I’ve seen references to mineral surveys for Burma that were prepared as early as the 1920s. The country is known to be mineral-rich, although large areas are still not well explored. Burma has deposits of numerous radioactive elements, not only uranium.

I’ve been told that the program to develop these resources began under Ne Win, was suspended following 1988, and then restarted by Khin Nyunt. From resource exploitation the program expanded to aspirations for nuclear power and now we believe nuclear weapons.

4. Do you think Burma can really get a bomb?

It is important to evaluate the entire program, not only the possibility that the SPDC will obtain nuclear weapons. The first stage is uranium mining. This is a valuable endeavor in its own right, as the international market price has increased nine times since 2003 (from $10 per pound to $91). Burma’s uranium deposits could become yet another large cash stream for the junta, in addition to natural gas, other minerals (e.g., copper with Ivanhoe, nickel with China), timber, and gems.

The uranium is then milled to prepare yellowcake. This is actually the end product that is sold to customers. Yellowcake is not as dangerous as other radioactive materials, because uranium emits largely alpha particles, not gamma. But, it could be used in dirty bombs. Yellowcake is a friable powder, and uranium is deadly if ingested. If released over a wide area, it would both endanger the inhabitants and also make the site unlivable. Other elements present in Burma are substantially more radioactive, and suitable for dirty bombs as well.

In December 2003, there was great concern when five pounds of yellowcake were discovered at the port in Rotterdam. (While not from Burma, this illustrates the risk.)

Yellowcake is then converted to uranium hexafluoride, and enriched to prepare the fuel for nuclear reactors and also weapons. We cannot rule out the prospect that the SPDC has begun its own enrichment program, or intends to in the future. Centrifuges are available on the world market. Also, if the junta builds a reactor with the assistance of Russia and/or North Korea, reactor by-products include plutonium, which can be used for weapons. (This was the source of the fissile material for North Korea’s weapons test.)

Lastly, can the SPDC get a bomb? Absolutely. It can continue its program until it is able to build one, or it can even conceivably buy such a weapon from North Korea. (The fact that North Korea may be about to suspend its own nuclear program is not a reliable indicator of what will happen in the future, or of what has already been agreed.)

5. It's not easy to make a nuclear bomb. How do you think the SPDC will get the nuclear technology? How and from where will they get essential equipment like centrifuges? Who is providing the SPDC with technology and equipment?

The SPDC is obtaining nuclear equipment and technical assistance from both Russia and North Korea. It is known that there is an agreement for Russia to supply a reactor, although it is in dispute if this has actually taken place.

We are currently searching for a reactor and other nuclear and missile facilities in Burma, using satellite imagery. Every square meter of the country needs to be scanned in this effort.

6. How will the SPDC pay for the technology and other hardware for their projects? The country is already very poor; how will they finance their very expensive nuclear ambition?

Burma is poor, but not the SPDC. The diamonds at Thandar Shwe’s wedding proved that. Than Shwe has enough money, hundreds of millions of dollars in income from natural gas and other resource sales every year, to fund a nuclear program.

7. And the main ingredient, uranium; does Burma have huge reserves of uranium?

I’m not a geologist, but I believe the five deposits listed on the junta’s own website are commercial. Other reports that I have received, together with the recent news from the Kachin Post, suggest that there are already at least five more known deposits. Also, it is likely that most of these deposits, when exploited, will have their own mills on-site. This is the only way to avoid significant transportation costs; not every site is near a river suitable for ore barges. What this means is that as Burma’s uranium industry develops, there will be many production centers of yellowcake, all of which will be subject to diversion, including to terrorists, by corrupt junta officials.

8. Why do the Generals want a nuclear bomb so much? They don't need a nuclear bomb to crush the NLD; so do they have other hidden agendas?

A nuclear weapon can make you invincible to foreign intervention, which is one of Than Shwe’s main fears. You can detonate a weapon against the invading force. You can also threaten others, e.g., Burma’s neighbors, to prevent such an intervention.

9. How would a nuclear Burma affect the East Asia region?

The world, through IAEA and the U.N. Security Council, is working to reduce this threat, by ensuring that no additional nations obtain nuclear weapons. There is great pressure against North Korea and Iran right now. Any additional proliferation would be extremely destabilizing. A nuclear Burma would threaten not only South and East Asia; it would endanger the world.

10. And nuclear bombs themselves cannot fly! Does Burma have missile systems or long-range bombers, etc., to deliver their bomb to regional enemy targets?

We believe the SPDC is trying to obtain, or already has, ballistic missiles. These are not of a range that can threaten distant continents, but they could reach Burma’s neighbors. Miniaturized weapons can also be mounted on fighters, or smuggled by sea.

This also illustrates a final point. Miniaturizing a nuclear weapon is very advanced technology. But China obtained through espionage such designs for U.S. weapons. It would be surprising if China would transfer this technology to Burma, or even North Korea. But, this is the point, when you have imperfect information, and are evaluating something as serious as nuclear weapons, it is best to assume the worst. This way, if the worst ever happens, you are not caught completely off guard.