The Buddhist bomb

deproliferatorThe Deproliferator

The development of nuclear weapons can be a significant source of national pride. When Pakistan successfully detonated five nuclear devices during its first underground test in 1998, it was reported: “They were dancing in the streets of Pakistan. … People handed out candies, set off fireworks and fired guns into the air.” They felt the playing field had been leveled with India and its nuclear weapons.

In the years since, extremists have come to view Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal as the Islamic bomb. Perhaps they’re simply justifying their designs on it, but they hope to use it — hopefully for deterrence only — in the service of the coming caliphate. Aside from that instance, nuclear weapons are seldom considered the property of a religion.

But, if you think about it, besides Islam, Christian countries — the United Sates, Great Britain, and France — have their own nuclear weapons. As do Jews — Israel — and Hindus — India. Isn’t it time Buddhism obtained its own bomb?

What? Buddhism? As Robert Kaplan writes in the current Atlantic:

Buddhism holds an exalted place in the half-informed Western mind. Whereas Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Hinduism are each associated. . . with a rich material culture and a defended territory, Buddhism. . . is somehow considered purer. . . the most peaceful, austere, and uncorrupted of faiths.

In fact, the rulers of a predominantly Buddhist state may already be in the early stages of developing nuclear weapons. I’m speaking, of course, of Burma. Wait, doesn’t calling its nuclear weapons program Buddhist make about as much sense as calling the Soviet bomb Russian Orthodox? Or the Chinese bomb Taoist? Burma’s ruling junta appears to be at least as godless as the U.S.S.R. and Communist China when they developed theirs.

In fact, Burma’s leadership likes to think of itself as — nominally, anyway — Buddhist. One reason for the brutality with which it reacted to protesting monks during the 1988 uprising and the 2007 Saffron Revolution was that it felt rejected by them and cut off from their “blessings.” As an example of the junta’s religiousness, in May, the wife of its leader, General Than Shwe, rededicated a 2,300 year-old temple. But three weeks later its pagoda collapsed into a pile of timbers, an inauspicious sign, the New York Times speculated, to the notoriously superstitious Than Shwe.

North Korea, meanwhile, makes no pretense of religiosity — unless it’s the cult of the Kims (father and son, Il-sung and Jong-il). Besides, if Burma develops a bomb, you can lay the blame, in large part, at North Korea’s feet.

At first glance, between Than Shwe’s superstition and Kim Jong-il’s eccentricities, the countries might seem like strange bedfellows. But imagine a phone conversation between the two leaders. . .

Than Shwe: Nobody understands my race to the moral bottom like you do, Jong.

Kim (with his affinity for American film): Schwing on, Shwe.

Still, there are other states that would like to be friends with Burma and North Korea, if they could just squeeze a concession or two out of them. In fact, as Bill Clinton’s trip to secure the release of Euna Lee and Laura Ling is said to have signaled, the Obama administration has become less concerned with disarming North Korea than simply containing its program. In other words, it seeks to prevent North Korea from trading nuclear-weapons technology and know-how to other states.

On July 31 the Sydney Herald published an article which attracted worldwide attention. It suggested that a Burmese nuclear program conceived with North Korea’s help may already be gestating:

Burma’s isolated military junta is building a secret nuclear reactor and plutonium extraction facilities with North Korean help, with the aim of acquiring its first nuclear bomb in five years, according to evidence from key defectors. …

The secret complex, much of it in caves tunnelled into a mountain. . . in northern Burma, runs parallel to a civilian reactor being built at another site by Russia that both the Russians and Burmese say will be put under international safeguards.

But, on August 13, at Verification, Implementation and Compliance (title aside, one compelling blog), Andreas Persbo writes:

. . . we learned from two sources. . . that [a] box-like building has been under scrutiny by the IAEA’s [International Atomic Energy Agency’s] Department of Safeguards for quite some time, and that the department is nearly certain that the building does not serve any nuclear programme. …

[Burma] has requested a number of technical cooperation projects with the IAEA. [Respected nuclear journalist] Mark Hibbs reported in Nuclear Fuel that nuclear activities in Myanmar are low, but slowly increasing.

He quotes an official [to the effect] that a clandestine nuclear effort, [would] ‘have to be a totally black program within everything imported. … It is unthinkable that they could mount a [clandestine] nuclear program on the basis of what we already know is there’.

Hey, that’s where Nork comes in, right? As for Russia, Persbo writes:

While Burma has approached Russia for the purchase of a research reactor, a senior official at Atomstroyexport [of Russia] has confirmed that there is no construction in Myanmar of any reactor with Russian assistance.

Still, rumors of Burma developing a bomb are bound to displease China. Brian McCartan reports at the Burmese site Mizzima:

Burma’s acquisition of a nuclear weapon and the development of ballistic missiles. … would almost certainly not be favoured by Burma’s main international patron. …

Work [by China] is scheduled to begin next month on an oil and gas pipeline that will carry [oil and gas] across Burma to [China]. The proposed pipeline will allow Chinese oil [tankers] to bypass the narrow Malacca Straits. . . a potential strategic chokepoint in any conflict with the US.

The last thing China wants, say analysts, is to see its new commercial arteries put at risk by US concerns over a nuclear Burma.

Of course, the generals of Burma’s junta’s are scarcely genuine Buddhists. After all, would certified Buddhists seek to develop or acquire nuclear weapons? Don’t be too sure they wouldn’t.

For a modern-day example, just look at the way the Hindu Tamil Tigers, however brutal, were crushed by Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese Buddhists. To quote from Robert Kaplan’s Atlantic piece again:

There have been Buddhist military kingdoms — notably Kandy’s [in ancient Ceylon] — jut as there have bee Christian and Islamic kingdoms of the sword. Buddhism can be, under the right circumstances, a blood-and-soil faith.

More likely, he meant “under the wrong circumstances,” but you get the idea. Meanwhile, the subject of nukes probably didn’t come up this weekend in Burma where visiting Senator Jim Webb was granted a rare audience by General Shwe. Webb was too busy pulling a Bill Clinton by securing the release of imprisoned American John Yettaw.

First posted at the Faster Times.

2 replies »

  1. The important part about it being a Buddhist bomb being that Burma’s military rulers are scarcely Buddhist…just as American leadership is scarcely Christian and Pakistan’s leadership is hardly Islamic. I’m splitting hairs, but they are important hairs to split. There is a huge difference between adopting the mythology/doctrine as a way of life and adopting the mythology to earthly ends.

    Recent reading pointed out to me that it happened first in Egypt where, originally, pharaohs were actually sacrificed on a regular basis until they figured out how to replace the actuality with ceremony. At which point they were free to pursue politics…substantiated by the myth.

    It will be interesting to watch China’s reaction here. Their general hands-off approach to foreign policy appears to run counter to their economic interest in this case. I can see them allowing the development as an oblique strategic push against the US. There will be no UN sanctions so long as China doesn’t want them (and with Russia involved in the civilian program thee won’t be support from her either).

    One question i have is where the funds come from. Obviously the oil/gas contracts, but secret programs are best funded by black money.

  2. You know, Russ, the idea of nukes in the hands of nation-states is bad enough. But in the hands of religions? That’s just as scary as it gets.

    Of course, it’s certainly true. Israel – the state exists as a religious apparatus. The concept of the separation of church and state seems not to enjoy widespread acceptance throughout most of the Muslim world. And here in the US? Way too many dominionists in seats of power to suit me.

    I guess there’s no reason I shouldn’t be terrified of Buddhists, too….