Myanmar's Unrepentant Arms Czar

The general sanctioned for dealing with North Korea -- and the village he razed to build a weapons factory.

This is Thein Htay.

He is, by all accounts, a pretty bad guy. We're sure his mother loves him, of course, but he has been sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department.

Although Barack Obama's administration has been engaging Myanmar's generals to facilitate the country's transition to civilian rule, they've made an exception for this guy because of his dealings with North Korea.

Thein Htay controls something called the Directorate of Defense Industries (DDI) in Myanmar -- a massive state enterprise alleged to comprise more than two dozen arms factories, secret overseas bank accounts, and a bustling trade with North Korea in missiles and who-knows-what-else. If Myanmar is going to make the transition to democracy, guys like this have to go. But the disturbing aspect to this story is that, despite U.S. sanctions against Thein Htay and the regime's promises to end cooperation with North Korea, his empire is getting bigger.

But don't take the Treasury Department's word on whether Thein Htay is a bad guy. Ask the people who used to live in the tiny village of Lebinaing, a little hamlet near a place called Pauk. One day the army showed up, confiscated their farms, razed their village, and built a huge factory -- one of more than two dozen in Thein Htay's empire of arms factories. 

You can read all about the episode in Unity Journal, a weekly publication in Myanmar whose reporters interviewed the villagers and took pictures of the facility in January 2014. Well, you could have read all about it -- but Thein Htay apparently doesn't like scrutiny. The Myanmar government quickly arrested four reporters and the CEO for violating the state secrets act and confiscated all copies of the magazine. The five journalists remain rotting in jail. 

The United States has engaged Myanmar in the hopes that the country will move toward a more open society. As part of the process of relaxing military rule, loosening censorship, and releasing dissidents, Myanmar's generals were also supposed to quit North Korea. The Obama administration has been willing to accept at face value Myanmar's promises to end its ties with North Korea and any illicit weapons programs because U.S. officials believe that democratization will solve any nonproliferation problems, whether these involve the missile trade with North Korea or unanswered questions about Myanmar's interest in nuclear technologies. What happened near Pauk, however, suggests that the White House is wrong. An open society can't take root in Myanmar as long as institutions like the Directorate of Defense Industries seize people's farms for their factories and the government arrests journalists to avoid scrutiny.

The story of what happened near Pauk is an interesting one. In February, Unity published an article based on interviews with people living near Pauk. They claimed that the site was unusual: It had very heavy security, it had been visited by senior regime figures, and it was staffed by foreign workers. And, of course, they were upset that their farms had been taken and their village destroyed. The story received international attention following the detention of the Unity journalists and the confiscation of all copies of that edition of their magazine, which contained images of the site. The government acknowledged that the facility is defense-related, and it later claimed that the facility is a standard ordnance factory of unspecified purpose.

The images as published in Unity.

Based on a single satellite image purchased by Foreign Policy, we were able to locate and analyze the facility. Its scale is surprising. It certainly doesn't look like a standard ordnance factory. (The Center for Nonproliferation Studies has published a full analysis of how we matched the picture to the site.) 

Site of alleged chemical weapons facility.

The image confirms many of the details provided by the villagers. The security perimeter, including the main gate, is formidable. There is a helipad of the sort one only sees at facilities that receive VIP visitors. And, in addition to housing constructed for Myanmar workers, there are barracks-style buildings similar to housing provided for foreign personnel at other DDI sites. Lebinaing has been demolished to clear an area around the perimeter and make room for a transformer substation.

In the left image from 2012, the village of Lebinaing is still visible. In the right January 2014 image the village has been razed.

The locals made a number of other claims that are more difficult to verify. They believe that the facility is intended to produce chemical weapons. The Unity story also reportedly quoted a local employee saying he saw "rockets" at the site. It is very difficult to identify a chemical weapons facility using only overhead imagery, but the scale of the facility and its location are certainly unlike "standard ordnance factories" seen elsewhere. It comprises five enormous warehouses, with more than 200,000 square meters of floor space.

The allegations of chemical weapons production would be easy enough to address if Myanmar were simply to make good on its promise to accede to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). Myanmar signed the agreement in 1993 but has delayed bringing it (and its verification measures) into force for more than two decades. Myanmar keeps making promises: The country hosted a technical assistance delegation from the CWC's implementing organization in February 2013, and, as recently as December, a spokesperson said that Myanmar continues making preparations to accede to the treaty. The same spokesman again repeated this promise in February in the wake of the allegations. Although it certainly does take time to prepare initial declarations and the requisite implementing legislation and institutions to abide by the CWC's terms, Myanmar seems to be stalling. Once it accedes to the treaty, the government will have a 30-day period to declare all materials and activities under the scope of the CWC. All declarations will then be subject to inspection and open to requests for clarification.

The locals also stated that the foreign workers were Chinese. Again, overhead imagery is no help unless the foreign workers bring their mothers and you image them doing qigong at the crack of dawn. But the site bears a number of startling resemblances to another DDI facility -- this one near Minbu -- that the United States believes is a North Korean-supplied factory that makes missiles of an unspecified type. The two facilities have identical security gates and helipads, as well as similar barracks that are not for Myanmar workers.

Left: A security gate, helipad and barracks at a facility near Minbu where North Korean personnel are rumored to live; Right: similar features at the site near Pauk.

There is ample evidence of ties between North Korea and the Directorate of Defense Industries. Thein Htay accompanied the head of Myanmar's military on a visit to Pyongyang in 2008. His Korean is apparently good enough that he served as the interpreter. Thein Htay later led a delegation of Myanmar officials to Beijing to meet with North Korean officials. He reportedly maintains secret bank accounts in Singapore that fund much of his country's trade with North Korea. It's not hard to understand why the Treasury Department singled him out.

What is surprising, however, is that the Directorate of Defense Industries is expanding. The facility near Pauk is enormous -- and brand-new. DDI is building a number of new industry sites, as well as modernizing and expanding existing sites. The facility near Pauk is just the tip of the iceberg.

This cannot be what the Obama administration expected when Myanmar agreed to end its illicit programs and cut off ties to North Korea. Rather than withering, DDI is getting bigger, richer, and more powerful. And when nosy journalists poke around and interview the farmers who've been turned out of their homes, the entire repressive apparatus of the state descends to stop any scrutiny. This is the antithesis of a democratic, open society.

The Obama administration may have been right to defer nonproliferation concerns while working with Myanmar's generals to transition to quasi-civilian rule. But what is clear, to us at least, is that this process is no longer sustainable without additional steps to bring Myanmar into compliance with international nonproliferation commitments and norms. A democratic society must be able to hold accountable people like Thein Htay and institutions like DDI if it is to be worthy of the name.

EPA/NYEIN CHAN NAING; Irrawaddy; Astrium; Microsoft Corporation/Digital Globe; Astrium; Digital Globe/Astrium


'It Is a Sin to Waste Your Vote'

Why are Kashmiris shunning India's election?

SRINAGAR, Kashmir — On the morning of April 30, the day of India's parliamentary elections in Srinagar, Showkat Ahmad Bhat stood quietly outside his shuttered grocery store. The alleyways in the capital of Indian-controlled Kashmir -- dotted with political banners promising "a new age" -- were mostly empty, aside from the scores of Indian soldiers and policemen deployed to guard against possible disruptions from Kashmir's resistance movement, which seeks independence from India. Bhat and his friends huddled on a street corner, watching which of their neighbors would walk into the lane that leads to the polling booth.

"I have never voted in 46 years of my life and I never will," Bhat says, holding up his unstained left-forefinger to show he did not bear the ink-mark that Indian balloters receive. "Even if all of Kashmir votes in Indian elections, I will still boycott."

Between April 7 and May 16, over 800 million Indians are set to participate in the election that pits the Congress Party candidate Rahul Gandhi against Narendra Modi, the leader of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the overwhelming favorite to take over as prime minister. But while many are voting based on which candidate will jump-start economic growth, crackdown on bureaucratic corruption, and deliver stronger internal security, for Kashmiris like Bhat the question is not who to support -- but whether to vote at all.

Since 1989, when opposition figures began mass protests against Indian rule, Kashmiris have largely boycotted the elections -- refusing to participate in an exercise they feel has little or no connection with their real aspiration of self determination. (All major Indian parties say that Kashmir is an integral part of India.) In the South Kashmir constituency -- which held its vote on April 24, the first of three election phases in the contested region -- around 72 percent of its eligible voters, according to the Election Commission of India (ECI), chose to stay home. A week later in Srinagar, an estimated 900,000 of the city's 1.2 million voters boycotted. In contrast, voter turnout in India's 2009 parliamentary elections was at 58 percent nationally.

Yet years of abstention -- voter turnout in Srinigar was 18 percent in 2004 and 25.6 in 2009 -- has done little to further calls for Kashmiri independence. "They will still form a government, they always form a government no matter how few people vote," says Bhat's friend Mohammad Yusuf. "India rules us with its soldiers and its guns. All this is mere theater."

Not all Kashmiris are abstaining from the election, of course. "It is a sin to waste your vote," 51-year-old Haleema Bano says, covering her face with her white headscarf as she waited her turn in line. "Allah will punish you for it."

* * *

Kashmir is one of the subcontinents oldest conflicts. The region -- an autonomous princely state prior to partition in 1947 -- is claimed by both India and Pakistan and divided along the Line of Control, a highly militarized boundary separating the Indian-controlled state of Jammu and Kashmir from the Pakistani areas to the north. Kashmir's post-partition political tensions cannot be disentangled from its religious demography: The region is predominately Muslim, though controlled by Hindu-majority India. After decades of simmering discontent, a mass armed uprising, supported by the neighboring Pakistan, erupted against the unpopular Indian occupation in 1989. India responded by deploying more than half a million soldiers in the region.

While India's counterinsurgency methods have almost wiped out the armed movement -- the Indian Army estimates there are only 300 active militants in Kashmir -- the spirit of Kashmiri resistance remains active, and often manifests itself in massive street protests. 

These street demonstrations have often led to violence between the police and the protesters. Indian forces have killed hundreds of unarmed protesters in the last few years. During voting in South Kashmir in late April, clashes between Indian forces and protesters left at least 12 police and paramilitary soldiers injured and several young protesters wounded. Suspected militants killed three people, including two village leaders, in attacks on April 21 in an apparent effort to intimidate voters. In the lead-up to the election, police detained roughly 600 Kashmiri activists, including many of the leaders of the independence resistance movement.

In a statement released on April 28, police said that "[n]obody will be allowed to disrupt the electoral process," describing those arrested as "stone pelters and trouble mongers."

Owais Mushtaq, who has been involved in street protests, is one of those so-called trouble mongers. Local police picked up the 20 year old on April 27, along with dozens of other boys from Maisuma, a predominantly pro-independence neighborhood in Srinagar, according to his family. As of May 8, Mushtaq remains detained.

Sitting in the family's small home in Maisuma, his father, Mushtaq Ahmad, recalls the first time his son was arrested: Mushtaq was just 15 then, charged with waging war against the state.

Ahmad himself says he was never involved in resistance efforts, even though at times he longed to join. "Two years ago, half a dozen soldiers beat me up," he says. "I kept showing them my identity card, but they kept beating me. It was there that I swore that my son is actually doing the right thing by throwing stones."

The independence movement in Kashmir has been buoyed by serious abuses by Indian forces. Human Rights Watch and other organizations have implicated Indian armed personnel in extrajudicial killings, disappearances, and torture. Militants have also committed atrocities, in particular targeting civilians perceived to support India. About 70,000 people have reportedly been killed in the conflict and thousands have been detained in Indian prisons.

As Ahmad spoke, Mushtaq's mother and two sisters were trying to stay busy, dusting off the window sills while a soap opera played unnoticed on the TV in the corner. "Only my body is here," Mushtaq's mother says. "My heart is there, in the prison."

* * *

Despite the heavy deployment of armed personnel, protests started in late afternoon on election day. As police were withdrawing from their polling stations, scores of resistance activists amassed, throwing stones. Indian police opened fire, killing a young protester, Bashir Ahmad Bhat, a 26-year-old mason, and wounding five others.

The Kashmir government immediately instituted a curfew, which remained in force for the next two days in many places throughout the city. The killing sparked clashes between protesters and police across the region, wounding several more people. The deployment of armed forces remained heavy through May 7, when elections were held in the constituency of North Kashmir. As in Srinagar, police clashed with protesters during North Kashmir's polling hours.

While boycott calls are nothing new during election season, Modi's ascension has revived the debate. The BJP politician is considered a hardliner when it comes to state policy towards the contested region. Modi's track record of right-wing Hindu nationalism politics is a point of concern for Muslims across India -- his critics point to his alleged role in the 2002 anti-Muslim Gujarat riots, in which over 1,000 people were killed in sectarian attacks -- yet for many Kashmiris, a Modi administration would be just another in a long line of abusive regimes. "The Kashmir policy of India has always been fascist but they have been carefully sugarcoating it in narratives of democracy and secularism," says human rights activist Khurram Parvez of the Coalition of Civil Society, a Srinagar-based human rights organization. "For us, Modi's coming will be an unveiling of the real India."

This is the India that Bhat rejects in boycotting the country's elections. Standing just a few miles from where Bashir Ahmad was killed, watching the few people trickle down the alley towards the polling station, Bhat pointed towards a street corner and relapsed into an old story: Two decades ago, he says, Indian Army soldiers killed two people on this corner. He remembers seeing the blood of a middle-aged woman shot in the stomach -- he ran from his grocery store, he said, but he couldn't help her.

"If I walk to the polling booths, I will have to answer that woman's dying face and many more dead people along the way," says Bhat. "And I can never do that."