Use of Phosphorus in Protest Raid Outrages Activist, Victims

By Lawi Weng 31 January 2013

RANGOON — An independent investigation into a raid that injured dozens of protesters who opposed a copper mine in northwest Burma in November, found that police shot canisters containing white phosphorus into the crowd.

The highly-flammable chemical is often used for military purposes to illuminate areas or to create smoke.

“Our team went to Bangkok after collecting materials from the crackdown and laboratory tests found phosphorus on it,” said Thein Than Oo, the head of the legal committee of the Upper Burma Lawyers Network.

He was reluctant to discuss the findings in detail, saying that the group would bring out a report after a parliamentary commission headed by opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi completes its findings on the incident and the mining project.

“We want to see the result from Letpaduang commission first. At that time, we can say what we have found and from their side, we can know what they have found and whether they have laboratory tests,” Thein Than Oo said. He added that the group had sent their results to Suu Kyi.

Her commission was due to release its findings on the Letpadaung mine by Dec. 31, but no results have been released. It also remains unclear if it is only investigating the project, or if the crackdown is also in the commission’s purview.

The news of the test results was first reported on Wednesday night by The New York Times, which gained access to the evidence and said it appeared to be a military-use smoke grenade.

A security expert who had seen the canister told The Times that such devices emit burning particles in a radius of about 50 meters.

Ye Htut, a spokesperson from the President’s Office, said he had no immediate reaction to the findings. “It may interfere if I give comment about this result before the investigation team from Daw Aung San Suu Kyi reports,” he said.

Ko Ko Gyi, an activist leader of the 88 Generation Students group, said the findings were shocking and showed that government leaders should get to the very bottom of what happened at the Letpadaung crackdown.

“It is not difficult to investigate for the government and find out who are who doing this and why, and find out the type of weapons they used,” he said.

“In order not to let it happen again in the future, they (the government) should take action and punish those people who give orders to do this,” Ko Ko Gyi said.

The canister was retrieved from the scene of the crackdown near the Letpadaung copper mine in Sagaing Division on Nov. 29.

Almost 100 people were injured there when riot police reportedly used tear gas, water cannons and incendiary devices in a bid to close a protest camp located outside of the copper mining company.

The company is a joint venture of China’s Wan Bao Company and Burma’s military-owned Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited.

Most of the injured were monks who sustained severe burns. Several suffered third-degree burns over most of their bodies and are being treated in Thailand.

U Zavana, a senior Buddhist monk who was among the victims, said in a reaction to the news that the government should prosecute those who gave the order to use the smoke grenades.

“The government has responsibility to find the people and punish who ordered this,” he said, adding that the police’s actions cast doubt on the government’s promise that it was changing from its old repressive ways.

“We cannot say at all that we can trust in this political change because if we look they brutally cracked down on us and used bombs when our actions affected their properties,” the monk said.

“We were acting with metta [loving kindness] and we never expected that we could be burn like this,” he said.

“My novices or young monks were wounded; I am taking care of them as I am worried that they will have a depression.”

Thet Swe Aye from The Irrawaddy contributed to this article.