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Burma busy arresting journalists, not ratifying CW treaty

Photo of chemical munitions container allegedly used against the Kachin people in northeastern Burma. (PHOTO: Free Burma Rangers)

Burma’s government has denied that a military factory in Magwe’s Pauk Township is used for the manufacture of chemical weapons, but has yet to offer any explanation of what actually goes on there.

The arrest of five Unity Weekly journal employees in connection with a report on the alleged production site has renewed pressure on Burma to ratify the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), which bans the production, stockpiling and use of chemical weapons.

“As it does with all non-States Parties and Signatory States, the OPCW has made regular overtures to Myanmar through official channels to join the CWC without delay,” said Michael Luhan, spokesperson for the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the enforcement body for the CWC.

The convention, effective since 1993, currently has 190 party states. Upon becoming party, suspected facilities are investigated and stores disposed. As of last year, about 82 percent of declared stockpiles had been destroyed in CWC party states.

Burma became signatory to the CWC in 1993, but has made slow progress towards ratification. Luhan told DVB on Friday that in the years since becoming signatory, Burma has participated in a few OPCW conferences and in 2013 hosted a “technical assistance visit.”

The recent allegations of chemical weapon production were sparked by a report that first appeared in Unity Weekly on 25 January, titled, “Secret Chemical Weapon [built] by the Former Senior-General, Chinese Technicians and the Current [Burmese Military] Commander in Chief”, which detailed the location and purported activities of a military facility in Pauk Township, Magwe Division.

“I saw 15-ft long rockets,” read the report, citing a local who claims to have worked at the site. The report also alleges that “soldiers” protect the site and prohibit workers from leaving.

The report was quickly pulled from shelves, and five people – four reporters and the journal’s CEO – are currently awaiting arraignment for charges under Article 3(1)a of Burma’s colonial-era Official Secrets Act. The law criminally implicates any citizen who “approaches, inspects, passes over or is in the vicinity of, or enters, any prohibited place” for any purpose, and carries sentences of up to 14 years.

Their detention has been heavily condemned as a setback to Burma’s progress towards press freedom. Myint Kyaw, general secretary of the Myanmar Journalists Network, told DVB that, “The [Unity Weekly staff] were arrested as if they were fugitives… similar to back in the time when journalists had to live in fear.”

If the information is incorrect, he said, the editors should be informed, and if necessary issue a correction. The contents and credibility of the report, however, have since come under serious criticism.

President’s spokesman Ye Htut denied on Wednesday that the disputed No. 24 Defence Industry Factory – the facility detailed in Unity’s report — was used for manufacturing chemical weapons.

“Regarding the question whether it was really a chemical weapon factory, our country is a signatory state for the Chemical Weapons Convention – it was just a defence related factory, but not a chemical weapon factory,” he said, speaking to DVB by phone.

He did not, however, elaborate on the actual uses of the facility. The spokesman did not respond to DVB’s multiple follow-up inquiries about when Burma will move beyond signatory status and become a CWC State Party.

Becoming party to the CWC would require Burma to allow OPCW verification of suspect activities. Luhan said that upon ratification, Burma would have 60 days to declare all chemical assets within its territory.

“As Myanmar is not yet a CWC  State Party, the OPCW has no mandate to conduct verification activities in the country and hence cannot comment or speculate upon such reports,” he said.

Burma has long been suspected of maintaining chemical weapons facilities, and has been repeatedly accused of using them in military offensives against ethnic armed groups during the country’s decades of civil wars.

“As Myanmar is not yet a CWC  State Party, the OPCW has no mandate to conduct verification activities in the country and hence cannot comment or speculate upon such reports,” Michael Luhan, OPCW

Even since Burma’s protracted peace process began to take hold, there have been several reports of the use of chemical weapons.

In January 2013, DVB reported that the Burmese government denied use of chemical weapons during an offensive against the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) near their Laiza headquarters on the Burma-China border.

At that time, KIA spokesman James Lum Dau said there was an intense heat and soldiers “lost consciousness” when shells exploded.

The Burmese government maintained that the accusations are untrue. In January 2013, Ye Htut responded by saying that, “Our military never uses chemical weapons and we have no intention to use them at all.”

While the reports could not be independently verified, Free Burma Rangers (FBR), a humanitarian aid group delivering medical assistance to those displaced by conflict in Burma, affirmed the conclusion that illicit weapons were used in the fighting.

FBR founder Dave Eubank told DVB via email on Friday while he was doing fieldwork in Burma, “We ourselves have no hard evidence of chemical warfare but do believe that the Burma army has used them based on eyewitness accounts.”

Eubank referred to the group’s previous reportage on an attack against Kachin villages in May 2012.

“[The] Burma Army fired two rifle grenades with chemical munitions. White smoke came out as the grenades impacted and immediately all those caught in the cloud of smoke began to choke, become dizzy and nauseous and their eyes began to burn. Although no affected person has died from these munitions, this may be a chemical more potent than tear gas or military grade High Content CS, as the symptoms persisted for up to three days,” the report read.

Burma is currently State Party to the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons, but has yet to ratify either the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention or the Chemical Weapons Convention.

While full stock of the nation’s munitions is still a mystery, Burma has been repeatedly implicated for involvement in the North Korean arms trade, as well as illicit trade with the Indian Army, which violated a European arms embargo by selling Swedish rocket launchers to the Burmese Armed Forces.

No less than 190 states, representing over 98 percent of the world’s population, are party to the CWC. Two have signed but not yet ratified the treaty: Burma and Israel, while four nations have not acceded to the treaty: Angola, North Korea, Egypt and South Sudan.

Additional reporting contributed by Aye Nai.

This article was edited on 13 February 2014 to correct the following: Rocket launchers exchanged between India and Burma were from Sweden, not, as previously reported, from Norway.