CHEMICAL SHELLS AT KAW MOO RAH

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Published date:
Friday, February 24, 1995

This report desribes SLORC's December 1994 major offensive against the Karen stronghold of Kaw Moo Rah, just north of the Burmese border town of Myawaddy and the Thai town of Mae Sot. Kaw Moo Rah was taken by SLORC on the night of February 20-21 1995 after Karen soldiers were forced to withdraw. Karen soldiers complained of vomiting, dizziness and unconsciousness due to the apparent use of chemical shells by SLORC. There were also reports from soldiers of burning caused by liquid shells. This offensive also involved the Thai army being shelled outside Huai Kalok refugee camp.

In December 1994, SLORC started a major offensive against the Karen stronghold of Kaw Moo Rah, just north of the Burmese border town of Myawaddy and the Thai town of Mae Sot. Kaw Moo Rah had held out for years against the siege of the Burmese military and frequent heavy offensives, and this year’s offensive was again proving a major failure, with SLORC suffering hundreds of casualties without gaining any ground - because Kaw Moo Rah is a spit of land surrounded on 3 sides by Thai soil, with an open killing ground on the fourth side. The 500-800 Karen troops there were dug in with heavy bunkers impervious to most SLORC artillery, and the human waves of drugged teenage conscripts which the SLORC kept hurling at the Karen could never make it across the killing ground. Then on the night of February 20-21 1995, SLORC suddenly took Kaw Moo Rah in the space of only 18 hours without even using a ground assault or crossing into Thailand. The Karen soldiers were forced to withdraw, complaining of SLORC shells that caused dizzyness, nausea, vomiting and unconsciousness. Whether these shells were some form of tear gas or a stronger nerve agent remains to be proven through medical samples. This preliminary report presents the testimonies of some of the soldiers wounded in the final assault, interviewed 36 hours after they withdrew. After the withdrawal, Karen forces reported 3-4 dead, 2 missing, and 10 wounded. However, KHRG has already independently confirmed at least 20 wounded, and other evidence indicates the number of dead was probably higher than reported as well. Witnesses have already seen SLORC troops dumping several bodies in the Moei River, either Karen troops or SLORC porters. While the SLORC claims that the "Democratic Kayin Buddhist Army" took Kaw Moo Rah, almost all the troops seen there now are Burmese, and although several DKBA flags have been planted along the river for show, it is a large Burmese flag which flies in the most prominent spot at Kaw Moo Rah’s main gate.

Along with the alleged ‘chemical’ shells, the soldiers refer to ‘liquid’ shells that caused burning - these appear to be white phosphorus shells, another form of chemical weapon usually used as incendiaries. SLORC is known to frequently use these shells in offensives and to burn down villages. The effects when the phosphorus comes into contact with human flesh are horrifying.

Before the shelling, SLORC ‘ordered’ the Thai Army to withdraw 3 km. from the Thai border. The Thai forces refused to do so, so the SLORC began shelling close to Thai positions. In one case SLORC mortar shells even landed around a Thai position almost 3 km. inside Thai territory, just outside the gates of Huai Kalok refugee camp, home to about 5,000 Karen refugees. People in the camp’s market quickly evacuated. The Thais responded by shelling, but also withdrew from some positions. Many other shells supposedly aimed at Kaw Moo Rah also fell on Thai soil. After the assault, KHRG visited the border at Kaw Moo Rah and found the ground on the Thai side pockmarked by the impact of dozens, if not hundreds, of SLORC shells. Unexploded shells and fragments were quickly removed by the Thai Army, but some of these may have been chemical shells, and there are unconfirmed reports that some Thai villagers from Ban Wan Kaew village had to be treated for the same dizzyness and nausea symptoms suffered by the Karen soldiers. The use of such weapons on a spit of land projecting into Thailand, with the presence of Thai villagers, soldiers and border police all around shows SLORC flagrant disregard for Thailand and its people and makes this issue on international one. Furthermore, use of such weapons in any circumstance violates all human conventions of behaviour, even in times of war. This must be stopped before it can happen again.

More information is still coming in, but there is no firm chemical evidence as yet to identify what the SLORC was using at Kaw Moo Rah; however, there appears little doubt in the soldiers’ testimonies that it was something inhuman and unusual.

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Saw S---, 23 years old, in Kaw Moo Rah for 9 years since he joined as a Karen soldier at age 14:

This time it was different. The rockets they used were very different from before. Before, even if the shells hit right on the bunker nothing happened, but this time even if the shell didn’t hit the bunker things happened. The smoke spreads around very black, and it doesn’t move. Before, if a breeze blew the smoke would clear [from their normal smoke bombs used to screen their ground assaults], but not this time. It spread until we couldn’t see, then the black smoke gave us a quivering inside our bodies. We were wearing glasses and thick cotton masks but it didn’t help. As soon as the smoke touched your skin, it made your skin feel all hot. From the black smoke we immediately got headaches, then quivering and everybody got dizzy. All my friends, many of them were vomiting a lot. My officer was vomiting too, and his nose was bleeding. I tried to move but I couldn’t. I tried to stand and get out but I couldn’t, so they had to carry me. I fell unconscious for I don’t know how long, and when I woke up I was in hospital. My friend was unconscious 2 hours longer than me, then after an injection and smelling salts he woke up.

I was in a bunker right at the front. All the shells were aimed at the front bunkers. The shell that knocked me unconscious exploded 3 or 4 yards away. It was very different from anything they’ve used before. Earlier we had a radio intercept that SLORC brought 2 launchers for the new shells but they didn’t even know how to fire it themselves, so they called for ‘the Chinese’ to come and fire it for them. Some of the shells made black smoke, some made red smoke [it was night, so the darkness and the fires from incendiary shells may have affected the colours he saw]. We saw it before we got dizzy. There were many, so the black and red smoke got mixed up together. Some shells also had white smoke, like the smoke shells they’ve used before [to cover their advancing ground troops]. When the dark smoke shells exploded, the smoke lasted at least 10 minutes and didn’t blow away. Before, when they used the regular white smoke bombs the breeze would blow it away. The new ones made a smoke cloud 10 armspans [about 45-50 feet] in diameter. In other attacks there was dust around and white smoke so we used masks, and it worked. But this time we used the masks and it didn’t work, people got dizzy anyway. We never got dizzy before. I’ve been there since 1984 and I’ve never seen anything like it.

Most of the shells they used were the smoke. And the other kind of shells they used, when they blew up a liquid spread out. If the liquid hit people’s faces or arms, it burned. All the burn victims hear are from the liquid. It burned on the ground but if you poured water on it the fire just got bigger and as soon as it touched anyone their skin burned off. They also used other shells so big that when they exploded they made a crater chest-deep.

Now [36 hours later] I have no nose or throat pain, but I still feel dizzy sometimes.

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Saw G---, 34 years old, a Karen Army medic who has been in Kaw Moo Rah since 1983:

In the past there was always a ground attack after their shelling but this time they just kept shelling all day and night without a ground attack, so we thought they might be firing something different at us. I was in the middle of the camp so I only saw the smoke of the new shells, but when it reached my skin I felt hot, burning. When the shells exploded, some spread liquid and some spread smoke. They’ve never used that kind of smoke before. When it explodes near a bunker, the bunker fills with smoke and the people inside can’t breathe and get all dizzy. The soldier there beside you [another wounded soldier, who was laying down and still too incoherent to be interviewed] was unconscious inside his bunker for 2 hours, and nobody could even get inside to help him because of the smoke.

They fired their big guns a lot, 300 or 400 shells an hour. They used to have 80 big guns there, and they’d brought 80 more. It was like a rainshower of bombs. Nobody dared rise up his head. They had really big shells - when they exploded close to a tree, the entire roots of the tree were blown out of the ground. They used so many kinds of shells - normal, liquid, smoke. Before they always used shrapnel shells, but this time it was mostly smoke. The smell of the smoke was really bad, so bad I can’t even describe it. It made my nose all hot inside, and then I lost my strength.

Even after the Burmese knew for sure we’d withdrawn, they still didn’t even try to enter Wan Kha [Kaw Moo Rah] until 10 hours later. I think they knew there were chemicals.

This attack was more than civil war. We don’t want to fight, I never wanted to fight them. But I was born in the [Irrawaddy] delta, and we never had any human rights since the day I was born. They did so many things to us. Even though we grew rice, the government just took it all. So we had to flee, and I came here to fight. Now they come here too, to take everything from us. They attack us, and they take everything. This attack - [at this point Saw G--- began crying openly] It wasn’t even fighting. It was just murder. They didn’t even dare attack us on the ground, they just kept firing heavy weapons, and all we have are little guns. We didn’t want to withdraw, we tried to hold out and wait for the ground attack. But it never came. After firing those shells they didn’t even come close because of the chemicals.

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Saw K---, 28 years old, and Saw M---, 34 years old, both in Kaw Moo Rah for 6 years, both of whom have second-degree burn wounds over the upper parts of their bodies [Saw M--- was still too deaf to participate much in the interview]:

Saw K---: Both of us have one ear still ringing, and in the other ear we can’t hear anything. We were in the same bunker, 3 of us. It was a bunker at the front. I was facing forward, Saw M--- was facing out to the left and Saw T--- was facing out to the right [their burns, from a shell which exploded in front of their bunker, correspond to this: Saw K--- is burned on the front and the upper back, Saw M---, mainly on the right side, and Saw T---, on his left side.] I saw black and red smoke shells hitting other bunkers. The smell was so bad, and I felt dizzy and wanted to vomit but I couldn’t vomit. The smoke was dark blue-black. It exploded away from our bunker, but it was the one that made me dizzy. Then 3 shells hit right around our bunker. The first was a normal shell, the second I’m not sure, and when the third shell exploded I saw red smoke. Then the liquid shell exploded. The liquid got on us and it felt so hot, it felt hot like acid and all our skin was burning and peeling off. We had to fan ourselves because it was burning so hot. Then I went unconscious.

After I woke up I tried to get to the medic. I couldn’t see anything because my eyes were burned, and someone came and helped us. Now my eyes are okay, but I can’t see very clearly. Saw M--- still has bleeding from his ear.

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Saw S---, 48 years old, Buddhist with 3 children, who has been in Kaw Moo Rah for decades and now has minor shrapnel wounds on his head and upper body:

In the ground attack before [on Feb, 8-9], the SLORC troops got very close to Wan Kha - some were killed just outside of our bunker. But this last attack wasn’t a ground attack. They just shelled a lot, and the weapons they used were so strong they could penetrate right through our very strong log bunkers. I think it was some kind of delay-fuse Howitzer [artillery designed to penetrate its target before exploding], 106 mm. [recoilless shells] and 120 mm. [large-calibre mortar]. Our bunker had heavy logs on top [Kaw Moo Rah bunkers have at least 3 layers of heavy logs and are very strong]. The weapons they used before couldn’t damage our bunkers much, but this time they could. Two layers on top of our bunker were destroyed and our bunker was shaking a lot.

They used very different weapons in this final offensive. The smoke was so strong and smelled very bad. I have no idea why we became so dizzy. Even if the explosion was far away from the bunker, once we smelled it we became dizzy. We all became dizzy, and we could barely control ourselves.

They shelled a lot and at least 1 out of 3 shells was hitting around our bunker. One shell came through our bunker, and some of us got bleeding ears and noses. There was so much smoke and dust, when we spat we could see the dust in our spit. I was almost killed. They shelled so much, but we have nothing to shoot back. Their shelling was like a shower of bombs. We couldn’t dare raise our heads. Some soldiers had bleeding ears. Our bunker and 3 others were destroyed, but even those in other bunkers got the smell and the dizziness. Even if the shrapnel didn’t hit us, we felt the dizzyness.

They also had shells that spread a liquid like glue. This kind of shell didn’t have a lot of shrapnel, just liquid. The liquid was green and smelled really bad, and it spread at least 6 feet and started burning on the ground. We could even see the liquid in the dark, it was glowing luminous green. When you try to stop it with water, it just causes it to burn more. It burned, and to stop it we had to cover it with dust. But then if the dust comes off, it starts burning again. A long time later we could still see it burning. The liquid didn’t get on anybody in our bunker, but I could see that it was burning on our bunker.

They were using four kinds of shells: Shells that just explode into shrapnel, smaller shells that cause dizzyness, "liquid" shells, and shells to destroy the bunkers. The normal shells just spread shrapnel so as long as you’re not directly hit, nothing happens, and they don’t destroy the bunker. About 3 or 4 out of every 10 shells were the ones that make people dizzy. They exploded into smoke, and we couldn’t see anything. The shells that made the smoke were bigger than the other shells but a different shape. The smoke made us dizzy and we felt like throwing up, and our ears and noses were bleeding. We got dizzy from the gas and almost unconscious, and then the heavy weapon shell hit our bunker and 3 of us were killed. I couldn’t see anything clearly after that, I felt my friend helping me out of the bunker and I went unconscious. When I woke up I was in the hospital.

Now I can hear on one side, but the other side is deaf. Last night I got dizzy again. Even now, I want to throw up sometimes. If I don’t move. I don’t feel dizzy, but if I try to walk anywhere I get dizzy again. I think they used the dirty trick of using some ‘bad’ smoke. Since the old Wan Kha [10 years ago], they’ve shelled a lot many times but we’ve never suffered like this before.