covering burma and southeast asia
Sunday, June 16, 2024



By The Irrawaddy MARCH, 1999 - VOLUME 7 NO.3

(Page 10 of 11)

Before Khun Sa surrendered to Rangoon, Thai police often caught groups of smugglers transporting SAM7 missiles and other weapons in Phrae and Chiang Mai provinces. Traders usually transported arms in trucks, but sometimes they used petrol tankers or crop transporters.

The drivers were usually Thai civilians, but sometimes Burmese who can speak Thai. They received handsome sums of money when the trade was booming. In 1990, a truck driver who transported weapons received fifteen thousand baht (approximately US$600 at the exchange rate of the time) per trip. But some received up to fifty thousand baht (US$2000) per trip. According to the book, the estimated transportation cost of a shipment from the Thai-Cambodian border to the Thai-Burmese border was between fifty and a hundred thousand baht.

Thai police suggested that selling prices at the Thai-Burmese border were three times the buying prices at the Thai-Cambodian border. In addition, they also admitted that the quantity of weapons seized by the police was less than 10% of the total trade.

Some military supplies are routed through the Thai police. An ex-officer of the National Security Council (NSC) recounted that weapons seized by the police from arms traffickers were not always accounted for properly and officially. They could then be smuggled out for resale in the underground market.

Among civilian businessmen who supply arms to the Burmese minority groups, some are arms trade specialists and others are log-traders.

The book said, "In 1992, rebels in Burma spent as estimated ten to fifty billion baht (US$2 billion) on arms. The estimate for 1995 was around twenty billion baht."

In recent years arms smuggling has become increasingly connected with the drug trade, because drugs have been exchanged for arms. According to the Office of the Narcotics Control Board (ONCB) of Thailand, in the early 1990s traders bought heroin from Khun Sa in exchange for SAM missiles.

Arms to the Khmer Rouge

The conflicts in Cambodia are no different. Thailand wanted Cambodia to serve as a buffer state between Thailand and Vietnam. "This strategy continues to influence the thinking of Thai policymakers down to the present day," the book said.

Not liking Vietnamese troops on their doorstep, Thailand supported the Khmer groups which opposed the Vietnamese-imposed regime in Phnom Penh, namely Sihanouk, Son San and the Khmer Rouge.

Another concern of the Thai government was its own internal insurgency in 1960s and 1970s. Fierce fighting flared up in more than thirty provinces between the Communist Party of Thailand (CPT) and the Thai government. At that time, China supported the CPT, while the government troops received military aid from the US. The conflict receded in the early 1980s, and many war weapons remained hidden underground in the jungle. These weapons were later traded illegally in Thailand. The Khmer Rouge’ income from gem mining and logging concessions was in the range of eight to eleven billion baht (US$ 320 - 440 million) a year." The Khmer Rouge worked closely with Thai Army and Navy officers to purchase these arms. After the UN-sponsored elections in 1993, the Khmer Rouge were outlawed, but Thailand still supported them militarily. These weapons were routed through a Thai military unit known as "So po ko to bo 315" (Special Operations Division 315), which was set up by Gen. Chavalit Yongchaiyudh to oversee the delivery of these arms. This unit operated secretly and independently. Concrete evidence emerged when Thai highway policemen stumbled on trucks containing war weapons in Chanthaburi near the Cambodia border. Bombs, explosives, missiles and tank guns weighing in total about five tons were hidden in ten-wheel trucks disguised as regular goods transport. Subsequently, local police seized ten warehouses situated on fifty rai of land in Chanthaburi. Many more weapons including 130 mm cannons and missiles were seized.

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