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Chemical Weapons in Myanmar?

by Joshua Kurlantzick
February 10, 2014

Reporters hold banners as they march for press freedom in Yangon on January 7, 2014. (Soe Zeya Tun/Courtesy Reuters) Reporters hold banners as they march for press freedom in Yangon on January 7, 2014. (Soe Zeya Tun/Courtesy Reuters)

This past week, the Myanmar government detained—and may be arresting—six Burmese journalists who reported that the country may have had a chemical weapons factory under the former military dictatorship. The local journal produced the following report, according to the Irrawaddy:

[There was] a supposed chemical weapons factory in PaukTownship, Magwe Division. The report, which included photographs, said the factory was built in 2009 on more than 3,000 acres of land that had been confiscated from farmers, and that it was connected by over 1,000 feet of tunnels. The facility has been visited by the former military regime’s strongman Snr-Gen Than Shwe, as well as the current commander-in chief of the armed forces, Min Aung Hlaing, former Vice President Tin Aung Myint Oo and current Vice President Nyan Htun.

The Myanmar government has denied the report as baseless, and now detained six of the journalists and news executives involved in producing the story in a local journal. Most international attention now has focused on the detentions, suggesting that these arrests of reporters are a further sign that Myanmar’s period of reform has a long way to go, and that press freedom, supposedly one of the biggest gains in the reform period, is not quite as complete as some outside observers have suggested. The Committee to Protect Journalists and other press freedom organizations immediately condemned the arrests and called on Myanmar’s government to implement significant legal reforms that would better protect freedom of the press.

To be sure, the arrest of the journalists is a serious problem, and it does indeed show that Myanmar’s reforms remain incomplete, suspicion of journalists runs high among Myanmar officials, and—quite possibly—Myanmar media outlets need time to develop higher standards of sourcing and fact-checking. But the report and the arrests also throws light on the fact that Naypyidaw still has a ways to go to completely disavow any links to WMD production programs. For years, rumors and stories of nuclear and chemical weapons plants circulated in the Myanmar-watching community, particularly in the last decade of Myanmar’s military rule. A prominent report by the highly respected Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), released in 2010, suggested that numerous suspicious military sites around Myanmar could be undeclared nuclear activities and facilities.

Myanmar’s current, reformist government has denied all of those past allegations. It has taken important strides to improving the transparency of all of its military-related activities, including signing the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Additional Protocol—strides praised by ISIS, among other watchdogs. Still, Myanmar seems to retain some opaque military-military cooperation with North Korea, which remains a concern, and the country also has never ratified the international conventions on chemical and biological weapons, though it signed both of them during the long period of military rule. Given the continued opaque style in which Naypyidaw operates, the paranoia over the journalists’ reports, Myanmar’s history, and its continued ties with North Korea, the country still needs to go farther to show that it has broken all links to any WMD ambitions in the past. Ratifying the chemical and biological weapons conventions would be an important marker of this change.

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