November 15, 2019
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Germany’s controversial machinations in Burma

Burmese in London protest in front of the German embassy, in this file photo. Photo: Burma Campaign UK
When it comes to Burma, Germany is under the spotlight for the wrong reasons. August 8 is normally marked by ...

(Commentary) – When it comes to Burma, Germany is under the spotlight for the wrong reasons. August 8 is normally marked by exiled Burmese with demonstrations to commemorate the democratic uprising of 1988. But this year instead of protesting in front of Burmese embassies, they gathered in front of German embassies in seven international locations.

The German government’s quiet engagement with the power-holders in Naypyitaw is now being criticized loudly by Burmese protestors.

For a long time, the Federal Republic of Germany has faced criticism that she undermines or even prevents sanctions imposed by the EU on Burma. In March this year, Burmese monks of the All Burma Monks Alliance (ABMA) staged a protest in front of the German foreign ministry to demand stronger sanctions by Germany. Even Aung San Suu Kyi indicated the need for further action by Germany on the Burma question. She criticized the EU countries for not speaking with one voice and said they were not focused on concrete issues.

Germany has been politically and economically engaged in Burma since the beginning of the military dictatorship in 1962. The company Fritz Werner was fully owned by the German government until 1990 and it built weapons and ammunition factories in Burma beginning in 1957. The company had close ties to the late dictator General Ne Win and it is claimed that German-made or German-delivered weapons were used in government actions against the people in 1962, in the mid-1970s, and in 1988, and in the war against ethnic people.

A few weeks ago, the director of Fritz Werner, Joerg Gabelmann travelled to Burma and held meetings with finance minister Hla Tun and minister of transport Nyan Tun Aung, who are blacklisted by the EU. The company gave no further explanation about the talks. According to a statement by the Fritz Werner office in Essen, the meetings were about a container shipment of X-ray apparatus to be used against the drug-trade. All economic projects inside Burma were purely civilian trade, and they were approved by the federal department of export.

But even if this statement is true, it is unclear what the end use of the machines will be and whether they would fall into the hands of military personnel, who can use them for military purposes in their war against the ethnic people.

Beside all this, it recently became clear that the German companies Deckel Maho Gildemeister (DMG) and Trumpf delivered machines for Burma’s dubious nuclear programme and the production of Scud missiles. The deserter Sai Thein Win clearly showed how the German machines were used to construct parts that could be utilized for Scud missiles as well as for the enrichment of uranium.

But the Burmese military cheated the German companies and even delegations of the German embassy in Rangoon did not notice the fraud. Though an American military attaché noticed after his inspection of Fritz Werner facilities, “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.”  A speaker of the German foreign ministry says that Germany is strictly following the weapons embargo, including post-shipment controls and they apparently did not notice the misuse.

The companies claim that they delivered machines for civilian-use only and their investment had been acknowledged by the federal department of exports. Trumpf and DMG claim to have abandoned all investments and maintenance service, according to their offices.

Germany has undermined and concretely blocked several sanctions against the Burmese regime. Mark Farmaner from the Burma Campaign UK stated: “For more than a decade Germany has quietly worked within the EU to block steps to increase pressure on the dictatorship, directly opposing the wishes of Burma’s democracy movement and Aung San Suu Kyi. They have also encouraged other European countries to follow them, splitting the EU. Germany is now the main country blocking the EU from supporting a UN Commission of Inquiry into war crimes and crimes against humanity in Burma. It is shocking that the German government would oppose even something like this, especially at a time when serious abuses, like the rape and murder of ethnic minority women, are on the increase. The EU works by consensus, all have to agree. This gives Germany an effective veto, and as a powerful EU member, officials use their influence to push other EU members to agree with them. Without doubt this is one of the main reasons that the EU has mostly toothless sanctions.”

Markus Loening, the human-rights commissioner of Germany explained the reasons for relaxing the sanctions: “Our main goal is that the human-rights situation in Myanmar is changing after 50 years of military dictatorship. I have explicitly told our dialogue partners that we expect a clear and sustainable advancement of the situation by the new government. When we will see substantial improvement––which is not the case so far––we will engage in a gradual relaxation of sanctions in return. But we also must question ourselves, which of the hitherto existing sanctions have supported to improve the human-rights situation and which not.”

Loening justified his idea in an article in The Financial Times that an uncomfortable side-effect of the EU sanctions is a loss of jobs for thousands of women in the clothing industry. Yet there is an embargo by the EU on the textile industry, hence the EU sanctions cannot be blamed for this. Loening did not respond to an e-mail query on this issue. 

“Germany is in constant, close exchange with Aung San Suu Kyi and other opposition leaders in Burma and outside the country,” Loening said in an e-mail reply to queries on Germany’s position. “The appraisal of the situation in Myanmar is without much difference. Since the (exiled) opposition is not united about their own true path towards democracy and freedom in Burma, the German government can obviously not agree with all groups. We rely on the policy of change with a mixture of pressure and appeals.”
The appeals in Loening‘s statement become clearer with the publication of US cables by Wikileaks in 2009. According to the cables, Germany agreed to export high-tech machines to Burma, a country where 70 percent of its population are working in the agricultural sector. But the pressure, that Germany allegedly wants to increase, can be seen in the prevention of direct sanctions and the veto against the proposal for a UN Commission of Inquiry. As the world’s third largest producer of weapons, maybe Germany is afraid of being accused in court of its own involvement in the Burmese massacres with German made and delivered weapons.

Even the work of some German organizations is now being criticized. Often the name of the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (FES) foundation crops up. According to several international and Burmese observers, activists and intellectuals, the work of the FES foundation is questionable. Mark Farmaner said: “Friedrich Ebert Stiftung are effectively an extension of the federal foreign ministry in Germany. Friedrich Ebert Stiftung has played a key role in implementing one of the most unpleasant aspects of German foreign policy. Burma’s democracy movement, including the democratically elected NLD (National League for Democracy), wanted targeted sanctions and increased pressure, the exact opposite of what the German foreign ministry wanted. It was very difficult for them to make their case against sanctions in the face of what Aung San Suu Kyi and the democracy movement wanted. So instead they set out to find and promote other Burmese voices who would oppose sanctions and increased pressure. These people were then lavished with funding and training, invited to international conferences, and presented as a so-called third force and a true voice of people inside Burma. But most of these people had no constituency or support in the country, and some had links to the dictatorship. Friedrich Ebert Stiftung and the German government then argued that these people showed that Burmese people didn’t support sanctions, or that the democracy movement was divided. In this way the German government actively worked to undermine Burma’s democracy movement.”

When contacted to explain their reaction to this criticism, the company said: “The FES is working inside Burma/Myanmar and outside the country with a variety of different organisations. The collection and co-operation with several Burmese and non-Burmese partner-organisations is conditioned according to the themes and aims of the specific working-line.”

As a justification, the FES cited the example of their event before the elections in Burma in September 2010 with “representatives from different Burmese exile groups, as well as representatives from Myanmar’s civil-society organisations. The project work of the FES is generally trying to reflect different visions and arguments for the development in Burma/Myanmar.”

What these attempts look like is clearer when we look the list of invited speakers for this event. It mainly consisted of people who already supported the line of the FES. The panel discussion caused a lot of dismay amongst exiled Burmese and Burma groups. Moreover, a demonstration took place in front of the conference. Other discussion panels by the FES were criticized for the same reasons and were alleged to have been organized in an elitist way.
So far, the German government is keeping silent about these highly sensitive questions, contradictions and criticism. The protestors in front of the German embassy last month in London accused Germany of putting economic interests before human rights. But this is nothing new when one hears of other dubious projects including the recent German shipment of tanks to Saudi Arabia or allegations of passive cooperation with Tripoli during the Libyan crisis.

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