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Thailand faces up to non-proliferation challenges

US PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA issued a last minute invitation to Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva recently to attend the Global Nuclear Summit in Washington DC scheduled on 12-13 April. Visiting Kurt Campbell, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and Pacific Affairs, delivered Obama's letter to Abhisit when he made a courtesy call on 12 March. Abhisit will join over 40 world leaders as Obama's guests to discuss ways to reduce nuclear threats in sustainable ways as well as the control of fissile materials.

It is highly perplexing why Thailand has been included in the summit which is supposed to be the gathering of the world's most powerful nations with nuclear arsenals, as well as developed and developing countries linked to nuclear issues. In the earlier planning meetings, Thailand was not in consideration at all.

Washington's change of heart towards Thailand must have something to do with the latest assessment of the country's strategic location and role, which will soon witness the growing use on nuclear energy.

Within Asean, Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia have already announced plans to build nuclear power plants. Burma is building one now with the assistance of Russia.

Recently, even Singapore's Economic Strategies Committee said that in the long run, nuclear energy should not be ruled out.

As one of the five US alliances, Thailand's peaceful use of nuclear energy and strict adherence to the Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) will positively impact on Washington's grand strategy, announced in Prague last April by Obama.

The current US administration wants to prevent nuclear terrorism and secure all vulnerable nuclear material in four years.

Like the US, Thailand has yet to ratify the CTBT. But Bangkok's delay has been due to bureaucratic red tape. In the case of the US, the Senate is not in the mood to do so.

A few senators have argued that arms control should not be part of the US nuclear policy option and want the US to withdraw from the CTBT. Indonesia, Brunei and Burma also have not ratified the CTBT.

Since the crux of Obama's nuclear strategy is to secure the non-spreading of vulnerable nuclear materials and prevent acts of nuclear terrorism, Thailand's location in the continental Southeast Asia linking South and North East Asia becomes even more significant. Quite often illegal transport of components and parts of weapons of mass destruction pass through Thailand undetected.

Back in June 2003, the seizure of cesium-137 in Surin was headlined in newspapers around the world as it demonstrated how this isotope, common found in medical and industrial equipment, could become an object of illicit trafficking and trading. Furthermore, Thailand has become a transit point for regional terrorist groups and the hub of illegal weapons trade.

The seizure of arms shipments from North Korea in December at Don Mueang airport was a case in point. In this case, Thailand acted in compliance with relevant UN resolutions to prevent arms sales with North Korea.

At the nuclear summit, Obama and Abhisit could hold a four-eye meeting to strengthen bilateral issues including the Thai-US cooperation in nuclear non-proliferation.

A senior Thai foreign ministry official said that both sides are working hard to materialise the meeting. "The chance is very good," he said. If the nuclear non-proliferation cooperation is realised, it would mark a new chapter of Thai-US strategic relations.

For the past decade, both countries have been looking for a new paradigm to add value to their alliance.

To bolster their alliance, Thailand might sign the Proliferation Security Initiative, which was initiated under the Bush administration in 2003, aiming to halt the spread of weapons of mass destruction. The Thai Foreign Ministry supports this effort and has recommended the government join the framework.

The previous Thai governments, however, failed to do so due to concern over the delicate situation in the southern provinces. Thailand and US are scheduled to hold the third round of strategic dialogue in the second half of this year.

On a broader regional context, Asean supports nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation.

All ten Asean members signed the historic Treaty of Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapons Free Zone (SEANWFZ) in 1995 in Bangkok. In the past 15 years, Asean has continued to woo all major nuclear powers to sign the protocol.

Other nuclear powers such as India and Pakistan, which are not NPT members, have nevertheless expressed similar interests. There is a good chance that Asean could accomplish that goal in the near future. Asean has already discussed with the US the possibility of its ascension. Washington signed the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in last July.

On the surface, Asean has maintained its solidarity that all members are members of NPT, even though Brunei and Laos have not yet joined the International Atomic Energy Agency. The Philippines is chairing the upcoming NPT Review Conference in New York in May.

Deep down, there is a growing concern among Asean members concerning Burma's future nuclear strategies.

Their anxieties have increased followed several reports by Western nuclear experts and intelligence sources confirming Burma's nuclear ambitions.

Further clarification from Rangoon would help to clear up any suspicion that this impoverished nation is increasing its capacity to build fissile materials that can lead to building nuclear weapons. So far, the Burmese junta leaders are indifferent.

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