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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