Malaysian experience of Agent Orange

READING the report, “Seeking justice for victims” (The Star, Feb 1), I was reminded of a letter I wrote to The Star nearly 40 years ago. The article refers to the case in the French court taken up by a French-Vietnamese woman, Tran To Nga, who is suing 14 companies that produced and sold the powerful defoliant dioxin used by American troops during the Vietnam War.

In 1984, the journal New Scientist revealed that the British Army had used a herbicide identical to Agent Orange during the Emergency in Malaya (1948-60). Four years before that, when the Soviet Union was being accused of using chemical warfare against the Afghan people, the French Le Monde Diplomatique revealed that the British army had also done the same in Malaya during the Emergency.

In my letter dated March 30,1984, I wrote: “It is a national tragedy that we had to wait until the lifting of the 30-year secrecy rule in Britain before we realised the scandal that our country (Malaya) was the first country on earth to fall victim to Agent Orange.”

I also pointed out that it was criminal that this health hazard was kept secret from the public. Until 1984, only those records relating to events up to 1952 had been revealed and they showed that at least 20 sites in west Pahang had been sprayed with this toxic herbicide.

From this current French case, we can see the horrific effects of Agent Orange not only on its victims but also on their children and grandchildren, like heart defects, other organ malformations and cancer. Now that the secrets of the Emergency have been declassified, it is the duty of the Malaysian government to press with the greatest urgency for all the details of the Agent Orange spraying operation from 1948 to 1960.

At a medical conference in France in 1970, attention was also drawn to the possible cancer-producing effects of dioxin, the deadly component of Agent Orange. Since the spraying began in the 60s during the Vietnam War, frequency of cancer of the liver had increased in multiples in some areas. Questions were also raised of aberrations in the chromosomes, which may affect reproductive ability.

We will never know the full effects of the spraying of Agent Orange in our forests and farmlands as long as our medical records are inadequate and there is no political will to find out where and to what extent Agent Orange was used in our country during the Emergency.

Still, those Malaysians whose kin and kindred have died or suffered from these illnesses and organ malformations should know that another factor such as the effect of this toxic herbicide could have been responsible.

It is the solemn duty of the Malaysian government to investigate the full extent of the Agent Orange spraying and then study the data to see if there has been a disproportionate incidence of cancer, limb and organ deformities in the areas sprayed and, finally, ensure that justice and compensation are given to the victims here.


Suaram Adviser

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