The Myanmar government this week rejected a report of an alleged secret chemical weapons factory. Six local journalists involved in the report have been detained for questioning. Although the sources of the report appear weak, relying solely on the statements of local residents, the report highlights an issue of importance for Myanmar's shedding of its pariah-state skin.
Myanmar signed the Chemical Weapons Convention in 1993 and the Biological Weapons Convention in 1972 but has yet to ratify the agreements.
There is no conclusive evidence that Myanmar has chemical or biological weapons, but Myanmar's opening to the world, its democratic transition, and its greater inclusion into global markets would in any case now render any such arsenals near redundant. The international diplomatic and military pressure placed on Syria last year after its use of chemical weapons demonstrates that any use of such weapons by the Tatmadaw, Myanmar's military, in its long drawn conflicts with armed ethnic groups would draw resounding international censure.
With Syria's accession to the CWC in September last year and the relinquishing of its chemical weapon stockpiles, the time is ripe for Myanmar and other non-compliant states to ratify the Convention. Syria's accession renews pressure on non-member states to the CWC (Angola, Egypt, North Korea and South Sudan) and on signatory states that have not ratified the agreement (Israel and Myanmar).
In February 2013 the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, last year’s recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, led a three-day technical assistance trip to Naypyidaw at the request of the Myanmar government. Since then the OPCW has stated that several countries, including Myanmar, are close to ratifying the CWC. In December, under renewed pressure to ratify the CWC after the Syrian experience, President Thein Sein said Myanmar was preparing to ratify both the chemical and biological weapons conventions.
Ratification of the CWC and BWC would bring multiple benefits. It would be further evidence the military's commitment to Myanmar's political transition, which would also have residual positive effects on investor confidence. But most importantly it would be a gesture of trust in a country recovering from decades of conflict. It would be a show of confidence in ceasefire agreements and the overall peace process with the country's constellation of armed ethnic groups, some of which allege the Tatmadaw has used chemical weapons in their fight.
Governments, including Australia, should urge Myanmar to comply with and ratify the weapons conventions, a minor concession with a payoff for Naypyidaw and the country’s transition from pariah state to responsible and respectable actor.
Photo by Flickr user JFerreiraMKT.