Chemical Warfare Claim Focuses New Attention on Burma

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:16 PM EDT

( - A human rights group says Burma may have used chemical weapons against ethnic minority rebels, raising new concerns about a repressive regime due to take the chairmanship of a leading regional grouping next year.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) is coming under increasing pressure from the West over Burma, which is scheduled to take over the rotating chairmanship of the 10-member bloc and to host its 2006 annual meeting.

Asean members are divided over whether Burma, also known as Myanmar, should forfeit its turn as chair unless the ruling military junta implements democratic reforms and frees opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest.

The United States has imposed trade and investment sanctions on Burma, which Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in January named as one of six "outposts of tyranny."

Republican Senator Mitch McConnell said this month the U.S. and European Union should boycott all Asean meetings if Burma becomes chair. A State Department spokesman said in reaction that the U.S. had made it clear "the prevailing situation in Burma complicates our dealings with Asean."

Rice would have to decide on the appropriateness of attending meetings there, depending on the situation at the time, the spokesman said.

Australia and New Zealand, Asean's "dialogue partners," which are seeking free trade agreements with the grouping, also are unhappy about the prospect of Burma as chair.

In power for decades, the junta refused in 1990 to relinquish power after Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy overwhelmingly won the country's first free multiparty elections in 30 years. The Nobel peace prize winner has spent most of the past 14 years under house arrest.

Burmese Foreign Minister Nyan Win in Jakarta Thursday reiterated the junta's view that it would not be pressured into giving up its turn to lead Asean.

Pressure on Asean is expected to grow after a UK-based international rights group, Christian Solidarity International (CSW), said Thursday the Burmese military may have used chemical weapons against Karen rebels near the border with Thailand last February.

The Karen are a mostly Christian agricultural hill tribe in eastern Burma on the frontier with Thailand, which has been fighting for decades for an independent state.

A ceasefire was signed in January 2004, but fighting resumed towards the end of the year after the junta removed and placed under house arrest the prime minister who had signed the truce with Karen commanders.

CSW quoted rebel fighters as saying a month-long artillery assault on a Karen position culminated on Feb. 15 with a shell which, unlike any witnessed before in the rebels' many years of fighting, released acrid yellow smoke.

CSW president Martin Panter, an Australian physician, interviewed five rebels who reported that within a short time of the shell landing nearby, they began to experience symptoms including blistering of the skin, diarrhea and vomiting of blood.

Over the following four weeks, each of four of the rebel soldiers had lost between 5-10 kilograms (11-22 pounds) in body weight each, he said.

Based on medical examinations, questioning of the rebels and information provided by chemical weapons experts, Panter said the shell may have contained a combination of blister, pulmonary and neurological agents.

Blister agents, which cause the skin to blister, include mustard gas; pulmonary agents, such as chlorine, cause suffocation; while neurological or nerve agents, such as sarin, are absorbed through the skin and cause multiple symptoms including asphyxiation.

CSW said in a report that the circumstantial evidence for a chemical weapon attack was "compelling," but it conceded the difficulty in obtaining harder evidence.

The minimum requirements by the United Nations to prove the use of chemical weapons includes "isolation and identification of the chemicals used, along with photographic evidence that is both location and date specific and certified."

Meeting such a high burden of proof in a situation in which a rogue regime had used such weapons was virtually impossible, CSW acknowledged.

"Such is the case here, However, we believe the evidence presented to us to be of sufficient gravity to be placed on the record."

CSW chief executive Mervyn Thomas said that the junta had been "waging a campaign of ethnic cleansing" against the Karen for many years.

"The apparent use of chemical weapons is consistent with what we know of this brutal regime."

CSW added its voice to calls for Asean not to allow Burma to chair the grouping next year.

Queries put to Burma's foreign ministry on Friday solicited no response.

According to the military publication Jane's Nuclear, Biological And Chemical Defense, the Burmese junta is suspected chemical and biological warfare capabilities.

"Uncorroborated reports have emerged since 1982 that chemical agent attacks had been made by government forces against Karen tribesmen and against other groups in remote areas," it said on Wednesday. "Weapons reported to have been involved include mortar and artillery projectiles."

Another Jane's publication, Jane's Sentinel, reports that Burma has signed, but not ratified, the Chemical Weapons Convention, which means the Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) watchdog cannot hold inspections to ensure it is keeping to its pledge to abide by the principles of the convention.

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow