The Irrawaddy News Magazine [Covering Burma and Southeast Asia]
MARCH, 1999 - VOLUME 7 NO.3

Asean: United We Fall

"To make Burma a member of ASEAN at this moment is to encourage (the regime) to be more repressive." — Aung San Suu Kyi

In the months leading up to Asean’s thirtieth birthday in July of 1997, a consensus on whether to admit Burma into Asean had yet to form. Three Asean members — Thailand, the Philippines, and Singapore — expressed concern over the consequences of Burma’s entrance which were echoed by opponents of Burma’s regime, including the US and some EU governments. Apprehension was expressed that Burma might not yet be ready to join Asean, that its admission would remove a key tool — Asean membership — to press the regime for political reform, and that in the future Burma’s inflexibility would cause tension within Asean and with its partners.

Asean heavies, Indonesia and Malaysia, moved in to exert their influence on others to drop their objections and to bring Asean into a union with Burma. In the view of Indonesian opposition leader Sri-Bintang, Indonesia’s President Suharto, Asean’s elder statesman and only remaining signatory to its founding charter, was "looking for friends to excuse the practice of fascism in Indonesia, to legitimize the practice of having only one single state ideology, one single party system and widespread intelligence services."

Aside from this realpolitik manoeuvering, the wishful thinking among Asean members that constructive engagement of Burma could balance its disparate interests chastened the qualms of the opposition. This strategy was expected to unite Asean into a larger and presumably stronger institution, enhance security interests in the region, and press the Burmese government to behave better.

Proponents of Burma’s admission argued that an enlarged Asean would enhance the organization and that enlargement in itself was a measure of success.

According to Indonesian Foreign Minister Ali Alatas, "By having all of them [Burma, Laos, and Cambodia] in, we [Asean] are in a better position to contribute to peace and stability in our region." The successful track record of Asean over the last three decades, particularly the last ten years of economic growth, imbued its leaders with a sense that they could withstand any opposition to their intimacy with Burma from the rest of the world.

Furthermore, long term security concerns over the increased presence of China in Burma pushed Asean policy makers into closer relations with Burma. Of particular concern was the flow of Chinese arms into Burma and China’s interest in strategic naval bases on Burma’s coast. The engagement of Burma was intended to provide an alternative to China so as to promote regional stability and security.

Advocates of engagement invoked the special influence that neighboring Asean members could exert on Burma to change its ways, rather than isolation. Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer stated that "the Aseans are the people who are likely to have the greatest influence on the Slorc [SPDC]."

But almost two years later, this approach has failed. Many of the previous warnings of July 1997 have come true and many of the arguments and conditions that supported the engagement of Burma no longer apply.

The economic fortitude of Asean has dissolved with the devaluation of the region’s currencies and the flight of foreign investment. This has weakened Asean’s position vis a vis other regional groups and made it more dependent as well, dispelling the myth that Burma’s inclusion would enhance Asean’s position in the world.

Asean attempts to halt the expansion of Chinese influence in Burma have not succeeded. Burma is increasingly reliant on Chinese military and technical assistance. Arms shipments along with military advisors have continued to pour into the Burma, and so have migrants from adjacent provinces in China.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s remark that, "To make Burma a member of Asean at this moment is to encourage (the regime) to be more repressive," has come true. As a recent UN Human Rights report confirms, Burma’s human rights record and its treatment of the political opposition has worsened. The government has begun detaining members of the NLD and forcing them to resign.

The continued postponement of the EU-Asean summit dramatizes the expense Asean incurs for associating with Burma as well as the junta’s inflexibility. For over eighteen months, the distribution of hundreds of millions of dollars of EU development funds has been delayed. The EU rejects a meeting with Burma and Asean rejects a meeting without Burma, placing the dialogue partners at loggerheads over how to deal with Burma. The EU has asked for some sort of gesture on behalf of the regime to demonstrate its seriousness about reform, but so far no substantial action has been taken.

The policy of constructive engagement has been that of appeasement without results as the Burmese government has had to provide little in order to maintain its position in the ranks of Asean. The time has come for Asean to take firmer action, but this may be more difficult than it seems.

The failure of the engagement of Burma has revealed a key weakness of Asean — that the necessity for consensus allows one inflexible member to dictate the course of action of the group. This was never a problem as all the members of Asean were willing to compromise. But now Burma refuses to play by the rules, putting Asean in a bind.

Thai Deputy Foreign Minister MR Sukhumbhand Paribatra explains, "There is no precedent for Asean’s acceptance of a new member whose internal affairs have such an impact on an existing Asean member."

Thai Foreign Minister Surin Pitsuwan has started a dialogue of "enhanced" or "critical engagement" to address this problem, but the progress is moving at a glacially Asean pace. Burma is a political liability for Asean, which has produced more a burden than a benefit. How much longer and at what cost is Asean prepared to accommodate a regime, which seems unwilling to offer the slightest compromise?

It is time that Asean stop paying for the Burmese junta’s recalcitrance, and employ stronger measures in dealing with the regime if it continues to remain inflexible towards its political opposition.


Min Ko Naing "Conqueror of Kings"

Of all the leaders who emerged during the heady days of Burma’s pro-democracy uprisings in 1988, Min Ko Naing, the "Conqueror of Kings," stands out as perhaps the most heroic. Min Ko Naing is the nom de guerre of Paw Oo Htun, who was born in Rangoon in 1962, the year his country’s fledgling democracy fell to the dictatorship of General Ne Win. Now, after a decade in prison for his role in instilling a sense of political responsibility in a people long accustomed to oppression, his name still expresses courage, commitment and hope.

The formative years of Min Ko Naing’s political consciousness coincided with the final years of Ne Win’s direct control over Burma. As a popular, artistically gifted student at the Rangoon Arts and Science University (RASU), he was an active member of the arts club, where he enjoyed reading, writing poems and drawing cartoons, especially satirical ones. But as Moe Thee Zun, a close friend and fellow activist, recalled, "Our conversations went beyond the usual topics of poems and cartoons, and we began to talk about politics and the country’s future."

In a country where student unions were banned by law, Min Ko Naing and his friends were forced to discuss their political views in secrecy. As the first signs of serious public unrest in Burma began to appear in 1985, the year Ne Win’s Burmese Socialist Program Party demonetized the 100-kyat note, Min Ko Naing and his close colleagues secretly established an underground student union in anticipation of a political uprising.

Min Ko Naing’s creative character provided him with the means to express his views publicly through participation in than gyat, a traditional contest held during the Burmese New Year in April. This contest involves the performance of songs and plays by colorfully dressed troupes. Traditionally, the performers parodied those in power, but under Ne Win, direct criticism of the government was forbidden. When Min Ko Naing and his friends started their own troupe in 1985, however, they attempted to revive the original spirit of than gyat. Calling themselves "Goat Mouth and All-Seeing Eye," they made jokes at the expense of Ne Win’s regime and highlighted the lack of freedom and democracy in Burma, as well as the corruption among its officials.

Min Ko Naing’s Than Gyat troupe proved to be very popular with its audiences of ordinary Burmese. It also attracted the attention of the dreaded Military Intelligence Services (MIS), whose agents were seen following them one night after a performance. But convinced that the time would soon be ripe for political change, Min Ko Naing and his friends pursued their study of the country’s deteriorating political, social and economic conditions, and planned to start a political movement in the near future. They managed to conceal these activities from the watchful eyes of the MIS until 1988.

The democracy movement in 1988

Dissatisfaction with Ne Win’s regime came to a head in March 1988, when university students in Rangoon started protesting against the government’s brutal killing of some students from the Rangoon Institute of Technology (RIT).

On March 16, 1988, about 3,000 students came to listen to "a thin, dark-skinned young man with curly hair, a slight moustache and beard (who) was giving anti-government speeches at Taung Ngu dormitory in the RASU campus," recalled another prominent activist. "That was Min Ko Naing."

Min Ko Naing called on students to speak out against the government’s mistreatment. He also told them about the history of student movements in Burma, and the role they played in national politics, something the military government tried to play down in their textbooks. It was Min Ko Naing’s first public speech.

The students then marched to the Convocation Hall where Min Ko Naing and other student leaders gave more speeches. He told his audience about the fate of earlier students’ movements that had challenged the present regime: "Our brothers in the past sacrificed to topple this military dictatorship but their demands were only met with violence, bullets and killing."

When the speeches had ended, the students left the RASU campus to join a small demonstration at RIT. They soon found themselves facing a barricade of barbed wire manned by dozens of soldiers on the Prome Road.

Confronted with this show of force, Min Ko Naing asked the students to sing the national anthem and salute Burma’s independence heroes, including Gen Aung San, founder of the Burmese Army. Then they shouted, "The peoples’ soldiers are our soldiers."

Min Ko Naing and two other students then went to negotiate with the army officer in charge. Stressing the importance of good relations between the army and the people, he asked the officer to let them pass. The officer refused, insisting that he had to follow orders from his superiors, but Min Ko Naing’s words seemed to have had some effect. After hearing him speak the soldiers lowered their guns and the tension eased.

Suddenly, however, hundreds of riot police rushed in from behind and, without warning, started beating the students. Some tried to escape their attackers by fleeing to nearby Inya Lake, where many drowned. Those who couldn’t escape were severely beaten and taken to Insein prison.

After this, the government closed down the universities and colleges. Min Ko Naing and his fellow student activists went into hiding to continue their activities. When the universities and colleges were reopened in June, the activists immediately began distributing anti-government leaflets urging students to join the student movement. News of young students being tortured in Insein prison spread all over the country, but on the campuses, the protests continued and the student movement was gaining momentum.

On June 12, 1988, a crowd of students formed on the RASU campus to look at copies of a poster drawn by Min Ko Naing which depicted a girl being beaten by soldiers near Inya Lake. The caption below the drawing said: "Don’t forget March 16th. If we are cowed into submission and fail to rise up this time, then the country will be ruled by even more repressive rulers in the future." Several students were moved to speak out, demanding the release of student activists and the reinstatement of students who had been expelled from universities for political reasons. Within a week the government closed all universities and colleges again.

To everyone’s surprise, Ne Win stepped down the following month. His loyal supporter, Gen Sein Lwin, replaced him as president of Burma, and student activists were released from prison. However, as Sein Lwin was widely disliked, fresh protests broke out in cities and provincial towns. A day after the detained students were set free, on July 8, Min Ko Naing and his fellow students issued a statement saying "we shouldn’t be swayed by the release of our fellow students. We will continue to fight." It was on this occasion, in fact, that Paw Oo Tun officially became known as Min Ko Naing, "Conqueror of Kings."

The statement was also significant for another reason. It had been issued under the name of the All Burma Federation of Students’ Unions (ABFSU), an organization that had played an important role in the struggle against colonial rule. Many of its early leaders were later recognized as independence heroes and statesmen, but when Ne Win came into power in 1962, he brutally repressed the organization and had the historic Students' Union building demolished. The re-emergence of the ABFSU was undoubtedly seen as a formidable challenge to the Ne Win government.


The ABFSU released a series of statements signed by Min Ko Naing in the following weeks. By far the most important was the one calling for a general strike on August 8, the date that would always be remembered as the start of the 8-8-88 pro-democracy movement.

On August 8, 1988, despite the heavy presence of troops, intimidation and threats, thousands of people took to the streets. Anti-government demonstrations broke out simultaneously in towns and cities all over the country.

In Rangoon, workers, monks, and students marched to the center of the city to join the protests. In the afternoon, a large crowd gathered to listen to Min Ko Naing give a speech in front of the US embassy.

"We, the people of Burma, have had to live without human dignity for 26 years under an oppressive rule. We must end dictatorial rule in our country. Only people power can bring down our repressive rulers," he told the crowd.

He concluded his speech by saying, "If we want to enjoy the same rights as people in other countries, we have to be disciplined, united and brave enough to stand up to the dictators. Let’s express our sufferings and demands. Nothing is going to stop us from achieving peace and justice in our country."

That night, the army opened fire on demonstrators gathered in front of Rangoon’s City Hall. Hundreds of people were gunned down. Troops were given the same orders in the provinces, where hundreds more died.

The violence continued the next day, as crowds from around Rangoon converged to form huge masses of humanity demanding change. Once again, the soldiers opened fire, killing hundreds of peaceful demonstrators.

On August 23, Min Ko Naing spoke to a large audience in front of Rangoon General Hospital, site of many recent killings. He was joined by Moe Thee Zun and Tin Oo, a former defense minister, who would later become a chairman of the NLD. Once again, Min Ko Naing called on people to be strong:

"World history has shown that people with strong spirit, unity, courage and discipline can bring down authoritarian governments. We believe in people power. Without your participation, we can achieve nothing."

On August 26, Min Ko Naing and other activists arranged for students in Rangoon to listen to Aung San Suu Kyi’s first public speech. Several hundred thousand people went to Shwedagon Pagoda, Burma’s most famous sacred shrine, to hear her speak.

On August 28, Burma’s first student congress in 26 years was held on the RASU campus. Thousands of students, veteran politicians and former student activists from the 1960s came to celebrate the official reestablishment of the ABFSU, with Min Ko Naing as its leader. Prominent leaders, including Aung San Suu Kyi, sent congratulatory messages.

At the students’ conference, Min Ko Naing read one of his poems, entitled "Faith," in which he promised that he would be faithful and committed to the people’s struggle, which he regarded as a fight for the truth. He took an oath that out of respect for those who had died before him, he would continue the fight until democracy and human rights were restored. When he finished, the crowd applauded ecstatically.

At that time, transportation and communication had come to a complete halt, and the MIS was trying to create anarchy by releasing criminals from the prisons. The various pro-democracy groups that had begun to form organizing centers around government buildings such as police stations, schools, and universities dealt with this situation in a very orderly manner. They distributed rice to those in need and provided small amounts of money to the poor and to released prisoners to prevent looting. When mobs gathered to attack looters or suspected informers, members of the ABFSU always arrived to calm down and disperse the crowd. The ABFSU also reorganized communications and transportation and encouraged people to form local security teams together with monks and other respectable people.

Arrest by the Slorc

On September 4, Min Ko Naing met with US congressman Stephen J. Solarz, who was visiting Burma to meet with top political leaders in order to assess the situation. Min Ko Naing told Solarz that the military had not responded to the people’s demand for an interim government, and that whether the situation became explosive or not depended on the military.

On September 18, the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) was formed following another bloody crackdown. A curfew was imposed and gatherings of more than five people were declared illegal. However, the junta promised that it would only stay in power until multi-party elections could be held.

Min Ko Naing did not dare show himself in public for several months. Then, in December 1988, Daw Khin Kyi, the mother of Aung San Suu Kyi, passed away and about 200,000 people gathered to pay their last respects. Despite the dignified solemnity of the occasion, military trucks appeared on the Prome Road to block the procession following Daw Khin Kyi’s coffin. Then Min Ko Naing suddenly appeared in the middle of the crowd, and appealed to the troops to let the people pass. Finally, the troops withdrew.

Min Ko Naing’s last public speech was given exactly one year after his first, on March 16, 1989. Thousands had gathered in the compound of Aung San Suu Kyi’s house to mark the first anniversary of the student massacre that ignited nationwide protests. Min Ko Naing’s speech criticized Ne Win and the junta for that massacre and all the others that were to follow in 1988.

On March 23, 1989, Min Ko Naing was arrested, amidst tightened security throughout Rangoon in anticipation of protests to mark Armed Forces Day on March 27. It was an important signal to other leaders that nobody was safe from arrest and imprisonment. Within days, Aung San Suu Kyi and several others were also arrested.

Min Ko Naing was charged under section 5(j) of the 1950 Emergency Provisions Act for having delivered anti-government speeches and agitating unrest. For this, he was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment in solitary confinement. While other political prisoners have received amnesties and are allowed to stay in group cells and receive regular family visits, Min Ko Naing has been kept isolated and without any reduction of his sentence.

In prison

There are doubts about how well Min Ko Naing has been holding up in prison. There have been confirmed reports of torture, but according to UN Human Rights Investigator Yozo Yokota, who was permitted to meet Min Ko Naing in 1995 after repeated requests, the student leader was nervous and thin but otherwise in good health. An earlier visit by US congressman Bill Richardson, in February 1994, was also encouraging. Through the congressman, he conveyed a simple message to his friends: "Don’t give up." A year later, fellow prisoner Win Htein, Aung San Suu Kyi’s personal assistant, reported when he was released that Min Ko Naing’s fighting spirit was still strong.

More recent reports have stated that he is suffering from a gastric ulcer. His friends are also increasingly concerned that his incredibly long period of solitary confinement must be taking a toll on his state of mind.

While Min Ko Naing’s fate is uncertain, and his destiny as a "conqueror of kings" remains unfulfilled, his importance as an inspiration to others who continue the fight to bring democracy to Burma is beyond doubt.

In a rare interview with Asiaweek magazine in 1988, Min Ko Naing said: "I’ll never die. Physically I might be dead, but many more Min Ko Naings will appear to take my place. As you know, Min Ko Naing can only conquer a bad king. If the ruler is good, we will carry him on our shoulders."

Based on reports by The Nation, Asiaweek and ABSDF Information Services.


"Heroes never die"

The most important thing about Min Ko Naing is his morals and courage. I have always admired his courage. When we were very young, Min Ko Naing’s parents did not like him to hang out with me. They worried that I would "destroy" him. My parents thought the same thing of him. So we could not meet in front of our parents. But we always managed to meet each other.

We had our own signal. Min Ko Naing would make a cross with charcoal at an electricity pole, which is sitting in front of his house. That meant he was not at home. If he was there, he would just make a check mark. Then I knew he was there, and I would wait nearby. When he saw me, he would come out and we would meet. We used this signal until the 1988 democracy uprisings.

Our parents should have been worried. When we were young, I showed him how to smoke, and in return, he taught me how to swim. As we got older, we began to read more books and learn more about politics. Later we started having serious and critical discussions on the political situation and that made our parents really worry. Once my father angrily said, "Do you think our house is a rebel headquarters?" At that time, we were holding informal meetings and discussions on politics.

Now my friend is serving a 20 year sentence in prison, and I have also given a death sentence in absentia. Min Ko Naing does not work for himself, but for the people, which is why he is a real hero. I think of my friend more and more whenever I see those who are power hungry and cowards holding titles and are in high positions. But I’m sure that his spirit is still strong, and he will continue to stand up against the military dictatorship in Burma. But I’m worried about his health condition. But heroes never die.

By Moe Thee Zun, Deputy Chairman of the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front [ABSDF]. Moe Thee Zun fled to the border in 1989 and joined the "Students Army."


TA MOK on trial: Putting the butcher on the scales of justice

Ta Mok, known as "the Butcher" for his atrocities against Cambodians during the Khmer Rouge era, has been arrested and put in prison. Now it looks like the government of Hun Sen, himself a former member of the Khmer Rouge, may be ready to put him on trial for his crimes against humanity. But Ta Mok’s trial should not become just a showpiece to win international approval. Justice must be done, and that means bringing others to trial, writes Aung Zaw.

For years, academics and Cambodia watchers disputed the true identity of Ta Mok, the man known as "the Butcher." The name of the top Khmer Rouge leader, who was recently arrested near the Thai-Cambodia border, still evokes images of horror in the minds of survivors of Cambodia’s "killing fields." Ta Mok earned his nickname during his tenure as a Khmer Rouge commander responsible for sweeping purges of suspected dissidents in southwestern Cambodia. His role as a major participant in the reign of terror imposed upon Cambodia in the 1970s is undisputed.

Ta Mok’s arrest came as international pressure was building on the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen to bring Khmer Rouge leaders to trial for their atrocities. Just two days before his arrest, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright discussed the matter with Thai government leaders during a visit to Bangkok.

Now that he is in custody, he is likely to become the first Khmer Rouge leader to be tried for his crimes. Pol Pot, mastermind of the nationwide pogrom which led to nearly two million deaths, died last year under mysterious circumstances. Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan, who also held important positions in the Khmer Rouge, surrendered to the government last year and remain unmolested in an enclave in the western part of the country.

Ta Mok was charged under a law banning the radical leftist group that ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. Analysts said the maximum sentence he would face is life in prison, since the country doesn’t have the death penalty.

While it is quite certain that Ta Mok, 72, will be tried, it remains unclear where the trial will take place. A team of legal experts appointed by the UN has recommended an international trial outside Cambodia. But they advise against a Western venue, suggesting instead an ad hoc tribunal somewhere in Asia, possibly in Australia or the Philippines. The UN also recommended that 20 to 30 other Khmer Rouge leaders should be tried for crimes against humanity.

At a press conference in Thailand, Albright said, "We want the top leaders brought to justice and we do support an international tribunal on this." In response to Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s position that reconciliation is more important than retribution, Albright argued, "On the contrary, we think that [trials are] the way to reconciliation."

China, a major backer of the Khmer Rouge in the past, is opposed to international trials, and may use its veto in the UN Security Council to block any attempt to mete out justice outside of Cambodia. It is also believed that Beijing has advised Hun Sen against allowing trials to be held in a foreign country. The Cambodian Prime Minister has publicly come out in favor of getting foreign assistance to set up a domestic court to try the case in Cambodia.

Hun Sen has also expressed concern that attempts to bring Khmer Rouge leaders to justice could plunge the country into civil war if Phnom Penh is perceived as reneging on the amnesty it granted to those who have already surrendered. When Khmer Rouge leaders Nuon Chea, Khieu Samphan and Ieng Sary turned themselves in to the government last year, Hun Sen let them know that all would be forgiven if they promised to keep the peace. Observers believe that all three, who occupied more prominent positions in the Khmer Rouge than Ta Mok, should also be brought to trial. Hun Sen’s reluctance to go back on his deal with them raises the question of whether trials held in Cambodia could reasonably be expected to function independently, without political interference from the government.

Human rights lawyer James Ross said that Hun Sen's argument that an international tribunal could lead to a new war is wrong because the Khmer Rouge barely exists, which is why all their leaders surrendered in the first place.

Hun Sen has taken great pains to demonstrate his respect for international norms since 1997, when he shocked observers by booting his coalition partners out of the country. Since then, he has allowed elections and made an uneasy peace with his opponents in a bid to win international recognition and Asean membership, as well as much needed foreign aid. Some see Ta Mok’s arrest as a real windfall for Hun Sen, as it gives him an opportunity to placate demands for justice without going after more sensitive targets. There has been little support so far for another alternative that he has proposed: a South-African style "Truth and Reconciliation Commission."

One observer said, "Hun Sen would just like to have a quick trail for Ta Mok, put him in prison and end the whole matter. That he can continue to cut deals with the other Khmer Rouge leaders, who are making money off of gems and illegal logging."

It remains to be seen, however, whether the world will be any more satisfied with a showpiece trial, even if it is held in an international court and features a first-class villain of Ta Mok’s stature.

According to Nate Thayer of the Far Eastern Economic Review, that may be precisely what the Cambodian government has in mind. "He’s reviled by everyone and he has no protection. I think that’s their program, to make him the fall guy." But Thayer warns that it may not be that simple: "They’re opening a Pandora’s box. He’s only one of literally hundreds of people who are guilty of the same kind of thing."

All the Cambodian leadership was close to the Khmer Rouge at one time or another, and many current leaders are former Khmer Rouge. Not surprisingly, none of them are too keen on an international tribunal.

While the international community ponders the possibility of bringing the rule of law to bear upon those who perpetrated some of the worst atrocities of this century, Cambodians are less interested in legal and political intricacies than in simply coming to terms with the past. Tep Yee, a Cambodian woman who lost six of her relatives during Khmer Rouge rule, said that she wants to see Ta Mok and Khmer Rouge leaders in court so that she can understand how they could be so brutal.

Whether they are held in Cambodia or in another country, future trials of Khmer Rouge leaders should be as open as possible and should lead to national reconciliation. Both the international community and the people of Cambodia, most of whom lost at least one member of their family to the brutality of the Khmer Rouge, will want to hear what Ta Mok and other Khmer Rouge leaders have to say about their actions in the past. So far, all they’ve heard from Ta Mok are unconvincing pleas of innocence.

Putting Ta Mok on trial may help to heal the war torn country, but it will not be enough. Ta Mok is not the only person responsible for Cambodia’s suffering. The Cambodian people must, of course, choose their own route to national reconciliation, but unless they have help from the rest of the world, their chances of seeing justice done will be slim.

James Ross said, "While it would be good to have a trial in Cambodia, the politicization and lack of independence and competence of the courts make it an impossibility."

"To provide real justice for the Cambodian people there is no choice but to have an international tribunal."

Meanwhile, time may be running out. At 72, Ta Mok may not live to see a long, drawn out trial through to the end. The strongest argument in favor of summary justice may be sheer impatience to see something done before it is too late. "We don’t expect foreigners to find justice for Cambodians," Hun Sen told reporters recently, adding, "We should try Ta Mok soon, we don’t have to wait . . . until he dies."

But anyone who believes that Cambodia’s past can be hastily erased does no justice to the memory of the millions who lost their lives during one of history’s darkest moments.



Guns, Gambling, Girls, Ganja, a book recently launched by three Thai professors, examines the illegal arms trade in Thailand. Aung Zaw reports on their findings.

In 1994, a Thai man driving a petrol tanker was stopped by highway police near the Thai-Burmese border. Instead gasoline, the police found SAM-7 missiles in the tanker. The driver hastily confessed that he was asked to transport these missiles to druglord Khun Sa, who was then leading the Mong Tai Army [MTA]. With regard to arms smuggling, this is hardly a rare or substantial story for Thailand. In fact, many more weapons have been seized over the past years. But the heyday of Thailand’s underground arms market is in decline. The major factors underlying the illegal arms trade in recent years have been the fighting between the military government and minority groups in Burma, and between government forces and the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. Since the 1950s, the countries bordering Thailand —Cambodia, Malaysia, Laos and Burma—have been plagued with internal and external conflicts. However, the conflict in these four countries has receded and the arms trade is decreasing. Since 1996, the contraband arms trade has been in decline. But a group of Thai academics, who recently published a book provocatively titled Guns, Girls, Gambling, Ganja, worry that those involved in the arms trade may simply turn their attention to other illegal businesses, including drug trafficking, prostitution and gambling.

Arms to Burma

The book says that on Thailand’s western border, where much of Burma’s longstanding internal political conflict has taken place, "The arms trade has been much larger." A major demand for modern weapons came from the many ethnic minorities in Burma based along the Thai border that took up armed struggle against the central government. Logging and the trade in opium and jade are the main sources of income for these groups to purchase arms.

On the Burma side, resistance groups such as Karen, Mon, Arakanese, Shan and the now defunct Communist Party of Burma were major recipients of war weapons. The book said, "In recent years, the largest single flow of illegal arms has been from the supplies and stockpiles in Indochina to the rebels in Burma."

However, after signing ceasefire agreement with the Rangoon regime, the purchase of arms has decreased. In 1989, the Communist Party faced a serious mutiny, which led members of its cadres, the Wa and Kokang, to make peace with Rangoon. They were followed by the Kachin in 1993.

Interestingly, China has become a major arms supplier to the Rangoon regime since 1989. Rangoon has bought tanks, frigates, ammunition, and hardware from Beijing. The Chinese have even sent military officers to train Burmese soldiers.

However, Thailand’s illegal arms market remains the best source for Karen and Shan insurgents, the book said. An exofficer of the National Security Council (NSC) said, "All the armed forces of these minority groups rely on the weapons purchased from the Thailand market." Some of the arms supplied to Burma originated from the stocks of the Thai military.

Secret arrangements were made by Thai officers who acted as middlemen. The Thai middlemen include both civilians and people in uniform. In some cases, there are no Thai middlemen involved. Agents for the Burmese groups live covertly in the border areas of Buriram, Surin, and Sisaket from where they could contact the military leaders of the Khmer Rouge directly.

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. Police later said three hundred trucks would not be enough to transport all these weapons.

In 1990, UPI reported that ammunition and explosives worth millions of US dollars were delivered from the US government to the Thai military and subsequently smuggled out for sale on the underground arms market in Thailand.

Who benefited from the arms trade? The book said, "First, participants and beneficiaries from the trade include some ministers, MPs, top party officials, big businessmen, local godfathers, police and military officers. They have both political and financial clout as well as deadly weapons." Second, the book identified the Thai government’s security policy. The police in fact promote conflicts in neighboring countries, which generate the demand for arms. Third, well connected organized crime gangs and arms trade networks in Thailand. These networks are well established inside the country and internationally. The book said, "The contraband arms trade still exists because influential people are involved in the trade." [Top]

Based on Guns, Girls, Gambling, Ganja, by Pasuk Phongpaichit, Nualnoi Treerat and Sungsidh Piriyarangsan. Published by Silkworm Books, 1998.

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