Hapless Doesn't Mean Harmless

Burma has a nuclear program. It's a mess, but it's still a nuclear program.

If you're interested in international security, I strongly recommend that you check out a new documentary titled Burma's Nuclear Ambitions. The film comes from the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), an Oslo-based nongovernmental organization that has made a name for itself as a source of good independent reporting on events inside that benighted country. The reporters at DVB spent the past five years collecting the material for this project, which makes a persuasive case that the generals who run Burma (aka Myanmar) have spent vast sums on a program to develop weapons of mass destruction. Robert Kelley, an ex-U.S. nuclear scientist and former U.N. nuclear inspector who collaborated with the filmmakers, told me that their effort offers a unique opportunity to blow the whistle on a rogue state's nuclear plans earlier rather than later. "This is a small program at early stages," he says. "I hope that by releasing this information we're letting the cat of the bag, and that no one can put it back now. There should be a public debate."

There will be -- though so far a lot of major media outlets (including the New York Times and CNN) have notably failed to pick up on the story. And that's a pity -- not only because this scoop has broad ramifications for Southeast Asia and the future of the long-suffering Burmese people in particular, but also because it will almost certainly raise new concerns about the scandalous ineffectiveness of the existing international system to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons. (Yep, looks like the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has been caught asleep at the wheel once again.)

The documentary -- which aired earlier this month on the English-language version of Al Jazeera -- shows how Burma's reigning generals have used their profits from the sale of natural resources to fund the purchase of sophisticated equipment and the training of thousands of Burmese engineers abroad (mostly in Russia). The DVB reporters had been plugging away at the story for years without getting beyond the level of tantalizing hearsay. They'd heard that the government was spending billions on vast underground command centers and an underground fiber-optic communications system to go with them. They'd learned about the attempts to train Burmese engineers in various military-related disciplines outside the country, and they knew -- like the U.S. government -- that the generals in the test-tube capital of Naypyidaw were engaging in various kinds of suspicious cooperation with North Korea.

But they still didn't have hard evidence. So they decided to beam a message back into Burma by satellite, asking for sources to come forward. In February of this year someone finally responded. An army major by the name of Sai Thein Win defected to Thailand, bringing with him a trove of photos and detailed knowledge of a military-run defense plant where he had worked as a manager. Sai, who had spent five years in Russia studying engineering, revealed how he and his colleagues at the factory had used German-made precision machine tools to manufacture rocket parts. At another installation he saw -- and photographed -- equipment that was allegedly intended for uranium enrichment. (Kelley, who served as a consultant to the DVB production, confirmed that it was highly likely that the equipment shown in the photos was being used for nuclear purposes.)

And of course there is the highly incriminating back story of North Korean involvement in Burma. It should be said that, though the DVB documentary includes photos showing purported North Korean advisors giving the Burmese help with large-scale tunneling (one of the few areas in which the North Koreans have world-class expertise), it doesn't provide any solid evidence that Kim Jong Il has shared his nuclear technology with the generals. That isn't to say there isn't good reason to harbor suspicions, though. The film does include photos of the Burmese regime's No. 3 general visiting his jovial counterparts in Pyongyang in November 2008. (The person who passed the photos on has apparently since been shot.) Bertil Lintner, an expert on Burmese politics who also collaborated with the filmmakers, says that Western diplomats have verified the presence of North Korean technicians at a Burmese missile production facility.

And what, for example, was on board the Kang Nam 1, the North Korean ship freighter that was sailing for a Burmese port last year until the U.S. Navy persuaded it to turn around? U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed concern about deepening ties between the two pariah states at a meeting of regional leaders last year. In May, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell issued a statement calling on the Burmese leaders to comply with the U.N. sanctions imposed on North Korea after Pyongyang's nuclear test a few years back.

The question that arises from all this, of course, is why Burma would want to get into the WMD business in the first place. The country has no threatening neighbors, no regional rivals that want to take it over. But that, say the experts, would be to underestimate the regime's xenophobia and pathological suspicions of the outside world. The film offers clues. One Burmese ex-diplomat defector interviewed on camera puts it like this: "In 1992, when General Than Shwe came to power, he thought that if we followed the North Korean example, we would not need to take account of America or even need to care about China. In other words, when they have nuclear energy and weapons, others will respect us." Burma analyst Lintner points to the domestic context as well. "According to the people I have talked to, the Burmese generals believe they need a strong deterrent to remain in power, against the outside world as well as their own population." In 2007, it should be recalled, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets to protest against the country's leadership. If having nukes would make it that much harder for outsiders to pressure them, that would, conceivably, make life harder for internal opponents as well.

We could, perhaps, take some consolation from the fact that the Burmese WMD program doesn't seem to be terribly sophisticated. Geoffrey Forden, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology expert who examined the evidence on the Burmese missile program, gives them five to 10 years to get a rocket launched and built -- and much longer to come up with one that would have serious range. Kelley says that, based on the evidence, the nuclear program looks even less serious. The generals don't appear to have any coherent strategy for actually making a functioning nuclear weapon. The only enrichment technique they seem to be using so far is the laser isotope method, which several developed countries have tried and dropped as unduly complicated. Kelley speculates that bureaucrat-scientists might be leading the generals on a bit (something, he says, that's been known to happen in other countries where political leaders are eager to get their hands on powerful weapons). One of the defectors tells a story about the scientists demonstrating a laser to visiting higher-ups by burning a hole in a piece of wood. One of the attending generals was so discomfited by this mysterious device that he immediately asked them to stop.

Yet there is still plenty of cause to worry. For one thing, the generals have plenty of cash. Over the next few years they'll be earning tens of billions of dollars from natural gas sales to the Chinese -- and much of that money is apparently slated for the nascent WMD program. And even though the Russians halted work on a promised reactor project when they started to harbor doubt about Burmese intentions, it's clear that there's little the international community can do to prevent the junta from doing what it wants inside the country. (It turns out that the IAEA basically gave Burma a pass a few years ago when the country essentially declared itself a nonnuclear power, and has little leverage to exert as a result.) Our best bet, it would seem, is that the brutal, paranoid, and astrology-driven generals who run Burma really are just as wasteful and incompetent as they appear to be from the outside. So why doesn't that seem especially comforting?




Oliver Stone's new movie about Latin America makes the case for Hugo Chávez. Good luck with that.

Oliver Stone has never been one to shy away from a controversy. Over the past two decades, the director's filmic output has included a conspiracy-laden take on John F. Kennedy's assassination, provocative (and factually unconstrained) portraits of the two most polarizing U.S. presidents in recent memory, and not one but two flattering documentaries about Fidel Castro.

So it is not terribly surprising that South of the Border, his new documentary coming to U.S. theaters later this month, offers a similarly admiring take on Castro's protégé, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. The film's website even mounts a pre-emptive attack on Chávez's detractors, offering a detailed rebuttal to "Media Misperceptions" about the Venezuelan leader.

I would have very much liked to contribute a few misperceptions of my own. Sadly, though, I wasn't able to obtain a copy of the film by my deadline. I did, however, speak recently with Mark Weisbrot, one of the two people credited with writing it. (The other is Tariq Ali, a British-Pakistani author with a long involvement in left-wing causes.) Weisbrot, an economist and co-director of the Washington-based Center for Economic and Policy Research, is one of rather few people with both an economics Ph. D. and a Hollywood screenwriting credit to his name.

Weisbrot's -- and Stone's -- subject in the film is a new generation of Latin American leaders who have risen over the past decade to challenge Washington's traditional claim to dominance of the Southern Hemisphere. These leaders generally subscribe to left-of-center political views, reject "neoliberal economics" and the hegemony of the International Monetary Fund, and push instead for national control of natural resources, income redistribution, and varying degrees of state intervention. They include, to varying degrees, Brazil's Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Bolivia's Evo Morales, Cristina and Néstor Kirchner in Argentina, Rafael Correa in Ecuador, and Fernando Lugo of Paraguay. Most prominent among them, of course, is Chávez; the others, Weisbrot and Stone aver in the film, look to him as a friend and role model. (Stone also throws in Cuba's Raúl Castro for good measure, though it's hard to see how the 79-year-old ruler of the region's most entrenched government could have much to do with an argument about change in Latin America.)

The rise of these leaders, says Weisbrot, "is a series of events that have changed the entire history of this hemisphere in ways that haven't happened in 50 or 100 years." The U.S. media have failed to tell this story, he argues, because the corporations that own them "would never allow that story to be told" -- and have unfairly demonized Chávez in particular. That's because journalists "tend to follow the lead of the State Department" in their reporting. Weisbrot says he was happy to participate in South of the Border because he wanted to help Stone tell the real story about what's been happening in Latin America.

One of the film's underlying arguments -- previously voiced by Weisbrot in a series of papers and op-eds -- is that the Chávez years have been a big economic success for Venezuela. Contrary to the conventional wisdom north of the border, says Weisbrot, Venezuela under Chávez has witnessed a remarkable economic expansion. Chávez has invested enormous amounts of cash in anti-poverty programs, such as food subsidies and cheap, accessible health care, and succeeded in drastically reducing social inequality. Yes, Chávez has nationalized a number of big companies, Weisbrot says, but the private sector has actually grown in recent years. Venezuela is in good fiscal shape, too, he argues; its public debt as a share of GDP is much lower than America's. In a word, not such a bad picture.

This stands in sharp contrast to quite a bit of recent reporting from the country, which tends to feature rampant inflation, food shortages, and electricity rationing. Venezuela's GDP slid a sharp 5.8 percent in the first quarter of this year -- unlike that of other Latin American countries, which have already begun to climb out of the global recession. One recent piece on Venezuela in the Washington Post described an economic landscape of empty warehouses, layoffs, and shrinking export markets. It also included a dark quote from Augusto de la Torre, the World Bank's chief economist for Latin America: "What we're seeing in Venezuela is a phenomenon where productivity, private activity, and private business is falling." When I asked Weisbrot about this piece, he dismissed it as "editorializing," a tissue of "anecdotes" without any statistical basis.

So what about inflation? Venezuela's is out of control at 27 percent a year, the highest annual rate of 78 economies tracked by Bloomberg News, according to a recent report. Weisbrot acknowledges that inflation is a problem, but says that it's not really as bad as it's made out to be, given Venezuela's context as a developing country and its history. He insists that reporters are blowing the whole issue out of proportion, because they don't understand that people's incomes have been increasing even faster due to the economy's overall growth. Weisbrot believes that Chávez and his government have all the tools they need to get it under control.

Investors and businesspeople are somewhat less sanguine. One recent note from Swiss bank UBS, for instance, called Venezuela "the weakest and potentially most explosive story for Latin America investors." It diagnosed the causes of Venezuelan inflation as "basically the result of too much aggregate demand via expansionary fiscal, monetary and income policies, in a context in which there is little incentive to increase supply due to government over-regulation and the promotion of a very hostile business environment." There's plenty more in this vein out there -- pick any bank. Try as I might, I couldn't find many investment analysts who portrayed Venezuela as an upbeat story. Chávez, of course, blames the business community itself for inflation, and according to Bloomberg, is "declaring an 'economic war' against the 'bourgeoisie.'"

For the hearty companies that do try to do business in Venezuela, there's also the matter of the country's peculiar system of multiple exchange rates, part of Chávez's unwieldy arsenal of capital controls. Right now, for example, many firms are having trouble getting their hands on dollars to pay for imports -- and the trend appears to be worsening as the reluctance to hold the local currency increases. This is one problem that Weisbrot acknowledges: He hopes, he says, that Venezuela will find its way to a "managed float" -- essentially allowing exchange rates to follow market fluctuations but allowing the Central Bank to intervene through currency purchases where it sees fit -- in order to do away with the mess. But that appears unlikely; it could be hard for Venezuela to manage the transition without rapidly running down its foreign reserves. In the meantime, Chávez looks more inclined to resort to time-honored scapegoating traditions like cracking down on "speculators." He has already taken over brokerage houses and thrown 10 of their directors in jail -- just the sort of policies that the caudillos of yore would have resorted to.

I don't doubt that Chávez, like other neoleftist leaders in Latin America, has spent a lot of money fighting poverty (though some of his critics dispute even that). I also don't think he's a dictator -- more an authoritarian demagogue who has been justifiably criticized by a long list of reputable human rights organizations for hollowing out the country's democratic institutions even as he has preserved some elements of pluralism. Setting aside politics, however, I don't see what there is to emulate economically in Venezuela. Brazil's Lula has combined effective poverty-reduction programs with a vibrant market sector that derives much of its mojo from manufacturing and global trade (the latter, perhaps, is why Weisbrot saw fit to scold him in a letter to Foreign Affairs a few years back). Chávez may have done more than his predecessors to redistribute the profits from Venezuela's vast petroleum wealth, but given the record oil prices during most of his time in office, that probably wasn't too hard.

But now the weaknesses of the "model" are beginning to show. Venezuela's economic dependence on petroleum shows no sign of slackening, yet oil production in the country is steadily declining. (I wonder whether it has anything to do with Chávez's routine seizures of foreign oil companies' in-country assets and use of the national oil company as a political patronage machine, moves that have stripped the Venezuelan oil business of much of its expertise and production capabilities.) Infrastructure is getting creaky, and investors, presumably leery of the president's penchant for nationalization and off-with-their-heads rhetoric, don't seem keen to rush in. Johanna Mendelson Forman, a Latin America expert at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, says she's reminded of Zimbabwe. "When you start out rich, like Venezuela has, you can go for a long, long time," she says. "Your downward spiral continues, but it just takes much longer to destroy it because there was so much there to begin with."

Michael Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Latin American affairs think tank in Washington, says that all of this will take a toll on the Venezuelan president's popularity as the country gears up for its next parliamentary election in September. Shifter cautions, though, that Washington policymakers have often made the mistake of underestimating Chávez's genuine popularity among large swaths of the Venezuelan population. Perhaps Weisbrot is right; perhaps the Chávez vision for Venezuela's economy will yet prevail.

It's hard not to be skeptical, though. Chávez himself recently admitted that none other than Raúl Castro warned him not to rush forward in his pursuit of "21st-century socialism," confessing that Cuba "committed many errors" in its pursuit of communism. I wonder if Oliver Stone will put that in the next movie.

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