Seeking Supplies: Developments of Small Arms Production and Industry in Myanmar

By: Miles Vining

Introduction

What options do military governments have when international arms embargoes disrupt small arms procurement? The nation of Myanmar has been governed by military decree in some fashion since the democratically elected Prime Minister U Nu was ousted by General Ne Win in 1962. This blog post outlines Myanmar’s response to European Union and United States arms embargoes, and how the country turned to other suppliers to help develop its own arms industry. It will also examine the type of small arms produced in Myanmar as a result of this changing dynamic during the past two decades.

Until the early 1990s the Burmese state armaments industry (Directorate of Defence Industries, DDI) relied heavily on European (and some US) support in the provision of manufacturing capabilities as well as the supply of arms and ammunition[1]. This came to an abrupt halt when European and US arms embargoes were placed on the Burmese government[2]. These were in direct response to the tragic events that transpired during the 1988 demonstrations where the Tatmadaw (Burmese Army) responded with brutal force against thousands of unarmed pro-democracy protesters in Rangoon. The resulting arms restrictions compelled the Burmese government to partner with other nations for supplies and — more critically — manufacturing capabilities. Initially, the military junta turned to Israel as a source of support, an arrangement that continues to this day through strong military defence ties[3]. Soon, Singapore, in addition to South Korea, stepped in to fill the need to modernize the defence production industry. Today DDI is actively experimenting, producing indigenous designs, and introducing modern manufacturing materials and methods.

Israeli Connection

Israel and Myanmar both became independent in 1948 and have had cordial if not very close diplomatic ties in their post-independence timelines. Israel’s initial contribution to the Burmese defence industry was initially a small sale of WWII-era Spitfire fighters in 1954. This materiel relationship became stagnant until the early 1990s — described in 1988 as, ‘for all practical purposes, Israel’s relations with Burma came to an end [in 1962]… relations between the two countries are formal and limited’[4]. Things changed dramatically when in 1991, an Israeli team of engineers visited Rangoon to begin discussions on selling 9x19mm Uzi sub-machine guns produced by Israel Military Industries[5]. How many of these ended up being sold to the Burmese government is not known[6]. As a result of the discussions, DDI began indigenous production of the Uzi, with a model which came to be known as the BA93. It is currently still in service with the Tatmadaw and police forces as the MA13[7].

A 9x19mm BA93 submachine gun in use with a Tatmadaw soldier. Source: Miles Vining

A second model that featured Burmese efforts at modifying the Uzi design came to be known as the BA94, but this only saw limited service[8]. The Burmese production of the Uzi was only the beginning of a critical small arms working relationship with Israel. After close cooperation with Singapore, DDI began the production and subsequent Tatmadaw adoption of the Myanmar Army (MA) series of self-loading rifles, light machine guns, and under-barrel grenade launchers[9]. This rifle series is directly derived from the IMI-produced Galil ARM 5.56x45mm NATO rifles, which are in turn an Israeli derivative of the Finnish Valmet family of self-loading rifles. The MA-series of small arms was first spotted in the early 2000s at numerous national parades and demonstrations in use by Tatmadaw soldiers[10], replacing the previous Heckler & Koch G3 rifles that were in service[11]. The MA-series was successful enough to out-serve concurrent Burmese small arms design development efforts (MA11 rifle and MA12 light machine gun, EMERK bullpup concept, and the MA-MK.III bullpup series), and continues to be improved in production variants where it is currently in service today throughout every combat theatre of operations in Myanmar. The looming question that remains about the MA-series is how much Israeli participation occurred in Burmese production. To this day, neither Israel nor Myanmar have publicly disclosed if MA-production was a licensed technology transfer, or if retired IMI engineers were consulted on manufacturing with or without the Israeli government’s knowledge.

Singapore Assistance

Even before the 1991 Israeli engineer team visit, Singapore appears to have been shipping arms to the State Peace and Development Council (SLORC) military government. Arms deliveries from Singapore began in October 1988[12], just weeks after the Tatmadaw’s use of force against peaceful demonstrations. The first shipment, including RPG-2s and 57mm recoilless rifles, appears to have been sourced from Singapore via Israel who in turn had captured Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) stocks from operations in southern Lebanon in 1983. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) alleges at least three major arms transactions involving Singapore as a transferring agency from 1950 to 2017[13], in addition to possible export sales of M16A1 rifles to Burma from Singapore[14].

The most important Singaporean contribution to Burmese small arms production is the transfer of a pre-fabricated factory, initially built in Singapore by Charted Industries of Singapore (currently ST Kinetics, under Singapore Technologies, ST). There appears to have been substantial Israeli supervision on the pre-fabricated factory, and then shipped to Rangoon[15] where it would have become the basis of a small arms manufacturing capability among one of over 21 separate such facilities that make up the basis of DDI manufacturing plants[16]. One of these plants, the DI-11 based in Bago Division, appears to have been set up with South Korean Daewoo assistance (currently S&T Motiv)[17].

Another aspect of Singaporean support to Burmese defence industries is that of the .50 BMG STK-50 Heavy Machine Gun. The STK-50 has been observed mounted on Brazilian EE-9 6x6 Cascavel armoured vehicles, in addition to being used in an infantry ground role in fixed defensive positions[18]. Burmese defence media has displayed the STK-50 along with other indigenously produced designs at a 2019 defence exhibition in Bangkok[19], but others assert that the STK-50 machine guns are simply Singaporean surplus that have been sold or remarked to the Tatmadaw, such as appears to be the case with similar Indonesian Pindad derivatives of the STK-50[20].

Recent Trends in Domestic Manufacture

The past decade has seen a significant rise in the use of polymer in DDI small arms production. Since the early 2000s, MA-series small arms have been equipped with polymer stocks, pistol grips, and fore-ends as standard issue (earlier MA-series small arms had wood furniture), so working in polymer is not new to DDI production. However, within the past decade there has been a dramatic increase in the production of small arms that feature a polymer construction. An estimate of the size of such production can be made by observing Tatmadaw units in combat theatres (Arakan, Kachin, Shan, and Karen States) which show that the earlier stamped-receiver MA-MK I-series of variants has been completely replaced with the very distinguishable MA-MK.II-series of variants. This indicates an entire replacement of small arms at the squad level in combat theatres. In 2012, a photograph was posted of the Burmese MA-13 MK II sub-machine gun which featured a lower receiver that appears to be imitating a Brügger & Thomet MP9 sub-machine gun, while retaining characteristics of the MA13’s Uzi profile as regards the open bolt and receiver design[21]. Since then, the MA-13 MK II is in use with Burmese law enforcement special operations units.

The first production variants of the MA-series of rifles used wood furniture, transitioning to a black polymer in the MK I (top), and then a brown polymer. The MK II (bottom) has a redesigned buttstock with light brown polymer furniture. Source: Miles Vining

In addition to the MA13 MK.II sub-machine gun, DDI is also producing an indigenous copy of Glock-pattern handguns with a polymer frame and of the nomenclature MA5 MK.II[22]. This handgun has been designated to replace the FN Herstal ‘BURMA ARMY’-marked Hi Power handguns, which have been in use with the Tatmadaw since the 1950s. The earliest records of the MA5 MK.II in use are dated January 2015, but initial service could well date back even further. There is also polymer construction on the MA-Sniper (MA-S) rifles that have been observed in Tatmadaw service since at least 2012[23]. Interestingly, the handguard design used on MA-S rifles has been observed in use with MA-3 rifles that have been exhibited on display but not in production or service.

Although not observed in combat operations, a recent DDI innovation is the MA1 MK.III, which is a bullpup polymer chassis that appears to house an MA-series operating system (some claim this to be a QBZ-97 copy), in turn fed by Steyr AUG-copied magazines (in addition to metal versions). Another polymer development that has been observed is that of the improved MA-series MK.II magazine, which appears to be a Burmese imitation of the South African polymer R4 magazine introduced in 1981. These polymer innovations are important to take into account when considering their international design imitation origins (Austria, South Africa) may speak to expertise being funneled into Myanmar via additional parties as well.

Conclusion

When confronted with sanctions involving defence products originating from previous defence partners, Burmese officials were forced to look elsewhere to continue small arms development and production. Seeing a defence manufacturing opportunity, Israel (which previously had no commercial defence interest in Myanmar[24]) was able to respond to Burmese needs parallel to the timeline in which the EU and the United States imposed arms regulations. Singapore soon followed, as did South Korea to a certain extent. Advances in polymer injection moulding and fabrication began to appear in multiple DDI small arms production within several years of each other, indicating a further expansion of small arms design and experimentation. All of these advancements have placed Myanmar as one of the largest producers of small arms and light weapons in South-east Asia, among Singapore, Indonesia, Vietnam, and the Philippines. Each case in this report indicates an ability to not only change course despite tough sanctions, but even improvise and succeed in a manner that has propelled Myanmar to become one of the largest producers of small arms and light weapons within South-east Asia.

Miles Vining is an associate researcher with Armament Research Services (ARES) and is the founder of Silah Report. His research on Burmese small arms and light weapons began in 2005.

Blog posts are intended as a way for various Small Arms Survey collaborators and researchers to discuss small arms- and armed violence-related issues, and do not necessarily reflect the views of either the Small Arms Survey or its donors.

[1] ‘State SALW Production and Transfers in Myanmar’. Vining, Miles. 2019. Unpublished background paper. March, p. 1. Geneva: Small Arms Survey.

[2] European Union arms embargoes have been in place against Burma beginning in 1990 and continue today (https://www.sipri.org/databases/embargoes/eu_arms_embargoes/myanmar). U.S. arms sanctions were initially imposed in 1988 and then a stricter version followed in 1993 (see www.export.gov/article?id=Burma-us-export-controls).

[3] See www.ohchr.org/Documents/HRBodies/HRCouncil/FFM-Myanmar/EconomicInterestsMyanmarMilitary/A_HRC_42_CRP_3.pdf
for a thorough discussion of current Israeli defence cooperation.

[4] Beit-Hallahmi, Benjamin. 1988. The Israeli Connection: Whom Israel Arms and Why. London: I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd, p. 25. https://academic.oup.com/ia/article-abstract/64/4/719/2407209?redirectedFrom=fulltext

[5] See p. 33: http://sdsc.bellschool.anu.edu.au/sites/default/files/publications/attachments/2016–03/113_Transforming_the_Tatmadaw__The_Burmese_armed_forces_since_1988_%28Canberra_papers_on_strategy_and_defence%29_Andrew_Selth_207p_0731524012.pdf

[6] At least one of these Israeli IMI Uzi’s exists in the Defence Services Museum in Naypitaw. Author’s observations.

[7] ‘State SALW Production and Transfers in Myanmar’. Vining, Miles. 2019. Unpublished background paper. March, p. 1. Geneva: Small Arms Survey.

[8] See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uSL5fqQK6m4 (7:12 timestamp).

[9] The MA-designation was a change from the previous BA-designation (Burma Army), which was driven by the countries name change in 1989 from Burma to Myanmar.

[10] See section about MA-Series initial appearance in https://www.vickersguide.com/kalashnikov-vol-2.

[11] Produced indigenously in cooperation with West German Fritz-Werner GmbH, the G3 was adopted as the BA63 (rifle), BA64 (LMG variant), BA72 (carbine), and BA100 (Marksmen variant). See www.youtube.com/watch?v=uSL5fqQK6m4.

[12] See www.asiapacificms.com/articles/myanmar_chinese_connection/.

[13] SIPRI Arms Transfers Database, accessed 28 August 2018(www.sipri.org/databases/armstransfers).

[14] Author’s personal observations from 2003–2008 on M16A1 rifles in Yangon marked with MOD 613, possible license-produced M16A1 variants in Singapore.

[15] See www2.irrawaddy.com/article.php?art_id=1173.

[16] ‘State SALW Production and Transfers in Myanmar’. Vining, Miles. 2019. Unpublished background paper. March, pp. 4–5. Geneva: Small Arms Survey.

[17] See www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/myanmar/industry.htm.

[18] ‘Small Arms & Light Weapons, Vehicle and Aircraft Recognition Guide.’ Free Burma Rangers, November 2018, p. 53.

[19] See https://elevenmyanmar.com/news/myanmar-tatmadaw-shows-weapons-and-ammunitions-at-defense-and-security-2019-of-asean.

[20] Conversations between the author and industry representatives at the Indo Defence 2018 Expo & Forum held in Jakarta, 7–10 November 2018.

[21] See www.thefirearmblog.com/blog/2018/07/20/the-ma-13-mk-ii-myanmars-steyr-micro-uzi-knock-off/.

[22] See www.thefirearmblog.com/blog/2018/07/20/ma5-the-burmese-tatmadaws-production-glock/.

[23] See www.thefirearmblog.com/blog/2018/09/13/ma-sniper-development-continues-production-and-issue/.

[24] Beit-Hallahmi, Benjamin. 1988. The Israeli Connection: Whom Israel Arms and Why. London: I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd, p. 25. https://academic.oup.com/ia/article-abstract/64/4/719/2407209?redirectedFrom=fulltext

--

--

--

Providing expertise on all aspects of small arms and armed violence.

Love podcasts or audiobooks? Learn on the go with our new app.

Recommended from Medium

Qatar accredits four health centres in Turkey for citizens and residents to take COVID-19 tests…

What Did South Korea Get So Darn Right About the Coronavirus Outbreak?

The Problem With “Africa”

South Korea Election Candidate plans to use NFTs as Vote-Grabbing bait.

South Korea Election Candidate plans to use NFTs as Vote-Grabbing bait.

Three ways a budget Peacekeeping Mission gave birth to Somali Elections 2021

Zamaneh Panelists: “No to War, No to the Iranian Regime!”

Varanasi: In UP elections 2022, with the help of Ram Achal, SP will try to reach Rajbhar society.

Varanasi: In UP elections 2022, with the help of Ram Achal, SP will try to reach Rajbhar society.

What is the impact of EU Projects on society?

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
small arms survey

small arms survey

Providing expertise on all aspects of small arms and armed violence.

More from Medium

Shimano Vs Microshift Gear: Is Shimano Better? 3 Reasons…

How to help your team decide in your absence

Bonus Ep: Habitat Restoration on Irish Rivers with the IFI’s Declan Cooke

Presence: Spectrums and lines