In Southeast Asia, the Authorities Are the Biggest Gun Dealers in Town

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In Southeast Asia, the Authorities Are the Biggest Gun Dealers in Town

The region is home to a thriving and massively profitable black market trade in small arms, many of them sourced from official military stockpiles.

In Southeast Asia, the Authorities Are the Biggest Gun Dealers in Town

A Chinese military weapon is displayed during the Golden Dragon military exercise in Svay Chok village, Kampong Chhnang province, north of Phnom Penh Cambodia, Thursday, May 16, 2024.

Credit: AP Photo/Heng Sinith

It’s 1 a.m. in Poipet, a Cambodian town on the Thai border where the economy runs on casinos, illegal online gambling, and the now-notorious “pig-butchering” scams that use forced and trafficked labor to reel in victims worldwide. The town’s clubs and karaoke bars are awash with cocky Chinese gangsters splashing their cash on expensive liquor and bags of meth, which is sold openly by bartenders hovering by the bathrooms.

But at the outdoor tables of a tiny bar by the night market, overshadowed by an under-construction compound that locals say will house yet more Chinese-run scams, four Indonesian members of an online gambling syndicate are keeping a lower profile. Their “boss” is an unassuming, chain-smoking Indonesian man in his 30s with just a smattering of tattoos. But as the empty bottles of Captain Morgan’s rum pile up, his guard falls, and out comes the mafia-don swagger.

“The best thing about living here is that we can do whatever we want,” he boasts. “We can get a ‘44 for 20,000 baht” – around $540. The boss is referring to his high-powered 44-caliber revolvers, which he claims to buy through a middleman who gets them straight from the Cambodian police – something he said could never happen back home. In fact, until they came to Cambodia, the group barely knew how to handle firearms; they trained at a shooting range in Phnom Penh. Here, he explains, lowering the flat palm of his free hand, the balance of power puts the easily-bribed police “down here, then us, then the Chinese” – and his guns are for “going to war” with these Chinese rivals.

But while the authorities are low priority, police and soldiers do become targets. Three officers were injured trying to break up a drunken shootout outside a Poipet casino in 2021, and in 2022, a drug dealer shot dead two Poipet police. His weapon? A .44-caliber Magnum Revolver.

Selling weapons to potential enemies sounds like an absurd act of self-sabotage, but all across Southeast Asia, state security apparatuses – police, military, and government – are a primary source of weapons for criminals and guerrilla fighters, within their own borders and beyond. The civil war in Myanmar, the ongoing separatist insurgency in the south of Thailand, and the rapid growth of organized crime groups running the region’s multi-billion-dollar, human trafficking-driven online scam industry all require a steady supply of firearms and munitions. Capitalizing on this demand is a lucrative business, and armed forces have ready access to legal supply. Throw in high-level corruption and weak control of inventory, and this makes for a potentially catastrophic mix.

“The presence of organized crime can act both as a driver for demand and availability of illicit weapons, while also directly causing instability and increased armed violence,” said Llewelyn Jones, the Asia-Pacific regional director at MAG International, a humanitarian organization that specializes in clearing landmines and unexploded ordnance, as well as small arms initiatives to prevent weapons falling into the wrong hands.

States need to be able to record and trace all domestic and international arms and ammunition shipments, he said, and to enforce legislation when it comes to producing and licensing weapons. “It is widely acknowledged globally that unsecured or poorly secured stockpiles of small arms and ammunition are at risk of diversion to the illicit market, with significant consequences for peace, security and stability,” Jones added.

In Cambodia, measures like these seem a distant dream. A steady stream of Telegram, Facebook, and WhatsApp exchanges seen by The Diplomat detailed negotiations for black market firearms including AK-47s, AR-15s, and Beretta and Glock pistols, alongside various accessories such as high-capacity ammunition magazines and suppressors. Sources in the sector said many of these could only have come from the armed forces.

In another Telegram group chat, police discussed how, just one week after a delivery of assault rifles and pistols to the counterterrorism unit in Phnom Penh in August 2023, one of these new semi-automatic rifles turned up in a raid on a Chinese criminal gang in Sihanoukville. Yet another video showed a recently seized AK-47, with the police strap still attached to the gun.

“Mafia With Rifles”

Often, military and police units simply falsify the number of firearms procured legitimately and then sell off the unregistered surplus through personal networks or social media, explained “Z,” a Cambodian military officer who asked that his identity be protected.

We met Z, as per his request, at a beachfront trans hostess bar in the crime-ridden casino city of Sihanoukville, where heavily tattooed Chinese and Taiwanese gangsters were shouting to hear each other above the clamor of mini-dressed waitresses singing “Happy Birthday” to a small child. Z was in civilian clothes, but brought his Glock pistol – as had at least one other patron, who flashed it accidentally at the bar while fumbling in his sling-bag for his wallet.

Shielded by the chaos, Z quietly explained how his superiors required him to assist in the sale of arms from his unit to criminal groups, and had also arranged for him to act as private security for high-ranking Chinese and Korean crime bosses. The role brought in extra income for Z and his unit commanders, while providing these crime figures with a bodyguard who can openly carry a weapon, which only serving members of the armed forces are legally allowed to do. (The Cambodian government officially banned the outsourcing of Royal Cambodian Armed Forces for private security roles in 2019, but the rule is widely ignored).

A casino in Poipet, a town on the Cambodia-Thailand border, as seen on March 27, 2018. (Photo 123072901 © Tikhonova Vera | Dreamstime.com)

Z also alleged that the cross-border arms trade between Cambodia and Thailand is dominated by the elite Tea family, headed by Tea Banh, the former long-time defense minister, and his brother, Tea Vinh, commander of the navy. Tea Banh’s son Seiha was governor of Siem Reap before taking over as defense minister in 2023. Tea Vinh’s son, Vichet, holds the honorific title of Oknha and has a string of high-profile business interests along the Cambodian coast, including yacht and ferry services in Sihanoukville and Koh Kong. His other son, Sokha, is deputy commander of the navy, and his daughter Leakhena is a navy colonel.

Past investigations suggest the Tea brothers used their political influence to accumulate swathes of land along Cambodia’s coast, including concessions cut out of supposedly protected forest, and allege ongoing involvement in illegal logging going back decades. Tea Vinh was sanctioned in 2021 by the U.S. government, which accuses him of corruption and skimming funds from the Chinese-funded refurbishment of the Ream Naval Base, close to Sihanoukville.

According to Z, guns and firearms parts are brought in through ports on Cambodia’s south coast and either assembled in Cambodian factories or sent directly overland into Thailand, and onward to Myanmar. This was backed up in February this year, after our interview took place, when a significant cache of weapons was seized off the coast of Thailand’s Trat province, en route from Cambodia. Several M16 and AK-47 assault rifles and over 1,500 rounds of ammunition were found in what Thai authorities called weapons of war possibly heading for ethnic armed groups in Myanmar.

While we could not independently verify Z’s claims that the Teas control much of the Cambodia-Thailand small arms traffic, Thai media sources have long accused the Cambodian Defense Ministry – headed first by Tea Banh and now by his son – of direct involvement in cross-border arms trafficking. In 2017, three Thai nationals (including an air force officer and police lieutenant) were charged alongside a Cambodian immigration officer, related by marriage both to Tea Banh and then-Koh Kong governor Bun Leut, for transporting a cache of AK-47s, machine guns, and other munitions by truck from Cambodia’s Koh Kong province into Thailand, which Thai authorities believed were destined for Karen rebels in Myanmar.

The following year, Thai police arrested another man smuggling an assortment of Chinese-built, Type-95 assault rifles, M16s, and various M16 components along this same route. The Defense Ministry, then headed by Tea Banh, responded with the bizarre claim that these could not have come from Cambodia as there were none in the country. Cambodian shooting ranges at the time offered civilians the opportunity to shoot M16s, and the prime minister’s own Bodyguard Unit carried Type-95s.

Meanwhile, in southern Thailand, Muslim insurgents fighting for an independent state also cite the Cambodian military as a major source of small arms.

“Most of our weapons are AK-47s. If they are AKs then they are from Cambodia,” said Ayu, the nom-de-guerre of a senior figure in the Pattani United Liberation Organization, one of several groups fighting for autonomy in Thailand’s Deep South.

Speaking to us at a hotpot restaurant in Patani, Ayu claimed to have a “very good connection” with a regional army commander in Cambodia, who helps him negotiate weapons sales. Ayu was unwilling to identify his contact, but his claim about AK-47s rings true. In 2021, an immigration officer in Cambodia’s northwestern province of Battambang was arrested for attempting to smuggle, among other weapons, 50 AK-47s across the land border into Thailand. However, according to Ayu, who claimed to have built up a “network in the sea” with Cambodian officials, most weapons destined for Thailand’s Deep South are smuggled across the sea in fishing boats.

“The authorities in Cambodia – those guys are just really involved in the business of trafficking,” echoed Boonsak Butnean, an ex-lieutenant commander in the Royal Thai Marines, who served as platoon leader of the Underwater Demolition Assault Unit, part of the Naval Special Warfare Command. But the flow of small arms from Cambodia is only one strand in a complex transnational network. “We have weapons moving around Thailand from the south, and from Cambodia. These weapons are moving to the west side, to Myanmar,” he said.

Another major problem in the south of Thailand is ammunition smuggled over the southern border by Malay soldiers, said Maj. Gen. Narim Busaman, a police commander for Pattani province. “Just looking at the bullet, we know if it’s from Malaysia,” he explained at a meeting inside the police HQ in Pattani. Much like their Cambodian counterparts, Narim claimed that Malaysian army officials deliberately underreport the number of bullets left at a camp and take the rest away to smuggle. “They put bullets in their pockets to sell. It’s not really difficult,” he said.

But the Thai authorities are hardly blameless either, said Narim. While Thais can legally own guns, the police and military have better guns, and this access to high-grade weaponry leads to frequent, direct involvement in organized crime. Local criminal groups mostly use shotguns, said Narim – unless they have connections to police. “Publicly, many people are police and army but privately they are mafia,” he added. “They are mafia with rifles.”

Endemic Corruption

For Boonsak, trying to disrupt illicit trafficking networks like these almost cost him his life.

“Bad guys are everywhere. We have army bad guys, police bad guys, water police bad guys,” he said, adding that corrupt actors are even embedded throughout the agencies designed to fight them.

As a lieutenant commander in the Thai navy, he was largely stationed on the Mekong River, including in one of the world’s busiest transnational trafficking zones: the Golden Triangle, where the borders of Thailand, Myanmar, and Laos intersect. Corruption and bribe-seeking here are rife, but Boonsak said that he refused to be bought. At first, he said, this was simply an irritation for his colleagues in the police, who would try to “trick” him into patrolling one area while they arranged an illegal shipment in another. But when he began making major seizures, the situation turned ugly.

“If my work is a success, that is bad for them,” he explained. “They already arranged everything. They already paid all the way to Bangkok, every guy along the way. So if one guy is arrested in one province, then all the money is lost, and they will get nothing. That makes people angry!“

The death threats began rolling in, said Boonsak. Then he discovered a 100,000 baht ($2,700) reward was on offer to anyone willing to kill him. This was the final straw for Boonsak, who decided to quit the navy altogether. The worst part, he said, was that “the bounty was placed by a government officer. Not the guy you think is a bad guy, but the guy you think is a good guy!”

Complicating the situation further in Thailand are its “Volunteer Defense Forces”: armed civilian groups authorized by the government to defend volatile border areas from insurgents and traffickers, especially on the Malaysia border in the Deep South and the Myanmar border in Tak province. On a night patrol with one volunteer defense force in Mae Sot, across the river from Myawaddy in Myanmar, members of the group explained that, despite no formal training, they had been tasked with monitoring illegal crossings, smugglers, and any other spillover from the conflict into Thai territory – essentially, picking up the slack where a police presence or border security was lacking.

To do this, each volunteer was granted a license to buy multiple firearms, and in Mae Sot, the group of 20 or so young men had leapt at the opportunity, brandishing high-end assault rifles, some with expensive modifications, and military-grade, bulletproof Kevlar vests. Once their license was issued, they said, they could buy as many guns and as much ammunition as they wanted, with no further checks. There is little to stop these volunteers, or serving police and military, from selling on their easily-acquired guns, especially over the border to Myanmar. Once out of the country, there is scant chance these weapons will be traced back.

In 2021, Thai Customs officers seized 27 guns and 50,000 rounds of ammunition from smugglers attempting to cross into Myanmar from Mae Sai, on the northern border with Shan State. The majority were “welfare guns” – firearms that can be bought by members of the government, police, or military legally and at a discounted rate. Officials warn that the scheme allows weapons to easily end up on the black market.

A group of Thai soldiers wearing masks stand in line for military training at an unknown location, January 11, 2022. (Photo 238669814 © Patchamon Thainmanee | Dreamstime.com)

In Mae Sot, two ethnic Burmese members of the volunteer group admitted taking their Thai-issued weapons across the border to fight for stretches with rebel groups and ethnic armed organizations (EAOs), fighting junta forces in Myanmar’s civil war. Joining the resistance is one thing, but as one volunteer guard, nicknamed Jay, explained, his role in the militia involved laying makeshift anti-personnel landmines, a major breach of the Mine Ban Convention, which Thailand signed in 1997. What’s more, Jay explained, Thai generals in the area had, on occasion, instructed him to drive truckloads of military weapons across the border to supply the rebel groups – and while his own motivations were ideological, he was keenly aware that theirs were purely financial.

Jay’s trips are just the tip of the iceberg. Accusations that the Thai military is the core supplier of weapons used by EAOs in Myanmar have become so widespread that Thailand’s army chief had to publicly deny that the majority of weapons ending up in Myanmar originate from Thai military stockpiles.

“Stolen Or Ripped Off”

Despite being on opposite sides of the decades-long, bloody civil war in Thailand’s south, the insurgent Ayu claims some Thai security forces have provided guns even to his group. “Yes, the Thai armed forces, the military, have sold us weapons,” he said. At the same time, he said, there are many ways to get guns from authorities – purchasing them, stealing them, or just snatching them after a firefight. “Many guns we get we steal from the body of an official after we attack them,” he said.

In fact, Maj. Gen. Narim Busaman believes that the real danger of armed groups getting their hands on weapons doesn’t come from officials handing them over willingly, but from robberies from official stores. It’s a view shared by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, which highlighted the risks of countries holding on to weapons stockpiles in a 2020 report.

“Independently of the presence of conflict, holdings of firearms by military and law enforcement agencies can constitute a risk of diversion and can increase supply if the adequate measures are not in place to ensure proper inventory management, storage, transportation and disposal and to safeguard against leakage through theft or corruption,” said Llewelyn Jones.

“It is normal for us to find M16 weapons,” said the major general. “Many weapons were stolen or ripped off an officer who [the insurgents] shot.”

A similar situation took place in Vietnam in 2023, when a crowd of people from marginalized ethnic minority groups attacked two police buildings in the Central Highlands province of Dak Lak, resulting in the deaths of nine people. Vietnamese authorities claim the goal was, in part, to steal weapons and ammunition from police stations. More than 90 people were put on trial earlier this year for the attack, and 23 guns, 1,199 bullets, plus grenades and other explosive devices, were seized.

This vulnerability of weapons stores to attack and theft makes it even more concerning that local factories producing guns and ammunition have cropped up in Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, and Myanmar. Many operate in legal gray areas, without proper oversight or adherence to international standards, and with no accounting or transparency measures to ensure weapons aren’t being siphoned off for sale on the black market, or traded with countries in breach of embargoes.

“International law does not prohibit countries from starting their own domestic arms manufacturing capabilities. But it does impose obligations on how those arms are used, particularly when exported abroad,” said Dr. Tomas Hamilton, an expert in arms expert regulation with Guernica 37 Chambers, a specialist group of international criminal and human rights lawyers. “Those rules would also be particularly relevant when states are producing weapons domestically, which are then legitimately exported to a foreign military or security force, but then unlawfully directed into other hands.”

In Myanmar, rebels fighting against the junta since 2021 have had to improvise. Gun activists and enthusiasts, often based in the United States, share knowledge on how to create 3D printed guns, and some EAOs have run with it. The entirely 3D printed FGC-9, 9mm semi-automatic pistol, which can be modified into a carbine style rifle, has already seen extensive use in Myanmar’s civil war. It’s a useful fix – for now. Later, this proliferation of weapons may prove hard to manage or control.

“Comparatively to other regions in which we operate, MAG has had less direct access to stockpiles in Southeast Asia. Often, we conduct technical assessments jointly with national security sector actors and make recommendations on specific areas of improvement, but this is something we have not yet done in this region,” said Jones. “An increase in the number of weapons and munitions facilities inevitably leads to associated risk.”

Poorly managed stockpiles and makeshift factories can result in tragic consequences. In April of this year, 20 soldiers were killed in a series of explosions in Cambodia’s Kampong Speu province – the first blast so intense it damaged houses and part of a factory over a kilometer away. The Cambodian government described this as an ammunition explosion at a military base, and put the accident down to an exceptionally bad heatwave, combined with faulty munitions. The base was described a collection of storage facilities combined with a “work facility” – although it is unclear if munitions were simply stored there, or if any parts were assembled on site.

But disasters like these are a high risk in countries hell-bent on keeping weapons production and trading hidden from outside eyes. Back in Sihanoukville last year, Z warned that firearms parts were already being smuggled into the country through ports in Sihanoukville and nearby Ream, and assembled into functional weapons in secretive, small-scale factories. One of these makeshift munitions factories was, he said, hidden in a warehouse behind the naval training academy, which we tracked down directly next to the Ream Naval Base, which is closely connected to the Teas. Meanwhile, a purported tourism development slightly further along the coast was, he said, a front for a weapon parts depot used to supply the factory.

Both locations, according to Z and others in the area, belonged to the Tea family. When we attempted to visit the depot, which was billed as a resort, security blocked our access to the site, claiming the new road was still underway. However, satellite images of newly constructed buildings on the site appeared to show warehouses resembling the suspected Ream factory, rather than a hotel. The munitions factory is since said to have been packed up and moved to Kampong Speu.

Cambodia doesn’t seem likely to scale back its central role as a regional arms trader any time soon.

“Imports from Cambodia are more than what we get from killing officials,” said Ayu, the hard-bitten insurgent, through a cloud of cigarette smoke. “They are always ready to send us weapons – and other people in this area need weapons too.”