Leading article: Human rights and nuclear arms

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The Independent Online

Reports by two defectors from Burma that the secretive military regime is collaborating with North Korea to build nuclear weapons should send a shudder down everyone's spines. These are, admittedly, only reports. Moreover, even if the defectors' claims prove accurate, Burma is still a long way behind North Korea, Libya or even Iran when it comes to acquiring this technology. The target date appears to be 2014.

Nevertheless it is depressing, as well as worrying from a strategic point of view, to conceive of these generals getting their hands on such an important prize in the not-too-distant future.

It is, firstly, a grotesque joke to think of a regime that cannot properly feed, or provide electricity for, its citizens spending millions of pounds on obtaining nuclear technology. The point made by many foreign-based Burmese rights groups is equally important: past experience shows that the acquisition of nuclear arms gives even the most anti-democratic regimes a new aura of legitimacy in the international arena.

North Korea has been an example of this. If ever a country was a candidate for externally imposed "regime change", this brutal prison camp was it. But, as the Burma Campaign UK group points out, since Pyongyang acquired nuclear weapons, the emphasis has been on "effectively bribing the regime to give up nuclear weapons, while ignoring human rights".

They also point out that pandering to these paranoid regimes rarely gets the West far. If North Korea's response to such wooing is anything to go by, the tendency is only to up the ante and demand more concessions.

It would be a pity if the West went down this road with Burma too. The regime may well shrug off Western pressure about the lack of democracy there. But the moral sympathy that the outside world has lent Burma's imprisoned pro-democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, has at least kept the issue of Burmese human rights alive.

Another question is whether the Burmese generals can be trusted to use nuclear technology safely or whether, as some experts fear, the likely result is another Chernobyl. The world needs to watch Burma closely, and not make the same errors it has made with North Korea.