SYDNEY (Reuters) – A London-based Christian human rights group says it has collected strong evidence of a chemical attack on Karen rebels by Myanmar’s military government, which denied the allegation on Friday.
Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) said it had examined five rebels who detailed the attack on February 15 and who suffered blisters, throat, eye and lung irritations and vomiting.
CSW international president Dr Martin Panter told Reuters a Thai doctor had examined the rebels five days after the attack and reported the men “were extremely sick, they were not able to eat, their skin had a yellow colour to it and severe irritation”.
According to a draft CSW report posted on www.csw.org.uk, the attack occurred at the Karen border post Nya My, 6 miles west of the Thai hill town of Mae Hong Son, during prolonged heavy artillery shelling which started on January 14.
On the morning of February 15, a shell exploded near the post, giving off pungent yellow smoke, unlike the usual black and white smoke from artillery shells, the report said.
“When the shell exploded immediately a thick yellow vapour, like a cloud, emanated from it,” said Panter, who examined the rebels on April 15.
“They said immediately on inhaling some of this yellow vapour they immediately felt sick, their eyes burned, their throat burned. They found it very difficult to breath, they became very short of breath,” said Panter in Australia on Friday.
A Thai military intelligence officer confirmed shelling had taken place in the area on February 15, but said he did not know if chemical weapons had been used.
“We’ve collected evidence around the area for lab tests, but we haven’t got any results yet,” the officer told Reuters.
The Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), most of whose soldiers are Christian, has waged a 56-year war — Asia’s longest insurgency — against the military junta in the former Burma, demanding autonomy for an ethnic Karen state.
They struck a loose deal in January 2004 to end hostilities, but skirmishes continue.
The Myanmar army was accused of using chemical weapons in the 1990s, but there has never been any proof.
Myanmar Information Minister Brigadier General Kyaw Hsan said government troops were not even involved in the February 15 fighting, which he said involved rival militias.
“These two groups are only using conventional weapons and Myanmar does not have the technology to produce chemical weapons,” he told reporters in Yangon.
KNLA commander-in-chief Mutu Saepoe told Reuters in an exclusive interview two weeks after the alleged incident that there had been skirmishes between the army and his men in the area.
However, when asked to describe the nature of the fighting, he made no mention of chemical weapons.
Panter said the rebels had never witnessed anything like the yellow vapour before. “These are not rookie soldiers. They are experienced, hardened soldiers, most of them having fought with the Karenni resistance for between 15 and 25 years,” he said.
Two of the men started vomiting blood within 30 minutes, Panter said, and within a few hours none of them could stand up.
All were stretchered to the Thai hill town of Mae Hong Son, and then taken to the northern city of Chiang Mai for treatment but sent back to Myanmar sick and barely able to walk, he said.
Panter said when he examined the rebels they were still very weak and were suffering the affects of what he believes was an attack with a chemical cocktail.
“Certainly there was very strong evidence of blistering and severe irritation of the skin. From the conclusion I have made, it was probably a cocktail of chemicals, containing a blister agent similar to mustard gas, probably a nerve agent similar to sarin gas and also a pulmonary agent affecting the lungs.”
CSW is a human rights organisation specialising in religious freedom. It began in 1979 as the British branch of the Swiss-based organisation, Christian Solidarity International.
Since independence from Britain in 1948, Myanmar has been convulsed by a series of ethnic guerrilla conflicts with the ruling ethnic Burman majority. The Karen number around 1.5 million inside Myanmar, according to rebels.