English translation small arms newsletter of the
German Campaign against small arms
November 2007

“Strong and Fast”: German Arms in Burma

by Roman Deckert

When recently the peaceful protests in Burma – re-named by the junta in Myanmar ("strong and fast") - were brutally suppressed, it was especially one picture that caused worldwide horror: the Japanese photographer Kenji Nagai being shot dead by a soldier. The assault rifle that fired the bullet looks like a G3 of Heckler & Koch (H&K), but might also be FAL of the Belgian producer FN Herstal. Either way there is a German connection: according to the well-informed Jane’s Infantry the Burmese army still uses the G3, which used to be the standard weapon No. 1 until a few years ago, as well as MG3 machine guns of Rheinmetall regularly. The FAL, according to the late grand expert on small arms Edward Ezell, had once been introduced to Burma from surplus stocks of the West German Bundeswehr-army.

The inner conflicts that have been ravaging Burma broke out long before its independence of 1948. Hundreds of Thousands got killed or maimed ever since, Millions were forced to flee their homes. All warring parties – government troops, a multitude of rebels and drug lords – recruit child soldiers; the so called small arms serve in fact as weapons of mass destruction. The recent commentaries of Western media criticise China as the most important arms supplier of the military dictatorship. Unfortunately, this criticism covers up the fact that West Germany used to be the main military partner of Burma for decades.

An internal document of the notorious company Fritz-Werner, which had specialized in machinery for the production of small arms and ammunition since 1896, gives evidence that this disastrous cooperation started already in 1953. The first project was the production of the BA52 submachine gun, also known as the "Ne Win sten". Soon after that Fritz-Werner set up three plants for infantry and artillery ammunition in Rangoon und near Prome. The West German Foreign Office approved of these deals, because it worried about non-aligned Burma possibly taking up diplomatic relations with "communist" East Germany. Documents from the archives of the Foreign Office prove that the West German Ministry of Defence sold the licence to produce the G3 to Burma already in 1960 (analysts have so far been assuming 1981 as the date of the sale). The G3-plant was set up by Fritz-Werner, which by then had been bought up by the West German government. Until the production of that plant started, the Burmese Generals purchased G3 through Fritz-Werner from Düsseldorf based arms producer Rheinmetall, which at the time shared the production with Heckler & Koch. In 1961 the Foreign Office in Bonn granted permission to export 10.000 G3 as well as four million rounds of ammunition manufactured by Fritz-Werner´s subsidiary Metallwerk Elisenhütte Nassau (MEN). The West German diplomats had "no reservations" about further transfers even when General Ne Win toppled the democratic government in 1962 and at once brutally suppressed any protest. Rheinmetall received the permission to sell another 12.000 G3 and 800 MG42 machine guns, MEN was allowed to export 18 million rounds of ammunition.

Thanks to the West German assistance the self-sufficiency of the Burmese armed forces increased continuously: in 1969 the Bonn Foreign Office gave green light to the state-owned company Fritz-Werner to export machinery for the production of explosives as well as a complete rolling mill for sheet brass. The diplomats considered it, on the other side, "inappropriate" to deny Thailand what Burma was granted. Thus Burma’s rivalling neighbour country was able to set up its own licence production of Heckler & Koch rifles. Bonn had no objections to Heckler & Koch selling a complete factory for the G3-offspring HK33 in 1971. Soon later the Burmese army confiscated HK33 that Heckler & Koch had sold to Thailand, from "U Nu"-rebels. According to Ezell the Karen-rebels got hold of HK33 too.

Neither the ever escalating guerrilla war nor the bloody oppression of peaceful protests in Rangoon in 1974 left the Federal authorities in Bonn with any scruples. In 1976 they approved Fritz-Werner´s request to export machinery for a complete overhaul of the Burmese ammunition factories. The Foreign Office reasoned that the deal posed "no risk to our interests". This attitude did not even change when the Burmese army brutally subdued protests of students in March 1988. Still in May of that year dictator Ne Win was welcomed in West Germany as a guest of Fritz-Werner as he had been nearly annually for decades. When he stepped down shortly afterwards his successors had thousands of protesters in August 1988 shot dead – photographic material gives plenty of proof that the soldiers primarily used G3 to kill during the massacres. Nevertheless the Bonn government, according to an official statement of the Federal Ministry of Economics, issued another permission for Fritz-Werner to export machinery for the production of ammunition in late September 1988.

Since 1989 all governments of the Federal Republic of Germany have declared that no more permits for the export of military equipment to Burma are given. However, the annual reports of the Federal Office for Export Trade show that nearly every year licences for the export of dual-use-goods did get authorized – regardless of an European arms embargo that was established in 1991. In 2001 the Central Customs Office investigated into an alleged export of machinery for the production of explosives, two years later seven people were given court sentences for trying to export machines for the production of ammunition. This shows that there is still a German connection.

Moreover, Fritz-Werner, which was sold by the West German government in 1990 to MAN Ferrostaal company, has kept on doing business in Burma t o this very day. It runs not only a Yangon branch of "Fritz Werner Industrie-Ausrüstungen" but also "Myanmar Fritz Werner Industries Co., Ltd.", a joint-venture with the Ministry of Industry-2 which has traditionally been in charge of the ordnance factories. The US Department of State reported in 1995 that Fritz-Werner was also handling imports and exports on behalf of "Myanmar Economic Holdings" which according to the German Foreign Office is owned by the Defence Ministry's Directorate of Arms Procurement. The Junta’s media have reported about regular meetings of high-ranking Generals with German managers of Fritz-Werner, e.g. with long serving director Werner Schoeltzke in November 2006. Therefore the author of this article requested a statement from MAN Ferrostaal about the nature of its activities in Burma. Director of communications Daniel Reinhardt replied that both subsidiaries have been involved in purely civilian projects only. In any case it remains an undisputable fact that the regime, which is widely viewed as the most totalitarian military dictatorship of the world, is largely immune to international embargoes because of the ordnance complex that was once set up by Fritz-Werner.

Germany should account for its historical responsibility and take the financial profits, that it had earned from Fritz-Werner´s former dealings and from the sale of the G3-licence, to help the millions of victims.


is a researcher in the Berlin Information-center for Transatlantic Security (BITS). He writes his PhD-thesis on the history of German-Sudanese Relations.