They're at it Again; Recent Reports of the SPDC's Chemical Weapons Use Consistent with Evidence Presented in Past KHRG Reports

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They're at it Again; Recent Reports of the SPDC's Chemical Weapons Use Consistent with Evidence Presented in Past KHRG Reports

Published date:
Tuesday, May 3, 2005

A new report released by CSW alleging the SPDC's use of chemical weapons against Karenni Army (KA) soldiers in February 2005 has once again raised the question of Burma's offensive chemical weapons capability.  The symptoms identified in those affected appear to be consistent with exposure to a chemical weapon of some sort.  The evidence produced in the CSW report also appears to be consistent with research conducted by KHRG following similar occurrences in Karen State a decade ago, suggesting that the SPDC continues to both manufacture and employ chemical weapons.

A new report released by CSW alleging the SPDC's use of chemical weapons against Karenni Army (KA) soldiers in February 2005 has once again raised the question of Burma's offensive chemical weapons capability.  The symptoms identified in those affected appear to be consistent with exposure to a chemical weapon of some sort.  The evidence produced in the CSW report also appears to be consistent with research conducted by KHRG following similar occurrences in Karen State a decade ago, suggesting that the SPDC continues to both manufacture and employ chemical weapons.

A new report released by Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) entitled "The Issue of Chemical Weapons Use by the Military Junta" [1] claims to have uncovered "strong circumstantial evidence" of the SPDC's use of chemical weapons against Karenni resistance forces earlier this year.  The evidence presented in the CSW report is consistent with KHRG research conducted from 1992-95 after similar occurrences in Karen State and published in several KHRG reports in 1994 and 1995.

The CSW report alleges that on February 15 2005, SPDC Army troops fired a number of chemical weapons shells, believed to contain mustard gas, into the Karenni Army (KA) hill-top stronghold at Nya My in Karenni State.  The sustained assault on Nya My began on January 6 this year and has continued unabated for almost four months.  A combined force of approximately 650 SPDC Army troops and 700 Karenni Nationalities People's Liberation Front (KNPLF) soldiers have been leading the assault with heavy shelling of the camp daily.  Perhaps realising that they were not making any ground, the SPDC allegedly fired chemical weapons shells into the camp on February 15.  Upon exploding, the shells were said to give off "a very distinctive yellow smoke and totally different pungent and immediately highly irritating odour".  Within five minutes of the shells exploding, those affected by the gas given off suffered from watery eyes and experienced difficulty in swallowing.  Ten to twenty minutes after that, some of them were vomiting and some could not walk.  The report goes on to affirm that, " [w] ithin minutes those soldiers near enough to inhale the vapours from this device became extremely distressed with irritation to the eyes, throat, lungs, and skin.  Subsequently some developed severe muscle weakness and one coughed up blood".  On February 21, six days after the attack, five of the KA soldiers who were affected by the gas were clinically assessed to test for symptoms suggestive of the use of chemical weapons.  In an interview with Australian SBS television on April 21, Dr Martin Panter, a physician involved in the assessment and president of CSW, stated that,"It seemed that all the symptoms they had and the description of the device was completely consistent with a chemical weapons device of some sort" The medical examinations revealed that the soldiers also suffered from blisters, discolouration of the skin, diarrhoea, tender livers, and weight loss.  Mervyn Thomas, a spokesperson for CSW, was quoted as saying, "the circumstantial evidence for the use of chemical weapons against the Karenni people seems to be very compelling indeed. The evidence Dr Panter gathered of irritation to people's eyes, throat, lungs and skin point to the use of chemical weapons against them".  According to some reports, the Karenni Army are now holding two SPDC Army defectors who have been questioned on the incident.  The defectors have reportedly confirmed the use of chemical weapons.  According to Dr Panter, the defectors "knew they were chemical weapons because they [had] a skull and crossbones [painted] on the shell and they had to use masks when they were handling them" .   Questions remain to be answered, and the investigation is continuing.

This is not the first time that Burma's military junta has been accused of using chemical weapons.  According to Andrew Selth, author of "Burma's Armed Forces: Power Without Glory" [2], allegations of chemical weapons use were first levelled against the BSPP dictatorship by the International Defence Review in 1982.  A few years later in 1984, a leaked US Special National Intelligence Estimate (SNIE) claimed that Burma had been seeking to obtain the capacity to produce mustard gas since 1981 with the assistance of West Germany and Italy, and that they should be fully capable and self-sufficient in the production of chemical weapons by the end of 1984.  On February 1 1984, the English-language Thai newspaper, The Bangkok Post , ran an article which claimed that SLORC troops fired mortar and artillery shells which emitted a "toxic gas" at Karen positions along the Burma-Thai border.  In 1992 during the prolonged SLORC offensive against the former KNU stronghold at Manerplaw, a number of Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) soldiers were wounded by suspected chemical weapons during a bombing raid by the Burma Air Force (BAF).  KHRG documented the incident in the February 1994 report, "Is the SLORC Using Bacteriological Warfare?" , in which it was said that, "In the 1992 offensive against Manerplaw, several Karen soldiers were wounded on different occasions by air attacks at frontline positions with suspected chemical weapons. They suffered burns and rashes which were still spreading over their bodies months later, and partial or complete loss of mobility in various parts of the body with no apparent cause".

Also in 1992 but this time in northeastern Burma, the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO) alleged that in July the SLORC used chemical weapons against their armed wing, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA).  The KIO claimed that they had intercepted a SLORC radio message instructing its troops to withdraw 300 metres from the frontline shortly before the BAF made their bombing run on the KIA positions, because "chemical weapons shells" were to be released.  A number of SLORC Army soldiers who were captured were said to confirm the message. [3]

On February 20 1995, in what was to become the final assault on the KNU stronghold at Kaw Moo Rah, the SLORC was yet again accused of resorting to the use of chemical weapons [ refer to the KHRG reports "Chemical Shells at Kaw Moo Rah" (KHRG #95-08, 24/2/95), and "Chemical Shells at Kaw Moo Rah: Supplementary" (KHRG #95-08-A, 20/3/95) ].  Many KNLA soldiers defending the camp spoke of suffering from "dizziness, nausea, vomiting and unconsciousness" after inhaling the vapours emitted from shells fired at them by the SLORC Army soldiers.  The following is an excerpt of the testimony given to KHRG by Saw S---, a 23 year old KNLA soldier positioned in one of the frontline bunkers defending Kaw Moo Rah:

"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 the 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. ... 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." [4]

From what evidence has thus far been made available, it appears that the symptoms recently observed in the Karenni soldiers are very similar, perhaps identical, to those of the Karen soldiers defending Kaw Moo Rah in 1995.  In both cases, the soldiers spoke of suffering from dizziness, nausea, and irritation of the skin immediately upon inhaling the vapours, followed by vomiting, the inability to move, and in some cases unconsciousness.  The symptoms identified appear to be consistent with exposure to a vesicant or 'blister agent' of some sort.  On its website, the US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has produced a comprehensive list of symptoms and signs that may be observed in those exposed to blister agents [5].  The list includes, but is not limited to: nasal and throat irritation, coughing, chest tightness and shortness of breath, blurred vision and eye pain (with massive amounts of tearing), nausea and vomiting, abdominal pain, diarrhoea (sometimes bloody), ataxia (lack of coordination and bodily control), inflammation and blistering of the skin, and unconsciousness.  While the majority of blister agents do not produce symptoms until between 2 and 24 hours following the initial exposure, there are a number of blister agents that do manifest symptoms immediately.  It is possible that what these Karenni soldiers (and Karen soldiers in the past) were exposed to was one such chemical, however without more information it is impossible to say for sure.

Even the Karenni soldiers' descriptions of the explosions of the shells being fired upon them are consistent with the description given by KNLA soldiers from the final assault on Kaw Moo Rah.  In both cases the soldiers referred to the explosion as sounding very different from the conventional rounds being fired at them.  A soldier at Kaw Moo Rah told KHRG that "unlike the deafening explosions of the heavy mortar and artillery shells, the explosions of the chemical weapons shells were "very 'soft', as though there was just enough of an explosion to break the canisters." [6]

Employing the standard SPDC policy of 'deny everything', Information Minister Brigadier General Kyaw Hsan told a press conference in Rangoon on April 22 2005 that Burma does not possess any offensive chemical weapons capability, stating that, "as Myanmar is a signatory to the convention controlling chemical weapons, we neither produce nor use such weapons." [7]  However, well-informed and reliable sources have stated on numerous separate occasions that the SLORC/SPDC does have the facilities to manufacture their own chemical weapons, including but probably not limited to mustard gas.  Speculation has been made in the past that the 'bottling' and 'fertilizer' factories which fall under the control of the state-run Ka Pa Sa munitions factories (abbreviated fromKarkweye Pyitsu Setyoun – the Burmese name for the Directorate of Defence Industries), all of which are highly secure and well-guarded installations, may actually be fronts for Burma's chemical weapons plants.  During the press conference, Kyaw Hsan went on to support his claims of the SPDC's innocence in these matters with the somewhat questionable statement that, "Myanmar has never violated any international convention".  These statements made by Kyaw Hsan are in direct opposition to statements made by SPDC officials on the chemical weapons issue in the past.  The following is an excerpt from the KHRG report "Chemical Shells at Kaw Moo Rah: Supplementary" (KHRG #95-08-A, 20/3/95):

"Shortly after the fall of Kaw Moo Rah [in February 1995] , Lieutenant General Tin Oo (Secretary-2 of SLORC) was in Thailand at the invitation of Thai Army Commander-in-Chief Wimol Wongwanich.  Tin Oo's contacts while in Thailand were primarily only with Thai military leaders.  Just after his return to Burma, Thai journalists questioned General Chettha Thanajaro, Assistant Army Chief of Staff of Thailand.  In an article entitled 'Burmese Admit They Used Chemicals to Fight Karens' on February 28th, the Thai-language Daily News paraphrased General Chettha's words as follows:

"Concerning the Australian government's protest over SLORC's use of chemicals against the Karen, Tin Oo replied that they had to wipe out the thieves and rebels that are against the government.  He said that although the use of chemicals is not right, it is necessary'."   [emphasis in original]

The current allegations that the SPDC has used chemical weapons against Karenni forces should be taken extremely seriously, particularly given the regime's apparent record of repeatedly using such weapons over the years.  This is not an isolated phenomenon, but a pattern of continued manufacture and use of chemical weapons.  If the present allegations prove to be true, which appears likely, this would once again show to the world the SPDC's complete lack of regard towards international norms and treaties.  The use of mustard gas, blister agents and other chemicals in the SPDC's arsenal is in blatant contravention to the Chemical Weapons Convention (1992), which Burma ratified in January 1993.  This is not the first time that the SPDC/SLORC has been accused of resorting to the use of chemical weapons within its own borders, and will likely not be the last unless something is done to prevent it.  When past violations have been documented, the international community responded by doing nothing.  This time, immediate investigation and intervention by the UN Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and/or UN Security Council is vital to ensure that such events do not transpire again. 

Footnotes

[1] The full text of the report may be viewed on the Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) website athttp://www.csw.org.uk/latestnews/2005/Burma_21_04_05.htm

[2] Selth, Andrew (2002) 'Burma and Exotic Weapons', in Burma's Armed Forces: Power Without Glory , pp. 233-252.  Norwalk: EastBridge.

[3] "Is the SLORC using Bacteriological Warfare?" , KHRG, March 15, 1994.

[4] "Chemical Shells at Kaw Moo Rah" (KHRG #95-08, 24/2/95).

[5] The complete list of symptoms which are suggestive of exposure to a vesicant can be found on the CDC website at http://www.bt.cdc.gov/agent/vesicants/tsd.asp   Accessed May 2, 2005.

[6] "Chemical Shells at Kaw Moo Rah: Supplementary" (KHRG #95-08-A, 20/3/95).

[7] "Myanmar Rejects Christian Group's Claim of Chemical Attack on Karen Rebels" , Agence France Presse, April 22 2005, posted on the BurmaNet News listserv on April 22 2005.