With journalists sentenced to hard labor for writing about an isolated installation, experts are concerned about what might be being produced
It was the kind of scoop any intrepid journalist dreams of getting, hitting all the right notes along the way—a vast and mysterious military installation, rumors of chemicals weapons, unexplained Chinese workers, the gaping maw of a tunnel jutting from the earth.
No doubt the Burmese journalists thought that, given the heady political changes afoot in their country, something might actually come of their revelation that the government appeared to be in the business of making chemical weapons.
Instead, the scoop landed them in jail, and left the government rushing to snap up unsold copies of the February issue of the Burmese-language Unity Journal carrying their claims.
Now, the four writers and the paper’s CEO face 10 years of hard labor after a court found them guilty on Thursday of revealing state secrets, and a lawyer for the accused told Spectrum that the state’s prosecution of the journalists is meant to stifle press freedoms. The sentence was widely condemned by human rights advocates.
“They are charging the journalists to oppress the media,” defense lawyer Aung Thane told Spectrum.
The government charged the journalists under a seldom-used colonial law intended to safeguard military secrets, alleging that they trespassed in pursuit of their story and spilled state secrets by publishing detailed descriptions and pictures of a military site.
It maintains that the sprawling military center in the Pauk township of Magwe region, which opened in 2009, is merely a conventional ordnance factory.
As the journalists face a decade behind bars, security experts told Spectrum that the site could have several possible purposes, including the production of weaponry with foreign backing, raising eyebrows as to what officials in Burma’s Byzantine defense industry might be up to.
The speed with which Burma pursued the journalists, experts say, illustrates that the government is still keen to keep a tight lid on its military activities, regardless of recent government reforms.
This deeply rooted secrecy has done little to dissuade speculation, as one long-time Burma watcher suggested that the site is direct evidence the country has increased its cooperation with North Korea.
“It’s not a chemical weapons factory, but reportedly a factory where they produce aluminum casing for missiles, and ‘the Chinese technicians’ they mention in the article are most likely North Koreans,” veteran journalist Bertil Lintner said.
This doesn’t surprise some observers, who suspect that ties between North Korea and Burma run deep. There have been unconfirmed reports in recent years that the reclusive state has been providing Burma, under the umbrella of the country’s Directorate of Defense Industries (DDI), with technical assistance in starting its own missile program near the city of Minbu.
One defense analyst stressed caution, noting that if North Koreans were helping make hefty rockets that the outcome would likely be publicly known.
“It’s a reasonable avenue of speculation, but we don’t know as a fact that the North Koreans are cooperating in a Burmese missile production program,” said Anthony Davis, a Bangkok-based analyst with IHS-Jane’s.
To assess the Unity Journal’s claims, the East Asia Non-proliferation Program analyzed a recent commercial satellite picture of the facility and supplemented it with publicly available satellite images. While such imagery alone isn’t enough to determine the facility’s true purpose, the photos appear to verify parts of the Unity Journal story, including the time frame of the site’s construction, said Jeffrey Lewis, the program’s director.
“They mention a number of details that are true or consistent with the imagery, including the loss of farms and homes, as well as the presence of high-ranking visitors and foreign workers,” Lewis said.
The imagery also appeared to confirm villager tales of land confiscation and displacement. The hamlet of Lebinaing appears in one image, only to be erased in a later shot, replaced by overgrowth and craggy soil.
Images also show construction at the site, and it was in the midst of building activity that the Unity Journal reporters entered the fray.
For the reporters, the story started innocently enough. Villagers had asked the journalists to come to the area because they said the government had seized their land to make way for the site — not entirely unheard of in a country known for rampant land confiscation.
Once there, locals told them stories of foreign workers, high-ranking visitors and tunnels stretching under the complex. The suspicion among area residents, which the Unity Journal published, was that chemical weapons were being made.
“There was construction going on at the site and two journalists went inside with them [the villagers],” Aung Thane said. “There were no signs at the site and nobody stopped them.”
The law under which they were been prosecuted — Section 3/1/A of the Official Secrets Act, which covers espionage — should not have been applied to this case, Aung Thane said, because sites protected by the law must be clearly marked in local languages.
“To define a secret area the government has to issue a statement or order in multiple languages and publish it in the Gazette,” Aung Thane said.
The Unity Journal staff are also charged under 2C of the Secrets Act, which concerns trespassing.
A planned new media law could not yet be used to try the journalists because the rules needed for its implementation have not yet been approved. Contrary to local media reports, Aung Thane said the defense did not request the government use the law.
Little has been heard from the Burma government to address the allegations. In the meantime, the Unity Journal has fallen on hard times since the arrests. With its editor jailed and circulation declining, the publication has been forced to close its Yangon office.
A key discovery in the East Asia Non-proliferation Program’s findings was the presence of a helicopter pad similar to one found at the Minbu site, which Lewis said appears to validate claims by locals that Chinese or North Korean technicians are present.
“At a more general level, the presence of foreign workers is most interesting to me. DDI has been sanctioned for dealing with North Korea, and this site appears similar to another location near Minbu where North Koreans are believed to live and work,” Lewis said. “Working from satellite images, it would appear that DDI’s activities are expanding, not contracting, despite promises to stop any illicit programs and end cooperation with North Korea.”
The possibility of strengthened ties between the countries startles observers who say such a development would be a step in the wrong direction for Burma. North Korea is also involved in vast under-the-radar activities worldwide that provide the cash-starved nation with a vital economic lifeline, according to reports — a practice that Lewis says likely extends to Burma.
“One concern is that Myanmar is a source of hard currency for the DPRK,” said Lewis, using the North’s formal name. “Myanmar may also serve as a trans-shipment point for the DPRK to help it evade sanctions. And, of course, there is the challenge that such a relationship poses to Myanmar’s transition to democracy.”
A Burmese official downplayed the significance of the East Asia Non-proliferation Program’s findings.
“They based their assumptions only on bird’s-eye-view images. Even if it was a real chemical weapons factory, the American intelligence capability would be able to detect it in the first place,” presidential spokesman Ye Htut told website Eleven Myanmar. “This facility is meant only for our defense measures.”
For Southeast Asia, Burma is a heavyweight defense spender, allocating nearly US$2.4 billion (77.3 billion baht), more than 12% of its annual budget, on military expenditures this year alone. Much of the reason for this, Davis said, is to counter “more complex and more varied” military threats, such as ethnic insurgencies.
To counter these threats, the Burma defense industry has ramped up its production of naval frigates, sophisticated weaponry and vehicles, he said. In doing so, Burma has increasingly drawn on Chinese expertise.
“They’re beefing up their capabilities for conventional conflicts, plus there is a range of civil unrest scenarios they have to be prepared for,” Davis said. “The Burmese military industrial complex is much more broadly developed and ambitious than people give it credit for. The days when they just produced assault rifles and ammunition are long over.”
In weighing the Unity Journal’s allegations, one chemical weapons expert said that it’s difficult to tell the site’s purpose without having a thorough look behind its doors.
“Observing from the outside, and even having a peek into the factory may not shed much light as to what is actually going on,” independent security consultant Dan Kaszeta said. “Trucks go in, trucks go out—there’s a spaghetti factory of pipes and valves inside. Even a highly trained specialist can’t necessarily tell you what’s going on in the mess of pipes and vessels without knowing some of what’s in the pipes.”
But despite the government’s claims, the limited open-source information on the site lends credibility to the idea that it could be something other than a run-of-the-mill munitions factory.
“The Burmese government says only that the site is a ‘standard ordnance factory’, but it is far too large to be a standard anything,” Lewis said.
It’s in part this immense size, stretching over more than 1,200 hectares, that gives way to additional possibilities.
“A factory built in a remote area in secrecy and under high security with a lot of pipes and pumps and such could easily be a chemical weapons facility,” Kaszeta said. “However, it is occurring in a country known for secrecy with a military that operates a vast defense industry as a state-owned enterprise. Many things under that umbrella could account for this, such as manufacture of explosives or propellants.”
Burma is no stranger to chemical weapons allegations, but past charges remain uncorroborated. Witness accounts of chemical weapon use by the Burma military against ethnic rebels, spanning from the 1980s to more recent skirmishes, have not been independently verified. In a 1992 report, the US government accused the Burma government of using artillery-fired chemical munitions, but it quickly abandoned the claims.
Were Burma making chemical weapons, Kaszeta said there would likely be other evidence, such as set-ups for testing weapons or changes in troop training, weaving chemical weapons into their playbook.
“A strong indicator is some kind of testing regime to see if weapons actually work,” said Kaszeta, a former US army chemical corps officer. “It seems unlikely that a country would go to the massive effort of making chemical weapons without seeing whether their chosen delivery mechanisms work.”
Yet Burma has done little to allay fears. The government could go a long way in putting chemical weapons rumors to rest were it to ratify the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), experts said, since the treaty contains robust provisions for monitoring defense installations. The country signed the 1993 arms treaty but has yet to ratify it.
“If the facility is declared as a civil facility under the CWC, there are routine provisions for inspection,” Lewis said, noting that it could shed light on its activities.
Ratifying the treaty, which bans the use, production or possession of chemical weapons, would also mean that other countries could request inspections of specific of sites.
“In theory it opens up the country to an inspections regime,” Kaszeta said. “What the practical impact would be, it’s hard to say. It could pave the way for a ‘challenge inspection’ if some other country says, ‘XYZ factory might be a chemical warfare plant, please inspect it.’ ”
The journalists, meanwhile, remain behind bars, and Aung Thane condemned the state’s vigorous prosecution. The entire taxing ordeal has sent a direct message, Aung Thane said.
“The case is used to set an example for other journalists,” he said.
There could be a quick fix, experts say, with the country accepting the treaty and doing an about-turn. But the hope that it opens the doors of its opaque facilities remains bleak in a country not renowned for its transparency.
“This would be easy enough to resolve if Burma were to simply ratify the CWC,” Lewis said. “Instead, they continue to delay, while holding the journalists in prison.”
This story first appeared in The Bangkok Post’s Spectrum and was reprinted courtesy of the Post.