Researchers in Thailand say two defectors from Burma say the military government has a secret nuclear program that aims to build nuclear weapons, and could have a nuclear test as soon as five years from now. The researchers say the defectors have also linked North Korea to the program, raising further concerns about Pyongyang's nuclear proliferation, if the allegations prove true.
In interviews with Australian researchers over a two-year period in Thailand, the two defectors said that a hidden nuclear complex is being built in caves excavated in a mountainous area of northern Burma.
The defectors said that they were directly involved in the secret program, and that Burma's goal is to build nuclear weapons.
The defectors' testimony was first published in the Sydney Morning Herald, which did not publish their real names in order to protect their identities.
One of the researchers who interviewed the defectors is Desmond Ball, a professor in strategic studies at Australian National University. The Herald quotes Ball as saying, if their testimony is true, Burma could begin producing one nuclear weapon a year as early as 2014.
One of the defectors, a former Burmese army officer, told researchers he was trained in Moscow as part of Burma's plans for a "nuclear battalion" of one thousand men to build the weapons.
The other said he handled Burma's nuclear contracts with Moscow and Pyongyang and arranged the night-time delivery of equipment from North Korea.
Phil Thornton is a freelance journalist based in Thailand and the other researcher who interviewed the men. He says, although the defectors did not know each other, their stories agreed on the main facts, lending some weight to their credibility.
"Even if 10% of what they said is correct, it's still a concern, a regional concern, because a Burma with a nuclear facility is a deep worry," Thornton said.
Russia is helping Burma build a civilian nuclear reactor. But, Thornton says the military government's cooperation with North Korea is the real concern.
"Burma has signed the non-proliferation treaty and has Russia, who's doing training," Thonton said. "I don't think that's the concern. If Russia and Burma are working on something, then they'll probably follow the treaty. But, if you kick in North Korea, which is a bit of a wild card and a rogue state, then you crank it up another level."
Concerns have been raised occasionally about a possible nuclear link between North Korea and Burma.
In June, a North Korean ship believed to be headed to Burma with a suspicious cargo turned back under international pressure.
U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton told an Asian security conference last month they should be concerned that the two pariah states may be transferring nuclear technology.
Clinton said any military ties between Burma and North Korea would pose a direct threat to the region.