By V. Kenneth
Dictatorships have a knack for engaging in suspicious activity that boosts their country’s power levels. As in George Orwell’s novel, 1984, “Ignorance is Strength,” and this is certainly the case with Burma’s military dictatorship. This toxic attitude is clearly visible in its attempts to deprive its subjects of all knowledge of military affairs. Burma’s arms suppliers remain a state secret unto this day.
But that does not mean the western press isn’t aware. Singapore, with its extensive business interests, makes no distinction between democracy and oppressive administration. India and Pakistan also have a great many contacts and keep these flourishing with the government but are less subtle. China, Israel and Yugoslavia have made a number of advances in their Burmese operations. Many firearms in Burma come from across the border in Thailand, but the country itself has never transacted any official business with Burma relating to small arms. All these defense contacts have varying degrees of interaction between themselves and Burma. In a country where army field manuals are kept classified, the government tries to keep most of its business behind closed doors. The following should shed some light on the supposedly secret origin of some of Burma’s small arms.
The author once inspected an HK33 and, in reviewing the rifle, noticed no manufacturer or inspector markings anywhere. In fact, the only marking was on the left side of the rifle above the magazine well with the stamping “HK33 5.56x45mm. Finding this odd, the author disassembled the rifle, finding no markings on the bolt or interior of the frame. The firearms of Heckler & Koch are some of the most revered and revolutionary of our time, with the G3, MP5, P7 and USP most prominently known for quality and innovation; making many of the arms currently in use by military and police forces across the globe. In addition to licensed copies being manufactured by Hellenic Arms and various other countries, it is world-renowned. One of these is the HK33, which was licensed to Turkey and Thailand. Burmese relations with Turkey are not up to the level of official government interactions, thus leaving Thailand. Although Thailand does not officially supply Burma with much military hardware, the HK33s still come through. Through the black market, corrupt officials or Border Patrol officers, HK33s have made their way to Yangon, into police armories.
One clear indication of their Thai manufacture is their quality. Heckler & Koch firearms are famous for not failing their operators or varying much in high standards thereby sustaining a constant of durability and reliability. In his book Heckler & Koch’s MP5 Submachine Gun, Frank James writes of a report from Kennedy Space Center claiming that several MP5s had gone through hundreds of thousands of rounds and had done so for many years, yet the weapons had not failed. However, the HK33s in Burma are far from that when it comes to performance and wear. Reports from the Burmese police affirm problems such as rear sight dials breaking off and magazines constantly jamming while the rifles themselves are beyond repair. In fact, a certain number are reputed to bear a malfunction in the automatic sear that prevents automatic fire but allows for semiautomatic fire and sometimes even “assisted semiautomatic fire” due to magazine trouble – thus effectively turning the rifle into a single-shot. The finish on the magazines is usually so worn down that inserting or extracting a magazine becomes a trial in itself. Such issues are usually never found with genuine Heckler &Koch firearms.
Many police forces have been seen armed with what appears to be Soviet SKSs. Such rifles are ubiquitous in Burma. But approach any police officer, question him as to the country of manufacture of his SKS, and he will say it is an “M21 from Yugoslavia.” This is a textbook response, but Yugoslavia’s locally made variant of the Russian SKS is the M59/66, not the M21. Although Burma has a close military relationship with Yugoslavia, SKSs are not a part of it. In fact, the SKSs in Burma were manufactured in China. M21 is a designation used by the Chinese Government as part of an export series of firearms to developing countries. Thus, China produces arms that it can make with varying degrees of quality and give them away. Completely unmarked save for the “M21” and several stamped serial numbers; it thus removes any mark of origin from China. This way, China can maintain its support of dictatorial regimes but internationally oppose, or be neutral in, issues dealing with them.
The SKS was not the only rifle exported in this manner. The Tokarev handgun was exported with nothing but the serial number and “M20” on the slide. The Type 56 was exported as an “M22” but no markings have been observed. No Tokarevs were ever found in Burma. Many of these examples are found in the United States, with service-men bringing them back as war trophies from the Vietnam War. There is an established serial number reference system for the SKS. If this system can be applied to the M21s in Burma, then all of them that the author has recorded have been manufactured in 1956 (with a few others in off-years). Also, during his time, the author found many of the same rifles again at a different location. This means that the inventory of SKSs in police armories is relatively small. Unless all the rifles began manufacture in 1956, it would have been a special order just for Burma. This hypothesis stems from the fact that the collected numbers rise in an orderly fashion.
The conditions of SKSs range from well-cared-for to utterly disregarded. With some, the wood is shellacked and the action is oiled every few months, while others haven’t been disassembled in months and the rust creeps in. During a range session, the operating rod was rusted to the tube and required a good amount of maintenance to free up. Like the Lee-Enfields mentioned in a previous article, the SKSs are subject to paint jobs, which help simulate new rifles (but really aren’t). In addition, the police have found a carpenter to make rudimentary stocks that do not provide the same balance as original ones. The same is done with M16 handguards when they become unusable; they are replaced with wooden substitutes. The serial number is usually listed in five separate places on the rifle, following the European principle of stamping it on every major part: receiver, bolt, receiver cover, trigger guard and magazine floor-plate. Operating conditions usually do not vary between rifles.
The M16 platform has become, since the Vietnam War era, one of the most used and respected small arms of its time. Countries which have tested it wanted it for their own standardization and use. Colt and the U.S. Government have consented to these offers and have both supplied it en masse and by manufacturer licenses. One of the first export variants to be configured for such exports is the Model 614, a specific export-only version of the M16A1, then in use in Vietnam. A number of countries received this hardware due to their partnership with the United States. The Philippines, Malaysia and Singapore are of particular note because they had serial number blocks assigned to them. The Filipino and Malaysian rifles both had rather high serial number counts (into the 4,000,000s). The 400,000 series is left and is known to be mostly unmarked “US Property” and is marked MOD 613. This is precisely what is present in Burma today. Since Singapore received its first shipment of M16s in February of 1967, and the serial number block of 400,000-500,000 runs from 1966-1973, and a pre-1969 magazine was found on the rifles in Burma, it can be reasonably hypothesized that Singapore received these M16s from America in that time period and later sold them to Burma as surplus small arms or, alternatively, it could have traveled through Thailand to its present destination. Singapore currently has much at stake in the Western world and it would be a pity if its customers found out that, contrary to its statements, Singapore is supplying the Burmese with arms.
The Model 613s in Burma are in fairly decent condition considering their age and the abuse they have suffered since the end of the Vietnam War. Usually, most M16s have the aluminum receivers extremely scratched and pitted. The plastic handguards and sometimes the stocks have large pieces chipped off of them. The ventilation ports in the handguards are usually broken and dented. The dust covers are routinely missing although some Burmese amorers have been inventive enough to fashion makeshift covers out of sheet metal. Slings are a haphazard affair, with anything the particular outfit feels like using being attached. One M16 had its receiver practically rusted in place; the bolt was stuck fast and the disassembly pins were stuck so no practical disassembly could have taken place.
Small arms, as with many transactions in Burma, remain to this day a very sketchy and secretive topic among any government worker who has any real knowledge of the facts. There are many more under-the-table deals that are not covered in this article but here are presented three of the larger ones. Some arms deals we will never know about, due to the nature of the Burmese government. The fact remains though, as long as the current regime is in place, the deals that keep a nation of 40 million in slavery will continue.
|This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V13N7 (April 2010)|