Asia News Network ,
One year after the Bali bombing, Thai leaders are still acting hypocritically when it comes to the trade in illegal arms. Allowing arms smugglers to crisscross land and marine borders to supply rebel groups overseas damages the country's diplomatic relations and reputation. Both Indonesia and Sri Lanka, which have been suffering from internal wars, have repeatedly expressed concern with Bangkok's dual-track approach to arms smuggling.
As the government wraps up months of preparation for next week's Asia-Pacific leaders' meeting, Thai security officials have come to grips with the reality that there are still lots of illegal and quite dangerous weapons out there that could jeopardize the safety of the visiting foreign dignitaries and others beyond the conclusion of APEC.
For years, Thailand has been an international hub of arms trafficking in small firearms, machine-guns, ammunition and lethal weapons such as surface-to-air missile launchers and explosives.
But then, chickens always come home to roost. Reports that several SAM-7 surface-to-air missiles were smuggled into Thailand last month jolted police, who fear they could be used to target incoming and outgoing flights.
Police decided to show thousands of motorcycle taxi drivers such weapons at a news conference at Don Muang airport. The drivers were asked to report to the police if they spotted any ahead of the APEC meeting. The media event demonstrated the seriousness of the proliferation of extremely deadly weapons here. In the past few months, the government has declared war on the mafia, and offered a broad amnesty for anyone giving up their private arsenals and illegal weapons. Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra has declared he intends to make Thailand free of firearms in five to six years. That's more easily said than done.
The end of the Cambodian conflict in the early 1990s and the de-escalation of tensions and conflicts along Thai borders with neighboring countries caused a sudden influx of used and stockpiled weapons to the global arms marketplace. Add arms and ammunition stolen from depots inside Thai territory, and there are far too many deadly weapons unaccounted for in the country.
For decades, Thai authorities turned a blind eye to smuggling, rationalizing that weapons were just “transiting” through our territory. They were not being used against the Thai people, they argued. Worse, military and police personnel in official control of weapons and ammunition have been caught selling them from national stockpiles.
Such a lax policy can no longer be allowed. With Thaksin so keen to be perceived as a crucial regional leader, Thailand has to rid itself of this dubious practice. It's also an urgent matter because Thailand has a reputation as a leading regional peacekeeper to worry about. It certainly does not want to tarnish its much-heralded stint in East Timor in 2000.
Since that mission, Thai troops have broadened their peace-keeping role in other parts of the world, including Indonesia's Aceh province, Afghanistan and now Iraq.
As the Thai peace-keepers embark upon missions, questions are raised about the country's seriousness in handling illegal arms trafficking, which often ends up supplying the very rebel groups with whom the Thais are brokering peace. Arms smuggled via the southern provinces of Satun, Songkhla, Yala, Ranong and Phuket in past years have found their way into the hands of Acehnese and Tamil fighters.
After years of recalcitrance, Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri has finally decided to speak up. During her recent visit here, she disclosed that arms smuggled from Thailand continued to wind up in Aceh even as Thai troops worked there to protect civilians and enforce the cease-fire. Indonesia also alleges that some of the Acehnese rebels' top leaders are still in hiding inside Thailand.
With the cease-fire between Indonesia and Acehnese rebels having collapsed, Thai peace-keepers have returned home. But in the case of ongoing Sri Lankan peace talks, hosted twice by Thailand, the lessons of Aceh must be remembered. There is no excuse for a country that is officially involved in brokering peace to also be unofficially supplying arms to the parties in dispute.
The May arrests of three Tamil arms smugglers in Ranong and the seizure of their weapons is a case in point. Unlike previous seizures, these arms were traceable to official and private sources. A group of Thai police officers suspected of supplying guns to Tamil fighters have been questioned. Subsequent investigations have also revealed that the rebel group bought arms from legal gun shops in downtown Bangkok's Burapa district.
The country should realize by now that it has corrupted the very peace process it is helping to broker. Such confusing, contradictory signals are also being seen in Thailand's handling of the Burmese crisis. The concept of what a truly honest broker has yet to sink into the heads of Thai decision-makers.
The government must treat the Ranong case with severity. Thailand is breaking international law and the seriousness of this has not been grasped by Thai officials or the media. Indeed, some officials boast that Thailand is clever enough to have its cake and eat it, too, as if double-dealing were somehow admirable.
Thailand must be more sensitive to the security of neighboring countries, including those with which we do not share a border. The war on terrorism has brought the message home – our own and the region's security is in limbo as long as we pursue a two-track policy.