Sunday, February 28, 2021

Is Thailand still in the arms-smuggling trade?

Jun 06. 2017
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By The Nation

Even as our neighbours pursue peace, a Wild West mentality seems to persist in the military

The ruling junta – the National Council for Peace and Order – and particularly the Internal Security Operation Command (Isoc) must come clean with regard to a military officer’s alleged involvement in weapons trafficking. On Saturday, Flight Sergeant Pakhin Detphong, an Air Force officer attached to Isoc in Bangkok, was arrested on a charge of arms trafficking after his pickup ran off a road in Trat. He was allegedly hauling 29 AK-47 rifles, four machine guns, more than 4,000 AK-47 rounds and 53 M79 grenades. Most worryingly, it’s believed the arms might have been intended for anti-government militants in Myanmar.

This was not the first time a Thai military officer has been tied to weapons trafficking. A decade ago a non-commissioned officer was caught with a truckload of military-grade weapons when his vehicle broke down in the South. Authorities suspected the shipment was bound for Aceh in Indonesia, at the time the scene of a full-blown insurgency. 

In early 2004, then-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra admitted that hundreds of weapons stolen from an Army arsenal had ended up in Aceh. He said nothing about the extent of Thai soldiers’ involvement, whether it was just a rogue unit, or if the smuggling had the approval of top brass. In January and February that same year, eight Indonesians were arrested and charged with moving hundreds of firearms from southern Thailand to the Free Aceh Movement.

It is not hard to imagine that many other such transactions succeeded where these failed.

At the height of the Cold War Thailand was engaged in proxy wars with its neighbours. Given the political and security climate, illegal activities such as arms and opium trafficking were tolerated because the money derived was funding armed ethnic groups fighting the country’s enemies in the Golden Triangle and Indochina. No one in society complained because society itself was tolerant of the means justifying desired ends. The proxy armies along the borders were deemed necessary because the Thai Army didn’t want to get bloodied.

Those days are all but over, however. A generous measure of peace reigns the region. Trust spans frontiers. It takes an incident such as the one that occurred on Saturday to remind us that Thai military personnel – acting as a group or individually – remain mired in a Cold War mentality.

It’s been suggested that the arms seized at the weekend were destined to bolster the ethnic militants in Myanmar. If so, it would be an outrageous affront to efforts in that country to achieve a negotiated peace. The international community is carefully watching discussions between the government and armed groups aimed at ending decades of horrendous fighting. Attempts originating in Thailand to undermine those efforts would earn global condemnation.

The generals and their security planners need to take a long, hard look at how Southeast Asia has changed since the Wild West days of the 1970s. Selling arms to old proxies across the border has to be understood as appallingly inappropriate and unacceptable. There is no justification for it at any time, and certainly not while peace talks are underway. Myanmar might still have a long way to go, but it has to be given a chance. At the very least, Thai military personnel need to refrain from making the situation worse.

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