Email This Story :
Burma on Thursday denied accusations it had used chemical weapons against ethnic minority rebels in the northern state of Kachin, where an escalating conflict has overshadowed wider political reforms.
“Our military never uses chemical weapons and we have no intention to use them at all. I think the KIA (Kachin Independence Army) is accusing us wrongly,” presidential spokesman Ye Htut said.
The rebels on Wednesday told AFP that the army had stepped up its operations in recent days, allowing troops to take territory in a push towards the KIA stronghold of Laiza on the border with China.
“It is already three days (they have) used chemical weapons (and) they are able to occupy very important posts,” KIA spokesman James Lum Dau told AFP. He said there was an intense heat and soldiers “lost consciousness” when the shells exploded. “Around that area everybody suffers.”
Although these reports cannot be independently verified, they are backed by the humanitarian group, the Free Burma Rangers (FBR), which recently claimed to have found evidence of the use of chemical weapons. In a report dated 4 January, FBR accused the Burmese army of “shooting machine guns, dropping bombs and using chemical munitions” against the rebels.
The group could not identify the chemicals used, but said it was probably HC CS or some other form of tear gas. The use of riot agents in warfare is prohibited under international humanitarian law, although it is permitted for domestic riot-control purposes.
“We are not sure what it is, but we have found the containers. These attacks are in the La Ja Yang area; Bum Re and north west at Nam San Yang [near the Kachin rebels headquarters],” a spokesperson for FBR told Karen News last week.
It is not the first time Burmese troops have been accused of using chemical weapons. In late 2011, the discovery of a mysterious “yellow rain” in townships in Kachin state prompted fears of the use of chemical munitions. Locals in Shan and Karen states have also previously reported feeling nauseous or dizzy after military onslaughts by government troops.
Tens of thousands of people have been displaced by the Kachin conflict since June 2011, when a 17-year ceasefire between the government and the KIA broke down. Late last year, the government stepped up its offensive in the resource-rich area, and recently drew international condemnation for its use of airstrikes against the rebels.
The Kachin clashes, along with communal unrest in the western state of Arakan, have marred optimism about dramatic political changes since Burma’s widely praised emergence from decades of army rule in early 2011.
Civil war has plagued parts of the country since it won independence from Britain in 1948. Burma’s quasi-civilian regime has reached tentative peace deals with other major ethnic rebel groups, but an agreement with the Kachin has proved elusive.
President Thein Sein, a former general, in December 2011 ordered an end to military offensives against the rebels and continued hostilities have led to doubts over his ability to control the powerful armed forces. Ye Htut reiterated government assertions that the army was only firing “in self-defence”.