Light Arms Trading in SE Asia


Mar 1, 2001

This commentary originally appeared in Jane's Intelligence Review on March 1, 2001.

Reproduced with permission from Jane's Information Group.

The illegal light weapons trade in Southeast Asia is undermining democracy, contributing to an upsurge in political and criminal violence and inhibiting economic development, argues Peter Chalk.

For the past three years, the Council for Security Co-operation in the Asia Pacific's (CSCAP) Working Group on Transnational Crime, a policy advising body that parallels the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) at the non-governmental level, has consistently devoted a significant proportion of its research agenda and resources to small arms trafficking. The emphasis on this particular issue underscores the enormous impact that the unregulated flow and diffusion of light weapons is currently having on peace and stability throughout Southeast Asia. Not only has it considerably heightened the potential for violence of a wide variety of non-state actors - ranging from separatists, crime syndicates, and drug lords to pirates - more intrinsically, it has torn at much of the region's social fabric, inviting violent responses to unsolved problems and overshadowing the efforts of those seeking to develop and employ peaceful mechanisms to address internal challenges.

Just as importantly, illicit movements of small arms have directly impacted on fiscal management and political stability. In particular, they have further fuelled what is an already thriving, drug-related, black economy; 'maimed' productive capacity in terms of human resources; discouraged overseas investment; and undermined the consolidation of still weak democracies by encouraging official corruption.

Scope and dimensions

There is no precise, formal definition for light arms. However, for the purposes here they will refer to direct fire weapons that can be carried by an individual, or on a small vehicle, and which have a secondary capability to defeat light armour and helicopters. Excluded are those arms generally understood to encompass major conventional weapons systems such as tanks, large calibre artillery, aircraft, attack helicopters, ships and armoured combat vehicles.

The term 'light arm' is really a misnomer as many of these weapons retain a phenomenal capacity to kill and inflict chaos and mayhem. The Kalashnikov AK-47 assault rifle, for instance, can fire up to 30 rounds in less than three seconds, with each bullet lethal up to a range of 500m. At close quarters, the Heckler and Koch AM 180 sub-machine gun is even more devastating, having a cyclic rate of fire of 1,500 rounds per minute. The Russian made RPG-7 can penetrate 330mm thick armour at distances of up to 500m; the US-made Claymore landmine is able to propel up to 700 steel balls in a 60º arc and is lethal up to 50m.

Small and light arms are commonly accepted to have a number of characteristics that lend themselves to rapid and frequent movement, both across borders, between organisations and among individuals. They are, by definition, light. This facilitates cheap and easy transportation and covert movement. Arms caches have been sent to insurgent groups by boat, in trucks, on the back of camels and even by post. Light weapons are also cheap, which opens up a very large potential buyer's market, even in the poorest parts of the world. Finally, light weapons are extremely durable, requiring only a minimum level of field maintenance. They rarely break down, and do not require an extensive inventory of spare parts.

The illicit and covert nature of light arms movements, together with the lack of any formal data collection and analysis, makes it difficult to quantify the extent of the trade with any real degree of accuracy. Some rough indicators are available, however. The International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS) in London estimates the illicit global market at US$2-10 billion a year. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) puts a higher value on the trade - $10-15 billion a year. Oxfam, a UK-based charity, has suggested that at least 55% of all light arms transfers are illegal, a figure that several other leading analysts have endorsed as a realistic measure of the problem.

There is, as yet, no estimate of even the rough value of the illicit light arms trade in Southeast Asia, although several factors suggest that substantial movements do take place. Many of the non-state actors operating in this part of the world have access to large and relatively sophisticated armouries, which strongly suggests an ability to 'tap' covert lines of supply. There have been numerous seizures of sizeable and unsanctioned weapons consignments, providing empirical evidence of a budding underground industry now being backed up by non-governmental organisation field research from bodies such as the CSCAP and Nonviolence International (NI).


Within the region, Cambodia represents probably the most important source for illicit arms. Due to a lack of internal governance, the failure of UN disarmament programmes following the end of the Third Indochina War in 1991 and the state's strategic location in the heart of mainland Southeast Asia, weapons trafficking is now one of the country's most lucrative businesses. Between 1992 and 1993, the UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) retrieved over 320,443 light arms and 80,729,175 items of ammunition from the various warring parties that fought in Cambodia during the 1980s. It is thought that this represents only a fraction of the total amount of weaponry that was transferred to the country by the Chinese, Thais, Americans and Soviets. Although the Paris Peace Agreements that ended the war gave UNTAC wide ranging powers to implement arms control provisions, when it became clear that post-conflict elections could be held without disarmament taking place, efforts in this direction were virtually abandoned. The result was the creation of a ready made weapons stockpile that unscrupulous groups have since been quick to seize on and exploit.

Although there is only one main illegal weapons bazaar in Cambodia, Tuk Thla located near Phnom Penh, a wide range of munitions are available, including AK-47 and M-16 assault rifles, pistols, hand grenades, rocket launchers and ammunition. Prices range from $5-120, depending on what is being bought and the condition it is in. A basic B-40 rocket launcher with four rounds of explosive, for instance, can be purchased for as little as $32; a more sophisticated pistol in good working order may cost as much as $100-120. An indication of the range of weaponry that appears to be available from the Cambodian market can be provided by one notable munitions shipment intercepted in the mid-1990s. The consignment, which had been arranged for the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA), included 775 AK-56 assault rifles, 65 general-purpose machine guns, 10 rocket-propelled granades (RPGs), 100 anti-tank weapons, 50 pistols and thousands of rounds of rifle ammunition. It is conservatively estimated that profits of 150-1,000% are currently made by organisations engaged in illicit light arms sales such as these.


Thailand acts as the main transit area for light arms from Cambodia, with maybe as many as 80% of all illegal consignments passing through the country. Several factors account for the Kingdom's attractiveness in this regard, including its geographic proximity to Cambodia, the large turnover of foreign tourists and businessmen travelling to the country (which makes blending in easy), the existence of a relatively advanced communication and transportation infrastructure, and highly porous land borders. Moreover, Thailand is a country where 'money talks', allowing syndicates and traffickers to buy co-operation and, more importantly, silence in high places.

Typically weapons are channelled through dealers located in centres such as Bangkok, Phuket and Chiang Mai, or via 'middle-men' who have established contacts with frequent buyers. Consignments are generally smuggled from Cambodia, either overland via Chantaburi province in the east, or by sea from Kampong Saom in the south, moved through Thailand and transferred to 'shipping agents' who arrange final or onward delivery. Many of the weapons are trafficked to narco-insurgents in Myanmar, who either keep the arms for their own use or resell them, generally to groups operating in India or Sri Lanka. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), for instance, are known to run an intensive Thailand-Myanmar arms network that has, on occasions, been 'hired' out to other groups operating on the sub-continent. Significant quantities are also moved through ports in southern Thailand to Muslim guerrillas operating in Indonesia and the Philippines, either directly or via the Malaysian provinces of Kelantan, Sarawak and Sabah.


Further afield, Pakistan also seems to play a pivotal role in feeding the illicit regional arms trade. Following the USSR's invasion of Afghanistan, the USA set up a major arms pipeline through Pakistan to ensure that mujahideen rebels had sufficient firepower to mount a concerted resistance against the Soviet army. Throughout the 1980s tens of thousands of tons of weaponry and ammunition flowed through this conduit, with estimates of $6-8 billion being allocated by Washington for the supply of light arms. Many of these weapons never made it to the front line, however, due to diversion by Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) department that controlled and monitored the pipeline. The extent of this leakage is unknown, although one former head of the ISI has claimed that the organisation still has access to three million AK-47s, all packed and greased. Some commentators have suggested that up to 70% of the weapons introduced into the pipeline never reached their intended destination.

Since the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan, Pakistan has become awash with weapons. Many of these originate from the ISI-diverted Afghan pipeline, although replicas of originals produced by small-scale producers in back-street factories have also emerged as an increasingly important source of supply. The Northwest Frontier region around Peshawar, Darra Adam Khel and Sakahot Malakand constitutes the 'retail' hub for the bulk of these arms, where vendors are known to sell anything from assault rifles, fragmentation grenades, anti-tank mines, machine guns and mortars to entire anti-aircraft systems. Given its geographic proximity and the existence of numerous insurgent and rebel groupings, Southeast Asia has provided a logical market place for many of these weapons. Most consignments appear to be shipped through Myanmar (via India) to Thailand which, again, seems to act as the main transit area within the region. Islamic separatists in the southern Philippines are widely believed to be at the forefront of this trade. Indeed, organisations such as the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) are known to have purchased sizeable quantities through dealers in Phuket and Ranong, most of which have then been smuggled back to Mindanao via the porous Sabah border.


Another important source for light weapons within Southeast Asia is China, which currently has at least 15 factories producing small arms. Illicit sales of these stocks has been encouraged by capital losses resulting from a decline in the legal demand for small arms, and further facilitated by corrupt officials, the absence of strong controls over surplus weapons stocks and massive social dislocation and disparities in wealth caused by runaway economic growth. China also has its fair share of illicit weapons bazaars, such as the town of Baigou, where a wide array of light arms and related ammunition are available (in addition to police uniforms and equipment). It is thought that most of the weapons that are smuggled to Southeast Asia enter the region through Thailand, Vietnam and Myanmar. The main recipients of the arms appear to be MILF and ASG separatists operating in Mindanao as well as drug and crime syndicates based throughout Indochina. Several shipments have also been seized off the Malay Peninsula, possibly intended for groups based in southern Thailand (Pattani United Liberation Organisation - PULO) and Indonesia (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka - GAM).

North Korea

There is, finally, some evidence to suggest that weapons from North Korea have found their way to Southeast Asia, including small arms (ranging from machine guns to grenade launchers), ammunition as well as certain high-tech missile components. There is little reliable information about the specific nature of these movements. However, it seems that deals are concluded with the complicity of the P'yongyang regime, which remains in desperate need of hard currency, with weapons mainly trafficked through Hong Kong, Taiwan and Malaysia (Sabah). Islamic insurgents based in the southern Philippines have been a prime recipient, although certain external groups, such as the LTTE, are also known to have availed themselves of North Korean transfers (in which case the arms are smuggled through Thailand).

Impact on stability

The illicit trade in small arms carries significant implications for security and stability in Southeast Asia. Most directly, it has considerably heightened the violence potential threshold of separatists, crime syndicates, drug lords and pirates, many of which are now able to take advantage of tactical options formerly reserved only for the state and its armed forces. This has not only given non-state actors an enhanced ability to inflict considerable damage, it has also provided discontented and profit-oriented groups with the means to attain a real degree of empowerment vis-a-vis governing structures. Indeed in certain parts of the region such as Mindanao, Cambodia and southern Myanmar, government security forces have found themselves confronting weapons that are equally as powerful as those they have access to, including assault and heavy calibre rifles, man-portable missiles and RPGs. By altering the state-non-state power balance in this way, small arms have played a pivotal role in compromising the reconstruction of war-torn societies such as Cambodia, hindered the development of viable peace agreements in places like Mindanao, and undermined central executive authority, as happened in Myanmar.

On a more general level, small arms have torn at the social fabric of many states. In countries such as the Philippines and Cambodia, an entrenched civil gun culture has emerged, fuelling violent crime, banditry, bloody syndicate 'turf' wars and, periodically, helping to escalate minor disputes into far more debilitating family, clan or village feuds. In Cambodia, for instance, where according to some estimates there is at least one gun for every 20 persons and 10 pieces of ammunition per individual, weapons are widely regarded as the main factor undermining societal and cultural development.

Just as problematic is the violence and intimidation that now typically comes to surround inter-party rivalry and politicking in certain parts of the region. Again, this is a process that has been driven primarily by illicit small arms transfers. In one notable incident that occurred in Cambodia during 1997, grenades launched against a rally organised by the opposition Khmer Nation Party resulted in 118 casualties, including 16 deaths. It was the worst, though by no means only, act of political violence since UNTAC peacekeepers departed the country in 1993. In Indonesia and the Philippines, campaign pistol and rifle attacks are now so common that they are an accepted part of each country's electoral process. Such instances not only directly challenge the principles that underpin` responsible democratic government; in so doing they also cast doubt on the long-term evolution of mature political institutions.

In addition, unregulated arms sales have substantial economic implications. The trade directly impacts on fiscal stability and management by fuelling an already thriving, drug-related, black economy. In Thailand, a study conducted by Chulalongkorn University in 1997 put the country's illegal economy at Bt400 billion ($9.4 billion) - equivalent to 10% of the national economy, a significant proportion of which was generated through the underground weapons trade. According to the study, the disastrous bubbles in the stock and property markets in late 1996 and early 1997, which subsequently precipitated the collapse of the Baht, were caused, at least in part, by inflows of illegal profits from weapons merchants who used these sectors to launder their proceeds.

Further compounding these damaging effects is the death and destruction that is fed by light arms, something that both maims productive capacity in terms of human resources and discourages overseas investment and tourism, a major source of revenue and foreign exchange for many states in the region. Moreover in Aceh, Mindanao, and the Cambodian and Myanmar border regions, where small arms are helping to drive civil conflicts and violence, factions have illegally appropriated and bartered natural mineral and forest resources for combat weapons. This has exacerbated state and sub-regional poverty and economic distortion.

In common with drugs production and trafficking, the illicit trade in small arms has also thwarted the consolidation of still weak democracies by encouraging official corruption. In Cambodia, most weapons shipments that pass through Kampong Soam are managed by corrupt military officers and Defence Ministry personnel; Thai border guards are known to be a central factor in facilitating arms shipments to Myanmar and Cambodia. Senior civil servants and bureaucrats are also widely suspected of facilitating with the false registration of weapons in the Philippines and Indonesia; police in Phnom Penh are known to have secretly resold weapons acquired through government-orchestrated buy-back programmes. The situation in Cambodia has become so acute that most people now take it as a matter of course that the entire issue of weapons will be handled outside a constitutionally mandated framework of law, rarely involving prosecution for illegal gun possession and use providing the 'right' bribe is paid.

Controlling the illicit trade

Controlling Southeast Asia's illicit trade in light arms will not be easy. Not only is there already a vast number of weapons in circulation, the fact that the munitions are, by definition, small, allows traffickers to easily evade weak customs controls as well as more traditional detection mechanisms, such as satellite surveillance. Nonetheless, there are certain steps that can and should be taken to stem some of the proliferation:

  • promoting supplier 'traceability' by tagging weapons and ammunition;

  • concluding (and vigorously enforcing) multilateral agreements calling for the destruction of surplus armament stocks;

  • strengthening regional customs, law-enforcement and intelligence structures, and increasing co-operation among them through such forums as the ASEAN Police (ASEANAPOL);

  • creating a specific Southeast Asian small arms register; and

  • initiating moves to develop an ASEAN version of the Organisation of American States' (OAS) Convention Against the Illicit Manufacturing of and Trafficking in Firearms, Explosives and Other Related Materials.

Many of these initiatives have been endorsed by the CSCAP Working Group on Transnational Crime, both for the purposes of tackling the illicit trade in small arms and for promoting confidence building throughout Southeast Asia in general. Unfortunately the non-interventionist and informal approach to security that underscores ASEAN and the ARF, not to mention widespread official apathy, continues to mitigate the institution of forceful action along these lines. Such indifference can only work to exacerbate the scale, scope and impact of small arms trafficking throughout the region, adding yet another destabilising dimension to what is already a highly complex security milieu.

Professor Peter Chalk is an expert on transnational terrorism at the RAND Corporation in Washington.

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