Standing before the U.N. atomic energy agency in Vienna a few days ago, a Burmese diplomat declared that his nation's nuclear program is "for peaceful development purposes" only. For good measure, he added, reports that Burma is "attempting to develop a nuclear-weapons program" are "unfounded allegations."
Haven't we heard that before? And who's next? Venezuela, Yemen - Belarus? Well, just as Burma was making its declaration in Vienna, Hugo Chavez, Venezuela's pugnacious president, declared that his country, too, was launching a "nuclear-energy project for peaceful purposes - and they aren't going to stop us!"
That's certainly confidence-inspiring. But Chavez is an inveterate loudmouth, and if he were going to build a nuclear weapon, he'd brag about it. He couldn't help himself.
The other two bete-noire nuclear states are equally voluble. North Korea, which already has nuclear weapons, loves to bluster and threaten to use its weaponry against South Korea and the United States. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran's president, protests so much and so routinely tells untruths that he has convinced most everyone that Iran is working on a bomb.
But Burma is an entirely different beast. Everyone should be concerned because Burma might be the world's most secretive state. In fact, a few years ago, the ruling military junta abruptly abandoned Yangon, the nation's capital for centuries, and built another one deep in the jungle - isolated and largely empty.
The generals never explained why they took that unusual step. The fact is, they never explain much of anything - for example, why they spend 3 percent of the nation's income on health and 23 percent on defense, even though Burma has no natural external adversaries.
But Burma experts say the generals still fear an invasion from somewhere, perhaps the United States, at any time. So they moved the capital to a near-secret location. That way, no one could see what they were doing. But they forgot about spy satellites. Photos showed them digging fortified tunnels in the hills surrounding Naypyidaw, the new capital.
Then, a year ago, well-placed defectors said the generals were seriously at work on nuclear weapons. And guess who was helping them. North Korea. Who else?
North Korea already is known to be helping Iran with its nuclear program. Why not Burma, another renegade state - this one a neighbor with vast natural-gas reserves to share? At about that time, the U.S. Navy, working on intelligence provided by South Korea, trailed a fully loaded North Korean freighter steaming toward Burma. The South Koreans had said the ship carried missiles and nuclear-weapons equipment. With a warship on its tail, the ship turned around and went back home.
"We worry about the transfer of nuclear technology" from North Korea to Burma, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said then. All of that was a year ago, and the amazing thing is that no one has said much if anything about this threat in the months since, even though evidence continues to mount.
Early this year, a Burmese court sentenced two government employees to death for leaking details of a secret government trip to North Korea. Then in June, an expat Burmese opposition group published a report in which a former U.N. nuclear inspector who had examined photos smuggled out of the state, concluded that Burma "is probably in violation of several international agreements concerning nuclear proliferation."
At a congressional hearing last summer, Scot Marciel, deputy assistant secretary of state for the region, acknowledged: "We've certainly read with interest the recent reports on a possible nuclear initiative by Burma," which "would be tremendously destabilizing for the entire region." But "I can't say too much" about it in the open. Would he be so reticent if there was nothing to it?
In July, Jane's Intelligence Review published its own analysis of photos that showed machine tools and other equipment that it judged to be part of "a nascent program" to build nuclear weapons. Later that month, Burma tried unsuccessfully to keep secret a four-day visit by North Korea's foreign minister, Pak Ui Chun.
So, at the end of September, Tin Win, that Burmese diplomat, told the United Nations that his country was not trying to build a bomb.
All of this is so eerily familiar - and scary. How many dangerous, renegade states can be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons before the unthinkable happens: One of these lunatic leaders actually uses one, killing a million people or more, and opening Pandora's box?
The danger is real, and as the continuing proliferation amply demonstrates, the international deterrent strategy is anemic at best.