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Published date:
Tuesday, March 15, 1994

On August 12, 1993 in the middle of the night, villagers in a large part of the Donthami and Yunzalin river watersheds (between the Bilin and Salween Rivers, in Thaton and Mudraw [Papun] districts) heard SLORC planes fly low over their areas. The planes dropped dozens, maybe scores (the number is unknown) of strange devices consisting of a 2-metre parachute with a "white box" and one or two balloons hanging underneath. The next morning the villagers started finding the devices in forests and fields. SLORC troops in the area never tried to recover the devices.


Preliminary Report based on information independently gathered by the Karen Human Rights Group
March 15, 1994


On August 12, 1993 in the middle of the night, villagers in a large part of the Donthami and Yunzalin river watersheds (between the Bilin and Salween Rivers, in Thaton and Mudraw [Papun] districts) heard SLORC planes fly low over their areas. The planes dropped dozens, maybe scores (the number is unknown) of strange devices consisting of a 2-metre parachute with a "white box" and one or two balloons hanging underneath. The next morning the villagers started finding the devices in forests and fields. SLORC troops in the area never tried to recover the devices.

Between 3 days and 2 weeks later, villagers in the drop area and some areas downriver started getting sick with a disease resembling cholera or shigella. The symptoms were very serious diarrhoea with faeces "like rice water", in some cases combined with watery vomiting, bringing death by severe dehydration within one to two days; as a Karen medic described it, "You go to the toilet 3 times, then you're dead". Other symptoms reported include nausea, dizzyness, in some cases head and body aches, and some found that if they pinched their skin and released it, the flesh stayed pinched out. The disease was very communicable and spread very rapidly until it covered most of Bilin Township, made worse by the fact that villages in the area have no sanitation and villagers generally just use the forest instead of a toilet or latrine. Generally it only attacked adults over 15 - many families were entirely wiped out except for one or two of the youngest children. Up to this time, the entire area involved had reported a few deaths per month from dysentery. Suddenly in September 1993, village leaders in the area reported 185 deaths in one month from this disease. The Karen National Union (KNU) responded by sending medical teams into the area several times. They managed to save many using dextrose/saline intravenous drips combined with tetracycline (in at least one case they saved a woman from the brink of death with 11 successive 500ml. drips), but the death toll is now over 300. By December it appeared that the disease had abated in most areas, although a few cases are still being reported. Deaths have now been reported far from the original disease area in the major village of Ka Ma Maung on the Salween River, under SLORC control. SLORC authorities have quarantined several villages in the area. A few cases have also been reported closer to the Thai border, and with the regular movement of Karen civilians it could easily spread across the border into Thailand. A new outbreak of diarrhoea, possibly the same disease, has just occurred in March just west of the Salween River where it forms the Thai border east of Papun.

Since the start of 1994, an epidemic of a very similar or identical disease has broken out about 100 km. further south in Dta Greh (Burmese name Pain Kyone) township, between Hlaing Bwe town and the Dawna Range in Pa'an District. This area is very close to Thailand but is isolated by the Dawna Range at the border. Statistics on this outbreak are not available yet. A trader from the area recently reported that

"SLORC planes came 2 or 3 times, flying not too high at night. They dropped things by parachute - one was near Pwe Taw village. In the morning the villagers found it. It had 4 strings, a very good sheet of material, a foam box and a broken balloon. In the foam box there was something like a bell, some wire and pieces like radio parts. One villager took off the sheet and kept it. After that, many of the villagers got diarrhoea, and they couldn't cure it because medicines and IV drips are very expensive and hard to get, so many people died of diarrhoea. An average of six or seven people died in each village, and over 10 people died in my village. More middle aged people died than children. The planes dropped 6 or 7 parachutes around Tha Mo and Pay Hta, which are big villages, but I only saw 2 parachutes myself."

This account has not yet been confirmed. The area where he claims the drop occurred is exactly where the disease is now occurring. There could also have been human transmission of the disease from the original area to the north.

The disease is curable with basic medicines, but the villagers in the target area have no access to such medicines; since 1992, the SLORC has sent #99 Light Infantry Division into the Donthami/Yunzalin area with specific orders to drive all villagers in this area into camps or out of the area.Villagers now affected further south in Pa'an District have suffered similar tactics. In the process they have been terrorized, stripped of all money and belongings, and thousands have been displaced or have fled to refugee camps in Thailand (see the Karen Human Rights Group reports Forced Relocation in Thaton District (9/1/93), The SLORC's New Forced Relocation Campaign - Translations of SLORC Orders (8/1/93), Report from Thaton District (10/3/93), Statements by Internally Displaced People (28/4/93), and The SLORC's 1993 Offensive Against Karen Civilians (10/7/93)). Furthermore, a Karen medic who operates in the area reports that the SLORC actively blocks any medicine reaching the area from towns in Burma as part of their program to make sure no supplies can reach opposition forces. Some villagers in the area have been executed when caught with upplies of basic medicines.

Villagers in the Donthami/Yunzalin area say they have never heard of such an epidemic, not even in their grandparents' time. They also say that as soon as the first people began getting sick, SLORC troops stopped entering all villages in the area and in most cases didn't even leave their camps, which is also unprecedented. This is a "brown" area, where both SLORC and Karen troops operate, and the SLORC has always entered these villages regularly to capture porters and loot food and belongings. Villagers who were used to having to rotate weekly shifts of slave labour maintaining SLORC army camps were suddenly forbidden from entering those camps. One group of SLORC troops came near a village, but stayed in the monastery outside the village. While all the villagers were getting the disease, only the SLORC troops and the monks remained healthy. In Laykay, a large village with a large SLORC army camp, villagers were forbidden from entering the camp and soldiers were forbidden to leave. However, the villagers learned that the soldiers in the camp had been "vaccinated" (to use their word) against the disease. In Yo Klah, where there is also a SLORC camp right in the village, villagers were forbidden to enter the camp but soldiers came into the village to order villagers to keep their food clean and boil all drinking water, and they forced the villagers to dig latrines for themselves at gunpoint. However, they did not go to any other villages to do this.

Villagers have found many of the air-dropped devices in the Donthami/Yunzalin area. The KNU has obtained a number of them, the Karen Human Rights Group has obtained three, and others have obtained several more. They consist of a clear plastic parachute 2 metres in diameter with 4 nylon suspension lines holding a "white box" and 1 or 2 balloons. Unfortunately, to our knowledge none of the balloons have been recovered - villagers report that in every case, the balloons have been broken when found. The "white box" consists of a thick white styrofoam box 31.5 cm. x 17 cm. x 10 cm. deep complete with formed styrofoam lid. Inside, in specially moulded slots, are a 6.2 cm. diameter pressure-sensing anode connected to a swinging arm on a gauge, a 13 x 6 cm. circuit board, and a small microwave transmitter. The unit is powered by small battery which fits in a slot in the bottom, and there are also one or two slots which are empty on the units we have recovered. The entire units, as indicated by printing on the swinging-arm gauge, a logo on the outside of the styrofoam box, and the battery unit, were made by "Viz Manufacturing Co., 335 East Price St., Philadelphia Pennsylvania 19144-5782, USA - Phone 215-844-2626, Telex 710-670-2626, Fax 215-844-4410".

The devices appear to be typical commercially available "radiosonde" devices, manufactured to be sent up under weather balloons. This is supported by the plastic wrapping for the battery, which is labelled "Activation Instructions for Radiosonde Battery". The battery itself is a disposable chemical unit 6cm. x 6cm. x 4cm. thick, made up of clear plastic tightly wrapped around layers of wax, chemical, and something like cardboard, all packaged in a white plastic bag with printed instructions. It is activated by removing the plastic bag, immersing it in water, shaking off the excess, then connecting the power connector, putting it back in the plastic bag and inserting it in the slot in the radiosonde box. The battery we have recovered is printed with the date January 2, 1992, and other information including "BATTERY, RADIOSONDE. NSN-6135-01-054-2098. VIZ 3500-100". On one unit, the swinging-arm device has serial number 503-2288 stuck on it, and the circuit board has serial number 0728868. Another unit has serial number 617-1014 on the swinging-arm device, and 0728904 on the circuit board. The units also bear a small stick-on computer-printed label on the box bottom including printing such as "1392-521, CT 6/2535", which would imply that they passed through Thailand, as the year 1992 was the year 2535 on the Thai calendar.

Radiosondes are meant to be sent up under weather balloons, not dropped out of planes with parachutes. Unlike all the radiosonde equipment, which is clearly marked with the VIZ name and logo, the parachutes have no markings and appear to have been rigged up by SLORC for this special purpose. They consist of a circular sheet of clear "crinkly" plastic, similar to that used to make ordinary plastic bags. The sheet has been cut to a diameter of 2 metres, and at least part of the cutting appears to have been done roughly with hand scissors. The lines were held on with ordinary office-type staples. There are also some other features which may have been added by SLORC. One unit was recovered with a 27 cm. long metal device with 4 radial folding fins attached to it, which fold out to a diameter of 28 cm. - this appears to be the tail assembly from an RPG-7 rocket-propelled grenade shell, and was probably attached to make the unit descend vertically and at a proper rate; it would not work as an antenna for microwave transmission. Each pressure-sensing device has a spot of paint on it which appears to have been hastily hand-applied; some units are marked with blue paint, some with red. Each unit also has a three-wired cable attached to the circuit board which goes to a slot in the bottom of the box, where there is a plastic connector. Here the cable is soldered to a piece of apparently standard two-wired household power cord about 20 cm. long. In every case, at the other end of this cord about one-half cm. of the wires have been stripped and soldered, but they are just hanging free outside the box, not connected to anything. This may have something to do with the balloons, none of which were recovered because the villagers said in every case that the balloons were broken and destroyed when found. Villagers who found one unit hanging from a tree said that the broken balloon was hanging down and a foul-smelling "black-yellow-green" liquid was dripping from it. Other villagers who took devices home said they later destroyed them because they were giving off a "foul smell". A Karen military column which went to villages to retrieve the devices reported that in several cases, they were told that the villager who had retrieved the device had later died of the disease, so the villagers had destroyed it.

While these devices appear to have been originally manufactured for use under weather balloons, knowledgeable sources indicate that throwing them out of low-flying airplanes would be virtually useless for weather applications. Also, the short length of the microwave transmitter antenna indicates a very high frequency transmission, possibly in the gigahertz range, which would only be receivable along a straight "line of sight". This would make sense for a weather balloon, which sends signals down to earth from heights up to 100,000 feet, but would be useless for transmitting from the ground where there are some hills and ground cover as in the drop area. The transmission also appears to be quite low powered because the transistor on the circuit board does not even have a heat sink. These limitations would imply that the signals may only be receivable from the planes which dropped the devices, or that the SLORC was not particularly interested in the signal anyway.

Possible Explanations:

Several possibilities are under consideration. Firstly, there may be no relationship between the SLORC air-drops and the epidemic. However, if this is the case, why did SLORC troops stop entering the area so quickly, which they have never done before, and what was the purpose of the air drops? Dropping such devices from low-flying planes by night would have very limited usefulness for meteorology, and the SLORC has no reason to be studying the weather in the drop area anyway. The weather there is very stable and predictable, generally not varying for months at a time. Perhaps the devices are sensitive enough to pick up and transmit vibrations which would indicate Karen troop movements, similar to devices used by American forces in Vietnam; however, on first inspection the devices do not appear to have this capability, they could probably not transmit for very long on their batteries, and many more of them would have to be dropped to be very effective for this purpose. The devices could act as beacons which are dropped on targets, then transmit a signal which guides in a guided weapon, but no weapons were fired on the area. Another possibility is that the barometric pressure readings could be used to help calibrate the SLORC's Carl Gustav Swedish rockets and other air-exploding shells to function properly in local areas. However, much of the drop area is only seldom penetrated by Karen troops, and in the areas where Karen troops do operate, they use guerrilla tactics, based on ambush and quick retreat. There are very few head-on battles which would involve the heavy use of such shells. Another possibility is that the barometric readings could help the SLORC predict the effectiveness of future strikes with chemical or bacteriological agents, chemical defoliants, or napalm. Advice from military experts is needed to properly assess these possibilities. In any case, an unexplained SLORC air-drop just days before the outbreak of a once-in-a-century epidemic in the same area would seem to be quite an incredible coincidence.

The other possibility is that there is a connection between the SLORC air-drop and the epidemic. If so, how did the mysterious devices cause the disease? The balloons (which we have not recovered) could have contained the bacteriological agent, or some other device could have been attached, which would ideally have dispersed the agent while the device was still in the air. The microwave transmission could be used as a "homing signal" so that Strategic Headquarters could map the dispersal of the agent. The barometric pressure readings might be useful as well in estimating its dispersal, or the SLORC may not have been interested in the barometric information, only using meteorological devices because they can be bought without suspicion and if found people will assume they have been used for meteorological applications. Unfortunately, toxicologists say that it is very unlikely that they could recover any trace of the disease off the devices themselves this long after the fact. Another possibility is that the devices did not deliver the agent, but were only used to map its dispersal while the agent itself was sprayed from the planes by some other means.

Some events from the past are also relevant to the question:

There has been no such epidemic in generations, and the drop area corresponds to the disease area. In 1985 in the Baw Kloh area of southern Burma's Tenasserim Division, at least one balloon attached to a packet of "powder" was dropped by a Burmese military plane. Just afterward, a cholera epidemic began in the area which lasted through the entire rainy season. Almost all villagers got sick, though only 10 to 20 reportedly died. Only one balloon was retrieved, and no proper analysis was done. In mid-1993 an identical device was recovered in forest less than 10 kilometres west of Manerplaw, across the Salween river from the Meh Bpa area, where the heaviest fighting occurred in the SLORC's 1992 offensive against Manerplaw. During that offensive SLORC bomber aircraft were over the area every day, but they have not been back since. It is not known when this device was dropped. The serial number on the gauge is 607-1019, and on the circuit board 0762537. A UPC code sticker on the bottom reads "Prod-Seq # 012907C". The device is code-marked with blue paint. 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. In Kachin State the same year, the Kachin Independence Organization claimed that chemical shells were being used against them, and that they had intercepted messages telling SLORC frontline commanders to withdraw several hundred metres because SLORC planes were about to drop "chemical weapon shells". Well-placed and reliable sources indicate that the SLORC has its own facilities for manufacturing mustard gas and possibly other chemical warfare agents, built with the assistance of a west German firm. In the Bundestag (German parliament) on 24 September 1991, the German government admitted that between 1978 and 1989, a total of 15 Burma Army officers received "ABC Protection" training (ABC = Atomic / Bacteriological / Chemical) from the Bundeswehr (German Army) at Sonthofen Military Academy in west Germany. When asked if similar training also occurred in East Germany, the government answered "The Federal Government does not have any knowledge about Burmese citizens also being trained in handling ABC warfare agents by the former NVA [Nationale Volksarmee, the East German armed forces]". It is interesting that the Burma Army, with no external enemies, would be interested in "protecting" themselves against these types of warfare. The German government claimed that this was part of a program offered to many third world countries; the list of countries which benefitted includes several which have close ties with German arms manufacturer Fritz Werner, such as Sudan, where Fritz Werner built a military plant. In Burma, Fritz Werner established the entire arms and munitions manufacturing industry under the Ne Win regime, which has since been nationalised by SLORC. Fritz Werner has also built "fertilizer" and "bottling" factories in Burma for the SLORC, all of which are highly secure locations. In the year 1984 West Germany exported DM 16.1 million worth of chemical pre-products to Burma, and DM 7.5 million worth of chemical end products. We are now seeking further information on all of these points.


Right now, while the SLORC is trying to convince the world that it wants to negotiate "peace", and while it sends delegations worldwide and hires public relations firms in a desperate attempt to improve its international image, why would it engage in an act of bacteriological warfare which would bring it unprecedented international condemnation and probably even force the UN Security Council into action? This is a difficult question to answer, but not so difficult if one understands the SLORC mentality. If the SLORC really wants to improve its international image, why doesn't it simply decrease the grotesque level of human rights abuses it perpetrates in ethnic areas? This would also have the effect of making villagers less supportive of opposition groups. However, the SLORC is now actually stepping up its human rights abuses, possibly as a form of threat to opposition groups that they had better agree to negotiate. The SLORC is now so confident of its power and of the support of its neighbouring allies that it feels it can do anything it likes within the country, as long as it makes the right statements overseas. With the news blackout it maintains over most of the country, it is confident that none of its activities in remote areas, like the area in question, can be proven. Even when they are proven, the SLORC simply claims that the information is "propaganda by terrorist groups" and flatly denies any human rights abuses exist at all, confident that no foreign governments will take action against them. They probably would not even realize that to use bacteriological warfare is to step across the line, putting themselves in the spotlight and forcing foreign countries to respond.

The epidemic area is the same area where the SLORC has sent fresh combat troops since 1992, particularly the notorious 99 Light Infantry Division, to attempt to drive all villagers into controlled camps or out of the area so that Karen troops cannot operate. Much of the region has already been declared a free-fire zone where any villagers seen are shot on sight. Many have fled the area, but many more remain, hidden in the forests or in villages, and the Karen Army continues to operate. The SLORC may therefore be using disease as a last resort to clear out the area's population by killing some and forcing the rest to flee the spreading disease. This could also be an experimental operation in preparation for more widespread use of bacteriological agents, possibly against other remote areas or the Manerplaw area.

Although other diseases such as anthrax tend to be generally preferred for bacteriological warfare, there are also reasons for the SLORC to choose a disease approximating cholera or severe dysentery instead. An outbreak of a non-native disease like anthrax would immediately be extremely suspicious, and much easier to trace back to the SLORC, whereas diseases like cholera and dysentery already exist in the region. By using a disease which is fairly easy to treat, they can protect their own soldiers against it quite easily, at the same time knowing that the villagers will suffer severely because they have no access to the required medicines. The disease does not have to kill them all, only force them out of the area from fear of it.

However, by forcing villagers to move the SLORC is causing itself problems now, as evidenced by the fact that the disease has now spread to other areas well under their control like Ka Ma Maung, and could spread further into Burma. It is also spreading toward the Thai border, and given the general flow of Karen refugees and others across the borders, it could easily spread to rural areas of Thailand. Diseases and bacteriological warfare have no respect for borders, and if the SLORC is responsible for this epidemic then this strategy of theirs has the potential to pose a major regional threat. It is imperative that foreign governments and the UN Security Council see that such a threat is not realized.