Much fuss has justifiably been made about five journalists locked up in Myanmar after a story was published alleging the military-controlled government has built a chemical weapons factory in Pauk, a township in the country’s center.
The government has said the 12-square kilometer facility is a defense ministry factory but it also says no chemical weapons are being produced there. Despite this, four journalists and a chief executive of the weekly Yangon-based Unity Journal were arrested under state secrecy laws.
Given Myanmar’s delicate position amid normalization efforts within the international system, the gravity of the claims, suspicions that Myanmar’s generals hold nuclear capability ambitions and the global reaction to Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile, perhaps an independent observer from the United Nations should take a look.
According to reports, work on the factory began in 2009. Since then, more than 3,000 acres of land have been confiscated from farmers and locals, who claim that chemical weapons were being produced at the site. They also contend that the complex is connected by more than 330 meters of tunnels.
There is no independent verification of the claims.
If President Thein Sein and his deputies are serious about their place in the world, then a short inspection by the relevant authorities should be allowed. This would go a long way to assuaging fears about a country which has just assumed the chair of the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
The government has rejected the claims but in releasing details of the arrests state media said the charges related to disclosing official secrets, indicating that from their perspective that there was some truth to the story.
Last year the government was forced to denying it had used chemical weapons on rebels in the northern state of Kachin.
Presidential spokesperson and Deputy Minister of Information Ye Htut attempted to explain his government’s position, saying the report was not based on reliable sources.
“The journal only quotes local people, and it was a totally baseless accusation,” he told The Irrawaddy. “The factory was under the Ministry of Defense and protected under the Official Secrets Act.”
Myanmar is a non-nuclear weapon state party to the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons but has not ratified the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention or the Chemical Weapons Convention. There is no evidence to confirm whether or not the country has any programs for the development of nuclear, chemical or biological weapons.
Under the act, it is an offense to communicate information that might have an adverse effect on the safety, sovereignty or integrity of the state, or affect foreign relations. The journalists could face up to 14 years in prison if convicted of unlawfully entering a state military facility.
Myanmar pride might be at stake here but the reality is the factory at Pauk has now become the object of international attention and finding out what is really happening at the site is simply a matter of time. Its military would be doing itself a favor by allowing independent verification and confirmation that the government was right in rejecting the report as baseless.
Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter @lukeanthonyhunt