Weapons smuggling on the Thai-Cambodian border: Who is responsible?

Photo: Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade/CC BY 2.0

Oliver Ward

The Thai-Cambodia border is teeming with arms smugglers. The Thai media accuses the Cambodian Defense Ministry of their direct involvement in weapons smuggling. But the Thai military’s involvement also needs questioning.

Cambodia’s Defense Ministry may have blood on their hands. The Thai media have claimed they are directly involved in arms smuggling. The Thai media made the claims after Thai authorities found a weapons cache in a vehicle in the Trat province of Thailand. They assert that the weapons may be linked to Cambodian Defense Minister, Tea Banh.

The Cambodian Defense Ministry are investigating the issue. However, the recent spate of arrests suggests that the problem is not limited to Cambodia. Thai military officials are also very much embroiled in smuggling weapons from Cambodia to Myanmar.

The Thai military is as much to blame as the Cambodian military

A pickup truck belonging to Thai Air Force officer, Pakhin Detphong, was found. It had crashed in the Thai province of Trat. It was stocked with 29 AK-47 assault rifles, four 7.62mm machine guns, several grenades and more than 4,000 bullets. An unidentified Cambodian man approached the scene following the accident. He was driving a Cambodia registered Land Cruiser. He quickly fled.

The man was arrested while driving back to Cambodia. He was named as Lean Pisith, a Cambodian police officer. Detphong admitted to buying the weapons from an unidentified Cambodian man. The weapons are thought to have been intended for sale to ethnic minorities in Burma.

The arrest came just days after 19 suspects were arrested for smuggling arms in Thailand. They were charged with smuggling six M67 grenades, two M26 grenades and 100 bullets. The weapons were hidden in parcels in Bangkok. They were also destined for Myanmar.

Of the 19 arrested, 12 were Thai military servicemen. Sgt Thanakorn Boonkarn of the 1st Engineer Battalion King’s Guard was among those arrested. He allegedly used his military status and connections to sell ammunition via social media.

The Thai government wants to contain the problem

In the wake of the arrests, General Prayut has vowed to crack down on illegal weapons smuggling in the country. He has called for all vehicles to be searched at checkpoints, regardless of their military status.

First Army Region Commander, Lt Gen Apirat Kongsompong is in talks with Cambodian commanders. He wants to work with Cambodian authorities to increase security along the border.

The Thai authorities will not be able to contain it without Cambodian authorities on board

The Thai authorities will need to work with Cambodian authorities to contain the problem. The border is porous. Arrests have been made on both sides. Last year Cambodian authorities arrested two Vietnamese men carrying 16 pistols and six rifles with ammunition. They had entered the country from Thailand.

Authorities on both sides of the border will need to work together to curb smuggling in the region.

Cambodia represents the most important source for illegal weapons in Southeast Asia. After the Third Indochina War ended, several UN programs to disarm rural areas were ineffective. It left many unregistered guns in the hands of communities.

Guns are rife across Cambodia

Between 1992 and 1993, the UN Transnational Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) seized more than 320,443 weapons along with 80,729,175 items of ammunition. It was merely a small fraction of the weapons in the country at the time. In 1998, 1 in 3 households in the country owned a firearm.

It is estimated that there are still between 22,000 and 85,000 weapons in circulation outside of government control. This number rises to 271,000 and 600,000 if weapons legitimately held by civilians are included.

The value of weapons imports into the country through customs is just over US$30 million. Under Cambodian law, arms brokers and intermediaries are not regulated. On customs sheets, gun owners do not have to declare the end user of a weapon, or its intended use. In many other countries, these are required to ensure all weapons are accounted for and licensed.

As a result, weapon imports are high, and increasing

With laxed regulation, weapon imports to Cambodia are increasing. In 2013, US$67 million of weapons were imported to the country. The figure was US$34 million in 2010 and US$14 million in 2006. Weapons imported from China and the Middle East are ending up in the hands of insurgent groups. Many of them come through Cambodia.

Are the Cambodian government selling weapons illegally?

There is no doubt that the country has a large number of untraced weapons. Does this mean the Cambodian government is responsible for the sale of weapons, as the Thai media suggest?

The country certainly has a history of it. In 1996 the Tamil Tigers were able to arrange the transfer of surface to air missiles (SAMs) from Cambodia to the Jaffna peninsula. The Cambodian government denied claims that they were responsible. However, the SA-7s were the same model that was present in the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces arsenal.

The Cambodian military have also received an injection of weapons in recent years. The Chinese government gave them military aid in an attempt to build stronger diplomatic ties. In 2013 the Chinese government gave the Cambodian army 26 Chinese trucks, 30,000 uniforms, a loan for 12 Harbin Z-9 helicopters, extensive training for Cambodian forces and unspecified “military equipment”.

In 2006, journalist, Rachel Snyder, investigated the arms trade in Cambodia. She found that she was easily able to purchase a handgun in Phnom Penh for as little as US$200. The arms dealer told her “AK-47 cheaper. Maybe US$100, because, you know I can buy from the army”.

Cambodia now has more weapons in the country, due to Chinese donations. A Cambodian police offer was arrested in Thailand for his involvement in the Detphong case.  These facts suggest that even if the government itself is not directly involved, corrupt officials working for the Cambodian authorities are almost certainly implicated. They are likely to be selling off weapons to arms dealers and smugglers. These smugglers will sell them on to armed groups across Southeast Asia.

Thai media outlets can blame corrupt Cambodian officials. But the Thai military is not innocent either. Experts estimate that 80% of Cambodia’s smuggled weapons enter Thailand. Thai brokers then sell them to middle-men. The middle men smuggle them into Myanmar or Indonesia. From Myanmar, they can be traded across South Asia.

Prayut’s talk of cracking down on smugglers is meaningless unless the Cambodian government is on board. The two governments need to implement the crackdown in conjunction with a campaign to tackle military corruption and improved Cambodian legislation on arms importation. This is the only way a crackdown will be successful.