Nyein Chan Naing/European Pressphoto Agency
Published: January 30, 2013
The suppression of a protest outside a controversial copper mine in central Myanmar on Nov. 29 shocked the Burmese public after images of critically injured monks circulated across the country. It also gave rise to fears that the civilian government of President Thein Sein, which came to power in 2011, was using the same repressive methods as the military governments that preceded it.
Burmese lawyers and an American human rights lawyer gathered material at the site of the protest, including a metal canister that protesters said was fired by the police. It was brought to a private laboratory in Bangkok, which found that residue in it contained high levels of phosphorus. Access to the canister and a copy of the laboratory report were provided to a reporter.
“We are confident that they used a munition that contained phosphorus,” said U Thein Than Oo, the head of the legal committee of the Upper Burma Lawyers Network, which helped investigate. “They wanted to warn the entire population not to protest. They wanted to intimidate the people.”
White phosphorus has many uses in war — as a smoke screen or incendiary weapon — but is rarely if ever used by police forces.
Reached on Wednesday, Zaw Htay, a director in the office of Mr. Thein Sein, declined to comment on what kind of weapon was used. “I can’t say,” he said. “I can’t answer.”
John Hart, a senior researcher at the Chemical Weapons Program of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, said by e-mail that although white phosphorus was not considered a chemical weapon under a 1993 international convention, it was banned from uses that “cause death or other harm through the toxic properties of the chemical.”
One of the monks injured at the protest, Ashin Tikhanyana, 64, has burns over 40 percent of his body and was flown to Bangkok by the government because Myanmar does not have the facilities to treat such a serious case.
Two months after the crackdown, Mr. Tikhanyana remains in intensive care. In an interview on Wednesday in his hospital room, Mr. Tikhanyana described the moment that the police came to disperse the crowds before dawn on Nov. 29.
“I saw a fireball beside me, and I started to burn,” he said. “I was rolling on the ground to try to put it out.”
Dr. Chatchai Pruksapong, a burn specialist treating Mr. Tikhanyana, said it appeared that the monk was seared with something “severely flammable.”
Mr. Tikhanyana’s wounds are similar to those Dr. Chatchai said he saw on soldiers injured by bomb blasts in Thailand’s southern insurgency.
“Tear gas would definitely not cause this kind of deep wound,” Dr. Chatchai said.
Myanmar government officials were initially quoted in the local news media as saying that police officers had thrown “smoke bombs” at protesters.
The canister found at the protest site appeared to have “smoke” stenciled on it and looks similar in appearance to smoke hand grenades once manufactured by the United States, said a security expert and former colonel in a European army who asked to remain anonymous because he has dealings in Myanmar. Such smoke grenades emit burning particles within a radius of about 55 feet, he said.
Roger Normand, the American human rights lawyer who helped investigate the crackdown, said a report from the lawyers would be released in the next few days.
Mr. Normand arranged to have the canister brought to the Bangkok laboratory, which is run by ALS, an Australian company that specializes in testing samples for their chemical content.
In an interview, Mr. Normand said it was “unheard-of” for highly volatile and dangerous weapons to be used by police forces. “This raises serious questions about who in the military chain of command could have given the order to use these weapons,” he said.
The report prepared by Mr. Normand and the Burmese lawyers has been submitted to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel laureate and opposition leader, who was appointed by the government soon after the crackdown to lead a separate, official commission of inquiry. The precise mandate of the commission is unclear, as is the timing of the release of the commission’s findings.
The government initially announced that the commission would report its work on Dec. 31, but that was delayed by a month. It may be further delayed because Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi is on a five-day visit to South Korea.
The controversy over the copper mine centers on the government’s effort to relocate villagers in order to expand the mine, which is co-owned by a Chinese company and the Burmese military. The government ordered the dispersal of protesters after several months of intermittent demonstrations. The controversy received widespread coverage in the Myanmar media partly because land rights have become a major issue as the country opens up to the world.
But it is a measure of the villagers’ resolve that even after the violent crackdown they say they are refusing to back down. Aye Net, a villager who has helped lead the protest movement, said Wednesday by telephone that villagers were calling for “justice for all those wounded in the crackdown.”
“And we still want the total abolition of the project,” she said.