Experts Detail Suspicions About Mysterious Defense Site in Myanmar

Myanmar's army chief, Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, inspects troops during a military ceremony in the capital city of Naypyidaw in March. Nonproliferation experts on Friday said there is reason to be suspicious about a mysterious defense site in the country, which locals have alleged is involved in chemical-arms work.
National Journal
Rachel Oswald
May 12, 2014, 10:29 a.m.

Non­pro­lif­er­a­tion ex­perts on Fri­day said they had found reas­on to be sus­pi­cious about the pur­pose of a mys­ter­i­ous de­fense site in My­an­mar.

Earli­er this year, the small Burmese journ­al Unity ran an in­vest­ig­at­ive re­port al­leging that a de­fense fa­cil­ity in the cent­ral Mag­we re­gion was man­u­fac­tur­ing chem­ic­al war­fare ma­ter­i­als. Gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials swiftly denied the re­port, ar­res­ted the journ­al­ists re­spons­ible for the art­icle and ac­ted to con­fis­cate print cop­ies of the journ­al. However, as My­an­mar has yet to join the Chem­ic­al Weapons Con­ven­tion, there is no form­al mech­an­ism for veri­fy­ing that the gov­ern­ment is telling the truth.

Ana­lysts with the James Mar­tin Cen­ter for Non­pro­lif­er­a­tion Stud­ies in their Fri­day re­port said they be­lieve the fa­cil­ity mer­its closer ex­am­in­a­tion due to a num­ber of design fea­tures that are “con­sist­ent” with a chem­ic­al pro­duc­tion plant.

“It is not pos­sible to de­term­ine wheth­er the fa­cil­ity is a chem­ic­al weapons site, but there are a num­ber of as­pects to its size, lay­out and loc­a­tion that raise ques­tions,” wrote CNS re­search as­so­ci­ate Cath­er­ine Dill and Jef­frey Lewis, who dir­ects the think tank’s East Asia Non­pro­lif­er­a­tion Pro­gram.

Dill and Lewis said they were able to identi­fy the loc­a­tion of the fa­cil­ity by com­par­ing pho­tos prin­ted in the Unity journ­al art­icle with com­mer­cial satel­lite pho­to­graphs taken in 2004, 2009, 2012 and Janu­ary 2014. The fa­cil­ity is loc­ated near the Pauk town­ship and con­sists of five siz­able ware­houses, ac­cord­ing to the CNS re­port.

Point­ing to such de­tec­ted fea­tures as heli­copter pads, a for­ti­fied en­trance, a se­cur­ity peri­met­er and pos­sible nearby for­eign work­er hous­ing, the ex­perts con­cluded the site is “clearly a high-value de­fense fa­cil­ity.”

The com­plex’s loc­a­tion in isol­ated hill coun­try would be in­con­sist­ent with the premise of a com­mer­cial busi­ness ven­ture, Dill and Lewis said. “The hills might, however, provide some pro­tec­tion for nearby com­munit­ies in the event of a chem­ic­al re­lease.”

They also noted the pres­ence of vent­il­a­tion fea­tures such as three ex­haust stacks and roof vents on some of the con­nec­ted build­ings in the north­ern part of the site.

The ex­perts re­com­mend that the in­ter­na­tion­al com­munity press My­an­mar to quickly rat­i­fy the Chem­ic­al Weapons Con­ven­tion and cla­ri­fy “the pur­pose of de­fense activ­it­ies” at the com­plex. In re­cent days, an of­fi­cial with Pres­id­ent Thein Sein’s ad­min­is­tra­tion said the gov­ern­ment was plan­ning to rat­i­fy the chem­ic­al weapons ban with­in its cur­rent term.

In past dec­ades, dis­sid­ent Burmese groups have ac­cused the mil­it­ary junta that of­fi­cially ruled My­an­mar un­til a few years ago of con­duct­ing chem­ic­al weapons work. However, no evid­ence has been found to back up those claims.

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