RANGOON/MANDALAY — The Burma government has rejected a report on an alleged secret chemical weapons factory as “baseless,” following the arrest over the weekend of journalists and a news journal executive who published the report.
Ye Htut, the presidential spokesman and deputy minister of information, says the report in Rangoon-based Unity journal was not based on reliable sources.
“The journal only quotes local people, and it was a totally baseless accusation,” Ye Htut, the presidential spokesman and deputy minister of information, told The Irrawaddy on Tuesday.
“The factory was under the Ministry of Defense and protected under the Official Secrets Act,” he added. The act makes it an offense to communicate any information that might have an adverse effect on the safety, sovereignty or integrity of the state, or affect foreign relations.
He defended the arrest of the journalists, which he said was not a violation of press freedom.
“It is a national security issue, and even a country like the US would respond the same way on these matters,” he told The Irrawaddy.
He said the police received a warrant on Saturday to detain the Unity journalists and chief executive for two weeks. “Police are conducting their investigation according to law and regulations,” he added.
In late January the journal published a report about the supposed chemical weapons factory in Pauk Township, Magwe Division. The report, which included photographs, said the factory was built in 2009 on more than 3,000 acres of land that had been confiscated from farmers, and that it was connected by over 1,000 feet of tunnels.
It said the facility has been visited by the former military regime’s strongman Snr-Gen Than Shwe, as well as the current commander-in chief of the armed forces, Min Aung Hlaing, former Vice President Tin Aung Myint Oo and current Vice President Nyan Htun.
The journal cited local residents who said staff at the factory claimed to be producing chemical weapons. It did not cite any factory or government authorities.
The report could not be independently verified by The Irrawaddy and has since been removed from local newsstands.
Lu Maw Naing, a Unity reporter based in Pauk Township, was arrested on Friday and moved to the custody of the police’s Special Branch in nearby Pakokku Township.
The journal’s chief executive, Tint San, and three of its Rangoon-based journalists were later detained and are now being held for questioning at Insein Prison on the outskirts of Rangoon, according to family members who visited the prison on Tuesday.
“The situation of the interrogation is getting much better,” said Tint San’s assistant, Thiha Aung. He said his boss reported that authorities were treating him and the three others well. “But he seems to worry for his journal. He repeatedly told his nephew to try hard for his weekly, to get good news and take care of the staff.”
Meanwhile, the wife of the reporter in Pauk Township has also been held for questioning, according to family members. Lwin Lwin Myint lost contact with her family on Monday when she and her young daughter went to Pakokku Prison to see her husband.
“The friend who was accompanying her told us that the military officers told her to stay there at the prison because they had questions for her,” her brother Aung Kyaw Kyaw told The Irrawaddy on Tuesday. “The officers said Ma Lwin will be sent back home after questioning. We are so worried because she took her 2-year-old daughter.”
He said the police and local authorities searched her home while she was gone, although other residents who live in the same building asked them to return later after she or her husband have returned from prison.
“The children who live there asked them not to go into the house while the homeowners are away,” he said. “But the police rudely replied, rushed into the house and took a laptop.”
Officials at the Pauk Township Police Station and the Special Branch declined requests for comment on Tuesday. Officials at Pakokku Prison told The Irrawaddy they were not familiar with the case of the Unity journal reporter.
The US-based Committee to Protect Journalists, an international press freedom watchdog, has condemned the arrest of the journalists and called for their immediate and unconditional release.
“The fact that journalists can be charged with revealing state secrets shows how desperately Burma needs meaningful legal reform,” Shawn Crispin, CPJ’s senior Southeast Asia representative, said in a statement on Monday. “Weapons proliferation issues are central to Burma’s political narrative and journalists should not be threatened or arrested for reporting on topics of national and international importance.”
Burma has signed the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), an international treaty that outlaws the production, stockpiling and use of chemical weapons. The government said in December that it was preparing to ratify the treaty.