A decade ago, I wrote a conference paper on arms trafficking in the Golden Triangle region. Recent events in Bangkok bring to mind some of its salient points.
The Golden Triangle is that loose area where Burma, Laos and Thailand meet. A portion of Yunnan province in south-west China may be included as well.
The paper saw this ethnically diverse region as a single geographic, social and cultural entity that transcends these formal borders. Historically, national governments that putatively have sovereignty over portions of the Golden Triangle had little influence there.
The semi-autonomy contributed to lawlessness and this, in turn, produced a profusion of arms and private armies – partly for self protection and partly connected to trade activity, the latter including substantial quantities of opium and other illicit material. The arms trade supporting this dynamic had Thailand as its hub, though sourcing from China has become more apparent in recent years.
Arms trafficking from Thailand fell under two categories: covert and criminal, with the two often overlapping. Covert activity involved supplies and support from the Thai security apparatus under a strategic policy in place until the early 1990s, to maintain buffer zones along border areas. Criminal activity was, of course, commercially driven.
The weaponry and ammunition originated domestically or simply transited through Thai territory. Materials in transit were sourced from Cambodia ( reduced in recent years); from Viet Nam or the former Soviet bloc. There were also reports of involvement by middlemen based in Singapore.
Most of this war material went overland to insurgents in Burma and Laos, but some was destined for further afield, including to the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka and secessionist fighters in India’s north-east. But it is the domestic sourcing that is likely most relevant to the unsettled atmosphere now prevalent in Thailand.
Weaponry obtained in Thailand and destined for the black market trade originated mainly from local military stocks or from unscrupulous arms dealers. At least one incident involved theft from an American stockpile maintained in the country for training use.
“According to a Bangkok-based intelligence source,” I wrote in 2000, “one method of siphoning from Thai army stocks involves over-reporting the amount of ammunition consumed during training exercises.”
The paper further notes: “Locally- sourced military equipment is largely purloined from Royal Thai Army stocks. This includes material simply stolen from storage areas and material obtained with the collusion of corrupt military personnel who over-report usage and siphon off the excess.
“Some licensed arms dealers also support the trade, under-declaring the volume of legally imported material and selling the surplus stock so obtained to illicit arms traffickers. Published reports also suggest that some contraband war material confiscated during police raids has reappeared on the market.”
However, conditions inevitably fluctuate. “One Bangkok-based intelligence source says that a single round of ammunition for the M-16 assault rifle is now selling in the Golden Triangle for 15 baht as compared with the previous price of five baht,” the paper states. “This indicates tight supply.”
And how does all this relate to events currently unfolding?
Bangkok has been rocked by over 70 bombings since violent confrontations between the military and red-shirt protesters in April and May, and another 43 explosive devices have been defused by police. Thailand’s special investigations department, meanwhile, alleged on October 11 that a number of red-shirt militants have received weapons training in Siem Reap, Cambodia, which Phnom Penh denies.
“Some 32 rocket-propelled grenades, 8,000 bullets for United States-supplied M-16 assault rifles and other weaponry disappeared from an army arsenal during September. A similar mysterious theft of 69 hand grenades and 3,100 bullets for assault rifles occurred at a different army depot in March,” Bangkok-based journalist Richard Ehrlich further noted in a recent article.
The intention behind such activity is unclear. Some suggest the bombings are rooted in radical red-shirt efforts to destabilise the administration, while others suspect a government hand. Commenting on the latter view, Ehrlich stated that “the red shirts and their supporters portray Bangkok’s bombings as a shameless conspiracy by the government to entrench the military, justify the government’s ongoing state of emergency decree and smear innocent (red shirts).”
Neither position has as yet been substantiated, with no hard evidence uncovered. Or at least made public.
But one thing is nevertheless clear: the siphoning of small arms and ammunition from Thai military arsenals has been prevalent for years and is not a new phenomenon. Neither has the local availability of this material posed a significant problem.
Where this trade has traditionally fed the illicit export market, it can just as easily fulfil domestic purposes. If circumstances require.