BANGKOK—Two young Burmese Army deserters say they were ordered to carry large, heavy boxes containing what their commanding officers described as chemical weapons to the front lines of a clash with ethnic Karenni rebel forces.
The youths’ accounts cannot be independently confirmed, but weapons experts said it was plausible that Burmese security forces had filled the shells with industrial chemicals or phosphorous-containing smoke rounds to disperse Karenni forces.
Burma’s military government has denied possessing or using chemical weapons. Burmese Embassy officials in Washington declined to be interviewed for this story.
In interviews with RFA’s Burmese service, 15-year-old Private Myo Min and 16-year-old Private Soe Thu described transporting artillery shells filled with chemicals from the Kalaw military unit in Shan State to Thit Paung Zeik Camp in Karenni State.
The boxes had skull-and-crossbones logos on them... The warrant officers told us not to drop the chemical weapons and, should we drop them, we could die from the poisons.
The two youths defected to the Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP) April 23 and spoke to RFA from the Thai-Burma border.
Neither Myo Min nor Soe Thu reported having fired the shells or witnessed others using them.
But the nonprofit group Christian Solidarity Worldwide alleged in April that Burmese troops had used chemical weapons in a Feb. 15 attack on Karenni rebels about 16 kms (10 miles) from the Thai border town of Mae Hong Son.
The group cited an unnamed medical doctor who examined three Karenni fighters Feb. 19 who said they had been exposed to a yellow-brown vapor released by exploding Burmese Army shells.
The three fighters shared many symptoms, the doctor was quoted as saying, including shortness of breath, chest pain, swelling, bloody urine, weakness, skin lesions, and diarrhea.
“We left the chemical weapons near Thit Paung Zeik Camp” in Karenni State, Myo Min told RFA’s Burmese service.
“The length of each shell is 23 inches and the diameter is 6 inches. I know only that much. The boxes had skull-and-crossbones logos on them. When we were carrying those things, the warrant officers told us not to drop the chemical weapons and, should we drop them, we could die from the poisons.”
I was told by the bosses there were chemical weapons in the box... We had to carry those things. The porters were not allowed to carry them.
Myo Min said he was forced to join the military in December 2004 and spent 4-1/2 months at an army training camp before being sent to Thit Paung Zeik Camp.
He ran away after less than one month, he said. Asked if the warrant officer had used the term “chemical weapons,” he replied: “Yes, he said like that.”
“I can’t tell the number of boxes but it was more than 100. I have seen them. I carried them myself,” Myo Min said, adding that four to five people were needed to carry each box. He identified the officer in charge as Captain Nay Myo Kyaw.
Soldiers who fired the chemical shells, he said, told him “when they had to use the heavy artillery, when they had to use chemical weapons, they had to put on masks to cover their mouths, wear gloves, and shoot. When they used the artillery, they’d shoot four or five, and then one chemical shell.”
Myo Min said he was working as a waiter in the town of Shwe Bo when security forces offered him a choice of prison or the army.
He chose the army but wasn’t permitted to inform his mother, who he fears still doesn’t know what happened to him.
Soe Thu—also from Division 55 of Light Infantry Brigade 112—gave a similar account in a separate interview based on his six months in the military.
“I was told by the bosses there were chemical weapons in the box and not to drop them. If they dropped, they could explode and we could die. We had to carry those things. The porters were not allowed to carry them,” Soe Thu said, adding that each box contained 12 chemical shells.
“In a number of conflicts, there have been accusations of chemical weapons use, but what's really happened is that there have been industrial chemicals tossed about...And eyewitnesses, victims, all they know is something is making them choke or making their skin or eyes burn.
“We had to carry them,” he said, adding that the entire unit knew that the boxes they were carrying contained chemical shells. “The captain of our Section was Captain Kyaw Nu. There were five cars that arrived in our camp. Along with the provisions,” he said.
Asked if the provisions were transported with the chemical shells, he replied: “No, they were not mixed. They were put on top. In [each of] those five trucks, there were about 20 porters.”
Both soldiers said the boxes were marked with foreign letters that they couldn’t identify.
The two youths, along with two senior KNPP members interviewed separately, said five trucks arrived at Division 55 in Kalaw, Shan State, carrying boxes that contained chemicals for military use.
They say they rode about 160 kms (100 miles) by truck from Kalaw to the Karenni State capital, Loikaw, then another 130 kms (80 miles) through Bawlake and Ywathit towns, and across the Salween River.
Many areas were inaccessible by truck, and the boxes had to be carried on foot to cleared areas where the soldiers were able to rejoin the convoy of vehicles, they said.
The soldiers carried the boxed chemicals, they said, while porters—conscripted prisoners from Myitkyina, Monywa, and Mandalay—carried other supplies.
At one stage in the journey, they said, there were no roads at all, and the soldiers had to carry all their supplies for four hours, until they reached the front.
Each truck transported 20 porters, they said. The Light Infantry Brigade 112 has employed 400 porters altogether since January 2005, when the Army began its assault on the KNPP-controlled Nyamu Hill.
Weapons experts contacted by RFA said it was impossible to deduce from the soldiers' accounts what was inside the artillery shells but said they may have contained smoke rounds or industrial chemicals.
[Burma's] security forces continued to carry out extrajudicial killings. Disappearances continued, and security forces raped, tortured, beat, and otherwise abused prisoners and detainees. Citizens were subjected to arbitrary arrest without appeal.
Christian LeMiere, U.K.-based Asia Editor of Jane's Country Risk , said it was "perfectly plausible that [Burmese security forces] would be able to use certain rudimentary chemical weapons like chlorine or mustard gas. They're very easy to deliver and very easy to manufacture.”
“The evidence provided by the Christian Solidarity organization…although it can't be verified, does seem to tie in with the symptoms from something such as chlorine or mustard gas and the delivery system, just simple artillery shells filled with gases,” LeMiere said.
But he added that any strategic advantage that might be gained by using chemicals was unclear.
“The chemical weapons I'm talking about, chlorine and mustard gas, dissipate quite quickly,” he said. "And in fact they don't even have a very effective fatality rate. No one actually died from these attacks. They just felt pretty queasy afterwards and couldn't really fight.”
Such weapons “are very useful at clearing areas,” he added. “If you just want to move people on, it's quite an effective way.”
“In a number of conflicts, there have been accusations of chemical weapons use, but what's really happened is that there have been industrial chemicals tossed about," such as phosgene and chlorine, Amy Smithson, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said.
“And eyewitnesses, victims, all they know is something is making them choke or making their skin or eyes burn. I don't rule out the possibility that this is an industrial chemical. If it's being used for warfare, it's still against the law," Smithson said.
John Gilbert, senior science fellow at the Washington D.C.-based Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, cast doubt on the possibility of a chemical attack, saying smoke shells, which often contain phosphorous, were a more likely cause.
“Smoke rounds can be fired from artillery shells. It can be used to designate a point target for later attack by an airplane flying in to drop bombs . . . or for a follow-up artillery barrage. It could also be done to obscure things,” Gilbert said.
“Many smoke rounds use phosphorous, which does form a dense cloud and can have pulmonary effects, cause burns, and lead to nausea if breathed in significant amounts. Smoke rounds also can be colored and I have personally seen both green and yellow smoke rounds used in demonstrations.”
In its World Report 2005, Human Rights Watch reported that Burma leads the world in the number of child conscripts in its armed forces.
Burmese soldiers have used extrajudicial execution, rape, torture, forced relocation of villages, and forced labor in campaigns against rebel groups, it said, such as the Karenni.
During long decades of war, up to 200,000 Karenni have been driven from their homes. Tens of thousands more are housed in Thai refugee camps along the border, according to aid organizations.
Conflict between the junta's army and the Karenni resumed in 2004 after the former Burmese prime minister, Gen. Khin Nyunt, was put under house arrest and hardliners backed out of a January 2004 ceasefire he signed with Karenni commanders.
In 2004, the U.S. State Department reported in its annual review of human rights around the world, the government’s “extremely poor human rights record worsened, and the government continued to commit numerous serious abuses.”
“Security forces continued to carry out extrajudicial killings. Disappearances continued, and security forces raped, tortured, beat, and otherwise abused prisoners and detainees. Citizens were subjected to arbitrary arrest without appeal,” it said.
Ethnic armed groups including Shan and Karenni rebels also reportedly committed human rights abuses, including killings, rapes, forced labor, and conscription of child soldiers, the State Department said, but on a lesser scale than the government.
Original reporting in Burmese by Khin May Zaw, for RFA’s Burmese service. Additional reporting in Washington by Richard Finney. Written and produced for the Web by Sarah Jackson-Han.