Myanmar’s military is still reeling from the surprise Operation 1027 insurgent attacks in northern Shan state that overran over 140 bases, captured large caches of weapons and raised potent new questions about the State Administration Council (SAC) coup regime’s survival.
But is the SAC’s extraordinary setback driving it to use banned chemical weapons against the three main insurgent groups, known collectively as The Brotherhood, which spearheaded the lightning attacks and the military claims threaten to break up the nation?
On November 19, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army insurgent group released a public statement alleging that following its takeover of the Myanmar army’s Sakham Thit base in Namkham township, “junta forces dropped a poisonous chemical bomb on the TNLA soldiers.”
The TNLA’s statement further alleges that the SAC “committed a similar attack on November 4 by dropping a poisonous bomb upon Mong Kyat camp in Lashio township.”
According to the armed group statement, “although there were no any (sic) cuts or wounds on the victims’ bodies, some of the TNLA soldiers suffered from (1) dizziness, (2) breathlessness, (3) nausea, (4) extreme agitation and fatigue, (5) low blood oxygen levels etc. The (TNLA) health department…is providing necessary medical treatments to those comrades.”
No deaths have been reported in the alleged chemical attacks, and to date there has been no independent substantiation of the group’s claims.
The Myanmar Now independent news outlet interviewed one Ta’ang soldier who claimed, “(t)he bomb went off with a hiss and released a gas. I fainted after inhaling the gas. I can’t even remember who carried me from the frontline to the hospital. I still feel light-headed when I move too much.”
These are serious allegations and the TNLA’s claims must be addressed by the international community. SAC spokesperson Major-General Zaw Min Tun characteristically dismissed the claims, but he hasn’t uttered an honest syllable since the coup and would hardly admit to a potential war crime now.
However, there have been multiple allegations of the Myanmar military using chemical weapons against ethnic insurgents in the past. In the 1980s there were claims that Myanmar crop-dusting aircraft were spraying ethnic Shan villagers with 2,4-D defoliant, half the compound of the deadly Agent Orange that was supplied to then-Burma through a US counter-narcotics program.
A General Accounting Office (GAO) report in 1989 “could not accurately assess the program’s safety”, but research by American human rights activists and writer Edith Mirante and her Project Maje convincingly documented misuse of the chemical.
During the fall of the insurgent Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) base at Kawmura along the Thailand-Myanmar border in late 1994, convincing allegations of chemical weapons use were made but not substantiated, with a likelihood that white phosphorous was used along with high explosive (HE) rounds.
In alleged chemical weapons attacks against ethnic Karen positions in February 1995, the authoritative Karen Human Rights Group (KHRG) concluded from multiple interviews with soldiers, none of whom died, that “(i)t still appears likely that the ‘liquid’ shells and the white phosphorus shells were one and the same, because although white phosphorus is a solid, several sources confirm that it can appear like a liquid after the shell has exploded and is burning.”
Other possibilities, such as the use of smoke rounds or misuse of potassium cyanide, which the then-State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) military regime used to poison ethnic Karen water supplies or a potentially toxic snake curry the soldiers had consumed that day, were dismissed.
White phosphorous, which burns when exposed to air and is often used to range targets, is not explicitly banned under international law but its use is highly restricted and there have been calls for its use to be totally banned.
In 2005, a Myanmar army attack against Karenni Army/Karenni National Progressive Party (KA/KNPP) insurgents close to the Thai border with Mae Hong Son allegedly used some form of chemical agent. Several KA soldiers were taken ill with respiratory illness and treated in Thai hospitals, though none died.
While it seems likely that some unusual artillery rounds were used, despite a number of investigations, it was never confirmed. The original source for the allegations, London-based conservative Christian activist Benedict Rogers for Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), strains credibility.
One explanation is possibly that a mixture of factors, of soldiers hiding in bunkers and breathing in dust, cordite from weapons fire, smoke rounds to mask Myanmar army movements and possible white phosphorous use could produce the combination for respiratory conditions, but not always the blistering that comes with chemical weapons use.
During the renewed conflict in Kachin state from 2011, multiple reports of chemical weapons were raised in 2012 and early 2013 of troops firing hand-held weapons armed with some form of chemical weapons, which came from the reliable Free Burma Rangers (FBR) group, and aircraft dropping chemical munitions confirmed by multiple local aid groups.
However, a mysterious yellow powder that appeared in multiple locations tested inconclusively by human rights groups.
And, of course, there was the use of munitions against protestors at the Letpadan copper mine in central Monywa in late November 2012, in which dozens of protestors, including Buddhist monks, were horrifically burned as police violently dispersed the protest camp.
One independent report claimed that white phosphorous was used. But a government investigation, led by now imprisoned National League for Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, claimed only smoke grenades that may have contained “phosphorous” were used and controversially recommended the mine project continue.
The first priority for the current chemical weapon allegations is to establish without doubt that the TNLA’s claims are true. That obviously requires testing by a credible, independent third party in a laboratory. Those tests should ideally include the involvement of credible and trustworthy actors, possibly the United Nations.
Any investigation should be cognizant of past mistakes and treat chemical weapons claims with caution. Myanmar expert and scholar Andrew Selth has analyzed multiple claims of chemical and biological weapons manufacture and use by the Myanmar military over the years and so far found little hard evidence to substantiate the allegations.
Secondly, as the conflict looks set to continue for the foreseeable future, international donors to Myanmar should consider the creation of an acoustic sound ranging system in war zones that is able to determine the use of artillery and potentially airpower strikes, especially on civilian sites protected under international humanitarian law (IHL).
There is currently an inchoate ecosystem of human rights reporting and evidence preservation and much confusion over what constitutes necessary real-time reporting and advocacy and longer-term investigations to collect evidence.
There is usually a time lag where international groups take several days, at times weeks, to determine if incidents of abuse that have already been well established soon after they took place did indeed actually happen.
The Global Witness rights group “examines photos” and through geotagging determines ten days later if alleged incidents happened at the exact map reference that local Myanmar media outlets had reported on the day of the incident.
Previous reports of chemical weapons use have often been counter-productive: all the accusations drowned the actual determination of possible use.
Thirdly, observers must resist the temptation to see the use of chemical weapons, if proven, as a sign of the SAC’s desperation. A regime that uses medieval arson techniques against civilian housing, burns down the town of Thantlang multiple times and drops fuel-air explosives on children at an office opening in Sagaing is undoubtedly capable of using chemical weapons. Its brutality is fueled by sadism, not desperation.
The more salient compulsion of the SAC in the coming weeks is less desperation than a thirst for retribution, punishing civilians in northern Shan state as it attempts to retake lost territory and further blocking badly needed humanitarian assistance to over 50,000 people displaced following Operation 1027.
Finally, the TNLA’s chemical weapon allegations should be used as an opportunity to urge all anti-SAC military and political forces to make a public commitment to avoid the use of banned weapons themselves.
That should include a commitment by the ethnic armed organizations’ political wings and the anti-coup National Unity Government to adhere to the Convention on Chemical Weapons (CCW), which Myanmar signed in 1993 and finally ratified in 2015.
If the SAC did use chemical weapons to bomb the TNLA, it must be proven beyond a doubt and tallied as yet another serious crime of savagery by a failing regime that will ultimately be punished after the war.
David Scott Mathieson is an independent analyst working on conflict, humanitarian and human rights issues on Myanmar