The Military Ties That Bind
By Mahn Aung Lwin 24 April 2017
A military delegation led by Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing left on Sunday for a goodwill visit to Germany at the invitation of Chief of Defense of the German Armed Forces General Volker Weiker. It is the senior general’s second visit to Europe. He went to Belgium in 2016 to attend the European Union Military Committee, where he stated that Burma Army representation in Parliament was still necessary because of the country’s delicate multi-party democracy.
This story, originally published by The Irrawaddy in August 2011, charts the history of close relations between Burma’s military rulers and Germany’s Fritz Werner GmbH Company.
Geisenheim is a small town in the State of Hessen of the Federal Republic of Germany that hosts a plush old spa of sumptuous beauty, where since Roman times people have bathed amidst lush forests beneath the Taunus Mountains. To the surprise of all visitors, in the middle of a vineyard near the town is a grand, Burmese style house.
The Myitta Paungku Beikman (Love Connection Monument), was built by former Burmese dictator Gen Ne Win and donated to the Fritz Werner GmbH Company (FWG) on Jan. 1, 1971 as a sign of appreciation for the company’s assistance in preserving him and his much-hated military regime in power.
FWG is a Berlin-based company which since 1896 has specialized in machinery for the production of small arms and ammunition. The company, which played a vital role in Germany’s WW I efforts, has cultivated a unique relationship with the Burmese ruling elite over the years. There is a great deal of mutual trust between FWG and the Burmese regime, whose military-minded leaders look for characteristics such as reliability and discretion in a business partner.
After WW II, FWG was wholly-owned by the West German government, falling under the jurisdiction of the government’s Ministry of Economy. The company was bought with money from the Marshall Fund which was meant to rebuild industries that were destroyed during WW II, a war which FWG helped fuel with its machinery for the production of weapons and ammunition.
In 1948, Burma gained independence from Great Britain, and FWG struck up its partnership with the new Burmese government in 1953. The German company’s first project was the production of the BA52 submachine gun—aka the Ne Win sten.
Beginning at the time of this original contract, Ne Win cultivated friendly relations with FWG, both diplomatically and personally. Fritz Werner technical advisors posted in Rangoon had continuous access to the dictator, a rare privilege not extended to the representatives of other foreign firms. The fact that FWG was owed by the West German government itself created a close personal relationship between the two governments, causing some to say that Burma was the friendliest nation toward West Germany in Asia.
FWG’s secretive Burmese operations, which have often been shrouded under a veil of mystery, got into full swing in 1960 when the West German Ministry of Defence gave the company permission to produce G3 rifles in Burma and it later established its first weapons factory on the outskirts of Rangoon with the assistance of the West Germany arms company Heckler & Koch.
The factory was supervised by German engineers from the German Technical Corporation Agency (GTZ). Until the production of that plant started, the Burmese regime used FWG as the middleman to purchase G3 rifles through Düsseldorf based arms producer Rheinmetall, which shared production with Heckler & Koch.
In 1961, West Germany’s Foreign Office in Bonn granted permission to export 10,000 G3 rifles as well as four million rounds of ammunition manufactured by Metallwerk Elisenhütte Nassau (MEN), an FWG subsidiary, to Burma. The West German government had “no reservations” about authorizing further transfers, even when Ne Win toppled the democratic government of U Nu in 1962—Rheinmetall received permission from Bonn to sell 12,000 G3 rifles and 800 MG42 machine guns, and MEN received permission to export 18 million rounds of ammunition. Then in 1969, the West German Foreign Office permitted FWG to export machinery for the production of explosives, as well as a complete rolling mill for sheet brass.
With the assistance from West Germany, the self-sufficiency of the Burmese armed forces increased continuously, and the Burmese military often used German-produced weapons to oppress the Burmese people and various ethnic minority groups, especially after Ne Win and the military seized power in 1962.
For example, on July 7, 1962, just three days after the military’s Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP) was formed, the students of Rangoon University organized a peaceful demonstration inside the Campus. The Burmese military— equipped with G3 automatic rifles—fired into the crowd of thousands of students, killing over 100 and injuring many more. The next morning, the military blew up the Rangoon University Student Union building, which was a treasured historical monument of the Burmese struggle to gain independence from Great Britain. The building was blasted to pieces by heavy explosives, and every trace of it removed.
During the 1988 democratic uprising, over 3,000 people were once again killed by Burmese troops using German-produced weapons. Despite this, the West German government welcomed Ne Win as a guest of FWG in March 1988. In addition, after the military coup by Burmese Gen Saw Maung in Sept. 1988, the West German Federal Ministry of Economics gave permission for FWG to export machinery for the production of ammunition.
Not only did FWG set up three plants in Rangoon and Prome to produce the vast majority of armaments required by the Burmese military, they also served as a conduit for all importation of raw materials, machine parts and chemicals used in explosives production.
The cozy relationship between the West Germans and the Burmese military was something of a closely kept secret until 1988, when the democracy uprising and surrounding political crisis blew the lid off the Burmese situation and drew the attention of the whole world. Due to international pressure brought upon the West German government by the horror of the Sept. 1988 coup, it suddenly became one of the outspoken critics of the Burmese regime, as if it didn’t know before how many Burmese had died at the hands of Burmese troops firing West German weapons.
The German government did, however, suspend development co-operation activities with Burma, including negotiations regarding Burmese debt cancellation, and ceased authorization of arms shipments to Burma. But regardless of assertions made by the Germans that FWG was no longer participating in the production of weapons and explosives inside Burma, and that technical co-operation had been reduced to a minimum, the manufacture of explosives and weapons continues to date, and German employees of GTZ remain in the country, disguising their true field of expertise.
Despite Germany’s hasty withdrawal of economic support from Burma after the 1988 crackdown, it didn’t take long before FWG found an opportunity for renewed investment. In 1990, FWG formed a joint venture with the Burmese military, a partnership that was made possible thanks to an old US $500 million loan that the West German government had made to Burma in the 1960’s.
FWG stands by itself in Burma, and the joint venture grew out of a very personal relationship between the company and the Burmese generals. This personal relationship has helped preserve the Burmese military regime in power, despite the various insurgencies and unrest in the country.
Following the uprising in 1988, the European Community and the US began imposing economic sanctions on Burma, identifying the high incidence of human rights abuses by the military regime as the primary reason for imposing sanctions. However, the annual reports of the German Federal Office for Export and Trade proves that licences for the export of dual-use-goods were authorized nearly every year, despite an EU arms embargo established in 1991.
In 1999, Germany even allowed the Burmese regime to renovate the notorious “Myitta Paungku Beitman” in Geisenheim.
On May 4, 2011, during a Burma Conference in Berlin, Dr. Markus Löning, Germany’s Federal Government commissioner for human rights policy and humanitarian aid, pushed for more engagement with the Burmese military regime and for the modification of sanctions on Burma.
For many Burmese activists, Germany is just paying a lip service to the human rights situation in Burma. A cable revealed in a 2009 Wikileaks report indicated that Germany exported sophisticated equipment to Burma, which was followed by a visit of German diplomats to the factories where the machinery was installed. In 2009-10, Germany was the biggest trade partner of Burma in the European Union.
The suffering of the Burmese people at the hands of their military rulers is undeniable. The irresponsible investments by foreign firms and others are not benefitting the people of Burma, but only contributing to the torture, persecution and killing of the many ethnic nationals, monks, students and activists who are struggling for democracy inside Burma.
For the Burmese people, FWG’s cooperation and partnership with the Burmese regime has been extremely discouraging. It is time for Germany to start listening to the cry of the Burmese people for democracy, and start building a real, people to people, Myitta friendship that will live forever.
The author is a former student activist and chairman of Camp Thaybawboe run by the ABSDF. At present, he is a member of the KNU Foreign Affairs Relations efforts.