Evan Williams, the Australian documentary maker, has collaborated with the Democratic Voice of Burma on a film that summarises the most recent installment of the Burma nukes controversy. It was broadcast on Australia’s SBS television on Sunday night and, even a few days later, its presentation is still weighing on my mind. Burma analyst Andrew Selth offered his very helpful thoughts on the documentary back in June.
Unlike Andrew, I am not trained to offer any criticism of the technical analysis in the film, or much of the valuable written documentation that accompanies it; although I will say that the cautious and well-informed commentary of former IAEA nuclear weapons inspector Robert E. Kelley makes a lot of sense. In contrast to some of the Burmese defectors he is in a position to provide comparative context. Kelley has a statement here that is also worth considering closely. This follows the serious analysis provided by Des Ball and Andrew Selth in their recent contributions to Security Challenges.
As everybody insists — these are murky, troubling issues, where incomplete and unsatisfactory evidence further muddies the potential for clear analysis.
So, for the moment, what I think I should do is simply offer my reaction to the general information that is now circulating about the Burmese Generals’ plans for a nuclear program and the nascent technical steps that have been taken in that direction.
It occurs to me that the presentation of modest successes in the nuclear program (machining disjointed components for a reactor, mining uranium, building gigantic tunneled complexes, tinkering with rocketry, etc) is completely in tune with how I understand other (admittedly less glamorous) elements of their technical and developmental programs.
Indeed the fetish for inspections, reports and “progress”, and the constant striving to impress senior officers, garner promotions, and stay in comfortable patronage positions, almost guarantees that many parts of Burma’s bureaucracy look to maximise their opportunities for presenting achievements without necessarily being any closer to the ultimate goal (whether that is a nuclear weapon, a refurbished road, or a functioning electricity system). Is what we see in the nuclear program all that dissimilar to what happens in more ordinary spheres? For instance, in towns across Burma people often lament that the only roads that get maintained are those that senior officers use on a regular basis. And when a big-shot is in town things are often made to run that much more smoothly. In the lead-up to a visit from a commander’s entourage all sorts of preparations ensure that everything looks right. Ridicule about how senior officers are insulated from the inconveniences experienced by the rest of the population is a natural outcome of this system.
What I am wondering is whether this perspective can change how we interpret the evidence presented about the nuclear program. Are we, in one sense, consuming parts of a nuclear story that have already been maximised, exaggerated and pre-packaged for the consumption of Burma’s senior military leadership? And when we consider just how far they may still need to go before a nuclear program is truly up and running, should we, instead of fearing the possibility, actually develop a finer appreciation for the absurdities in its presentation?
Or, to ask the question a different way, is the presentationalism inherent to Burma’s nuclear efforts deserving of cheekier scrutiny? Reportedly Senior General Than Shwe doesn’t think the current status of his nuclear program is a laughing matter. But, to be provocative, should we?