Chemical weapons in Burma


Universe Column for September 11th 2005

by David Alton

I recently shared a platform with the author of  a new report released by Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) entitled “The Issue of Chemical Weapons Use by the Military Junta”.

The report says that there is “strong circumstantial evidence” that the Burmese military junta have used chemical weapons against Karenni tribal people.

The CSW report alleges that on February 15 2005, Burmese Army troops fired a number of chemical weapons shells, believed to contain mustard gas, into the Karenni Army  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. Over 1000 soldiers have been leading the assault with heavy shelling of the camp. Their failure to make any ground is what probably led to them allegedly firing chemical weapons shells into the camp. 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.

Dr. Martin Panter, a doctor, who is President of CSW, told our Westminster meeting, that he had personally taken witness statements and is in no doubt that everything he heard was consistent with the use of chemical weapons.  Those who were near enough to inhale the vapours  became extremely distressed with irritation to the eyes, throat, lungs, and skin. Subsequently some developed severe muscle weakness and one coughed up blood.

Dr. Panter says “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.

This is not the first time that Burma’s military junta has been accused of using chemical weapons. Allegations were made as long ago as 1982 and in 1984 a leaked US Special National Intelligence Estimate 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.

In 1992, attacks on the Karen state are thought to have involved chemical weapons. Karen soldiers 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 1995, another group of Karen soldiers, who were defending a camp, spoke of suffering from “dizziness, nausea, vomiting and unconsciousness” after inhaling the vapours emitted from shells fired at them.  And there are other instances, too.

CSW’s allegations that chemical weapons have been used against Karenni forces should be taken extremely seriously. This is not an isolated phenomenon, but a pattern of continued manufacture and use of chemical weapons. If these new allegations prove to be true it illustrates again the regime’s complete lack of regard towards international norms and treaties. The use of mustard gas, blister agents and other chemicals is in blatant contravention to the Chemical Weapons Convention (1992), which Burma ratified in January 1993.

When past violations have been documented, the international community responded by doing nothing.  Like the clear evidence of genocide, also set out by CSW and Jubilee Campaign, these allegations about the use of chemical weapons should be the subject of concerted international pressure, not blind indifference.