The managing director of German weapons’ manufacturer Fritz Werner this week met with senior Burmese government figures, including those on EU sanctions lists, in Naypyidaw for what state media billed as “mutual” cooperation on ports and airports.
Joerg Gabelmann reportedly held talks with a range of officials, including Finance Minister Major General Hla Tun and Transport Minister Colonel Nyan Tun Aung, both of whom are blacklisted by the EU. The New Light of Myanmar said that it was during talks with Nyan Tun Aung that the two discussed shipping and flight infrastructure.
When asked about the meetings, Maria Groybermann from Fritz Werner’s office in Essen, Germany, told DVB that “we don’t usually comment on negotiations with our clients”.
The Fritz Werner website bills the company as a “leader in the field of ammunition manufacturing technology”. It was the first foreign company to create a joint venture with the Burmese state in the 1984 formation of Myanma Fritz Werner Co. Ltd. At the time they denied that the company had an arms orientation, while according to AP, the move was “welcomed by local observers and Western diplomats as a good start toward revitalising Burma’s sagging economy.”
Four years later and the powerful HK G3 (Heckler and Koch) assault rifle, purchased by the Burmese army through Fritz Werner, was seen being used by soldiers on thousands of students taking part in the 1988 uprising in Rangoon. A variation of the same gun, developed in a Fritz Werner-run plant, is also thought to have killed Japanese photographer Kenji Nagai in the September 2007 uprising.
In a recent interview with the Thailand-based Irrawaddy magazine, Germany’s ambassador to Burma, Julius Georg Luy, stated: “To my best knowledge, the company Fritz Werner has no arms-related business in Myanmar [Burma]”.
The company’s website however makes no reference to ports or airports, despite the purported focus of Gabelmann’s discussions this week.
The company has a long and ignominious history in Burma and beyond. Its first operations in Burma began in 1957, shortly after it was nationalized; the war years had been good for Fritz Werner, with Hitler creating a massive demand for their services, but post-1945 the company was left with little domestic business.
An April 1992 article in Jane’s Intelligence Review claimed the company had been responsible for helping the now-embattled Libyan leader, Colonel Gaddafi, with his 1,000-kilometre-ranged Al Fatah missile project. Although they quote only “their sources”, the article notes that the German government impounded one of Fritz Werner’s ships.
What may also pertinent to Burma, given recent concerns, is an apparent expertise in the delivery of chemical weapons. The Christian Science Monitor in 1988 suggested the US government was concerned that Fritz Werner was assisting in the sale of ammunition for carrying chemical weapons to Iraq. The 1988 edition of the magazine also said that “intelligence reaching Washington suggests it has played an important role in building Burma’s chemical-weapons capability.”
Analysts note that the US defence attaché has inspected Fritz Werner facilities in Burma and “found nothing” but cautioned that the supply of dual-use machine tools or casing often hid a trail, as plausible deniability may exist for the items’ use. This allegedly included the import of “lip stick” casing that never held lipstick.
Fritz Werner developed a strong relationship with former Burmese dictator Ne Win who would regularly visit Germany, with the company footing the bill. So regular were his visits that one analyst even suggested that a small Burmese pagoda had been built beside one of the company’s German facilities.