Danish links to Myanmar warship exposed in leaked documents

The UMS Mottama, an amphibious assault vessel and the flagship of Myanmar’s navy, was outfitted with parts by a Danish subsidiary of Volkswagen, new evidence reveals

Leaked documents reveal that a Danish subsidiary of Volkswagen Group supplied engines to the biggest warship in Myanmar’s fleet, despite bans on the export of military equipment to the conflict-riven country.

The UMS Mottama, an amphibious assault vessel and the flagship of the Burmese navy, has already triggered a police investigation in South Korea, after it was discovered that multiple companies, in collaboration with the Korean Ministry of Defence, violated the country’s foreign trade act by supplying the vessel to the Myanmar military in 2019. 

Myanmar navy Commodore Zaw Win deceived South Korean authorities into approving the ship’s construction and export in 2017, despite a previous refusal. He claimed it would be a civilian vessel that would not be used for military purposes, but rather for natural disaster response and the transportation of agricultural products to remote areas. 

In fact, the final product—supplied to the Myanmar military while it was waging a genocidal campaign against the ethnic Rohingya population in Rakhine State—has been fitted with heavy machine guns and missiles and has been used to transport troops, rocket systems and heavy artillery to Rakhine, where the junta continues to commit atrocities. 

Justice For Myanmar (JFM) and Danish newspaper Politiken published damning evidence this month outlining how the Danish Ministry of Justice approved the sale of marine engines for the UMS Mottama by local Volkswagen subsidiary MAN Energy Solutions, following advice from the Danish Ministry of Defence’s Material and Procurement Agency. Such revelations are courtesy of information provided by whistleblower Myat Min Thu, an engineer who used to work on the UMS Mottama and delivered a tranche of leaked files to Myanmar Now and JFM last year. 

“My feelings are that these European sanctions are sh*t,” said Myat Min Thu, who defected from the Myanmar navy after the 2021 military coup and is now fighting the junta alongside rebel groups. “It’s not working. Even though the sanctions prohibited supply to the Myanmar military, they are still supplying [them].”

Myat Min Thu, 36, said that the UMS Mottama was used to transport soldiers during the military coup in 2021, and confirmed that he himself participated in numerous military exercises with the ship.

“That’s my experience. The Myanmar military uses a lot of European equipment: in the navy, the air force, and the army,” he said. “Everyone knows [about] the genocide killings and violence, but they [the military] are using that equipment within the sanctions. Why are they able to do that?”

Germany’s state prosecutor in Augsburg has launched a criminal investigation into MAN Energy Solutions, based on allegations that it supplied key components to the UMS Mottama in violation of the country’s foreign trade law and European Union dual use regulations. The company allegedly supplied equipment including the vessel’s main engine, power consumers, propellor and propellor control system, as well as giving training to Myanmar navy machinists in South Korea, according to JFM.

“It is appalling that MAN Energy Solutions in Denmark supplied the propulsion system for the Myanmar navy’s flagship warship, with the approval of Danish authorities, while the military was committing genocide against the Rohingya,” said JFM spokesperson Yadanar Maung in a statement to Myanmar Now. “The ship’s transfer shows critical human rights and arms control failings from the Danish, German, and South Korean governments… It is a positive step that South Korean and German authorities have opened criminal investigations, and we urge Danish authorities to follow suit and fully investigate how export approval was granted, and the actions of MAN Energy Solutions.”

“South Korea, Germany and Denmark must show that breaches of the law will not be tolerated.”

JFM have also noted that MAN Energy Solutions is just one of more than half a dozen German companies that supplied equipment and technology for the UMS Mottama, and called on authorities to launch criminal investigations into the remaining entities—including one that provided radar equipment and another that issued a helicopter refuelling system.

The 125-metre long, 22-metre-wide ship boasts a helicopter landing deck and facilities to transport hundreds of soldiers, three combat aircraft, and other heavy military hardware including tanks. For Myat Min Thu and his rebel comrades, such a vessel poses a real danger.

“Myanmar has a thousand-mile coastline. This kind of ship can carry minimum 500 to 600 soldiers, maximum 1000, and two to three dozen military vehicles to the conflict area. That is our concern,” he told Myanmar Now. “They [can launch] amphibious missions, they can transport helicopters and troops—so many things that are valuable [to the junta].”

MAN Energy Solutions, however, denies that it has violated any rules.

“We were told that it was a civilian ship, but that it was operated by the Myanmar navy,” a company spokesperson told Danish newspaper Politiken. “It was designed for deployment during natural disasters such as typhoons and tsunamis, which often hit Southeast Asia.”

“This order complied 100 percent with European, Danish and German legislation.”

It is a starkly different response to the one given by the South Korean government, who in 2022 issued a public apology for their part in supplying the Myanmar military with the ship.

“The Ministry strongly regrets that the Myanmar navy used [the ship] for purposes other than those described in the export permit,” the apology stated. “In the future, the ministry will further strengthen investigations when applications are made.”

Myanmar Now reported in October 2022 that Korean police were in the advanced stages of an investigation into the transfer of the warship to the Myanmar navy. Investigations are reportedly targeted at persons from Posco International—which brokered the deal, and is a publicly listed subsidiary of the Korean steel giant Posco-Daesun Shipbuilding & Engineering that built the vessel—and was majority owned by the state-owned Export-Import Bank of Korea at the time and Korea’s Ministry of Defence.

Myat Min Thu formally has assisted Korean police with their investigation, providing them documents that show the ship was built to military specifications and illegally exported—including diagrams indicating that the wiring of five guns were installed in Korea, before they were mounted after the ship’s transfer to Myanmar.

“My wish in my heart is to stop all supplies from Europe to the Myanmar military,” he told Myanmar Now. “I want to stop the whole supply, including the fuel for the fighter jets bombing civilians or our revolutionary forces. Even the screws and the bolts—I don’t want even a spanner supplied to the Myanmar navy. Nothing at all. That is my wish.”

Myanmar Now approached Denmark’s Ministry of Justice for comment, but did not receive an official response.

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