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ARMS TRADE

The Phuket Connection

Tourist havens and bustling ports in southeast Asia provide an arms lifeline for the LTTE

By Bertil Lintner/Bangkok, Vientiane and Phnom Pen

The tropical island of Phuket in southern Thailand with its luxury tourist hotels, diving schools and go-go bars with scantily clad dancing girls seems an unlikely centre for a major arms smuggling network. But for more than ten years, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) has shipped weapons from a string of small fishing ports dotting the island and the nearby province of Phang-nga on the Thai mainland.

This became a major issue last month when Sunday Island newspaper of Sri Lanka quoted a Lloyd's List report on LTTE's activities in Thailand. The foreign ministry in Bangkok was quick to deny the report but on March 28, Thai army chief General Surayudh Chulanont told journalists that the LTTE was running front companies in Thailand as a smoke-screen for arms purchases and that "Thais and foreign nationals" were involved in the operations.

Intelligence sources in Bangkok say that the munitions come from the black market in Cambodia and are sold by Thai and Singaporean arms dealers. Phuket and Phang-nga are the most convenient places from where such shipments can be organised. "This is the shortest route from Thailand to Sri Lanka," says an Asian diplomat. The distance between Phuket and Sri Lanka is only 2,200 km or a few days by boat past the Andamans.

In December 1993 merchant vessel Yahata left Phuket with a large consignment of weapons destined for Sri Lanka. Krishnakumar 'Kittu' Sathasivam, a close associate of LTTE supremo Vellupillai Prabhakaran, led the operation and when the Indian Navy intercepted the ship, Kittu blew it up and drowned along with several of his crew members. Yet, the LTTE presence in southeast Asia has grown and it has a network of private shipping companies, trading firms, hotels and restaurants in Thailand, Cambodia and Laos.

The LTTE apparently procures much of its weapons from Cambodia, whose flourishing black market in arms is a legacy of the decades of civil war. In the early seventies, the United States supported the right-wing government in Phnom Penh, while China and North Vietnam supplied the resistance with munitions. China poured in even more weapons into Cambodia after the victory of the Maoist Khmer Rouge in 1975. Following the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in January 1979, China, Malaysia, Thailand and the West supported the anti-Vietnamese resistance led by the Khmer Rouge while the Soviet bloc supplied Phnom Penh with explosives, machine-guns, surface-to-air missiles, rockets, rocket launchers and AK-47 rifles. Finally, a peace treaty was signed in Paris in 1991.

An arms dealer in Bangkok says weapons siphoned off by corrupt Cambodian army officers and demobbed resistance forces have found their way to the LTTE, armies in Burma, and Naga and Assamese insurgents.

Paradise for smugglers: A beach in Phuket

The first LTTE operations in Phnom Penh were run out of Rani restaurant, whose upper storey was a virtual arsenal. Downstairs, a secretary handled professionally forged passports and visas. The LTTE's primary arms buyer, Selvarajah Pathmanathan, aka T.S. Kumaran, was first seen in Phnom Penh in mid-nineties.

The Rani restaurant is gone, but similar establishments have sprung up along Sisowath Quay in Phnom Penh. It is believed that about 50 LTTE cadres are operating in Phnom Penh, smuggling arms through the Cambodian ports of Koh Kong and Sihanoukville.

Until recently, it was possible to buy an old AK-47 on the black market in Cambodia for as little as 1,000 Thai baht (Rs 1,500) and a bullet cost a mere five baht. International arms dealers based in Singapore charged 4,000 to 5,000 baht for not so old AK-47s. The LTTE could also purchase walkie-talkies and radio equipment through contacts in Singapore.

Both the Indian and Sri Lankan authorities have urged Phnom Penh to clamp down on LTTE activities, but to no avail. And security officials in Bangkok point out that more than 10,000 fishing trawlers roam the seas around Thailand, making it almost impossible to curb smuggling. Besides, Tamil presence in Phuket is much older than LTTE, which established a base near Trang on the Thai coast south of Phuket in the late eighties. The leader of that base was a Tamil skipper from Singapore, identified as Vijay Kumar. It was a communications centre, complete with radio equipment, warehouses, and access to shipping.

After Kittu's death, most operations moved to Phuket and Ranong town on the mainland, where LTTE sympathisers teamed up with arms dealers of Thai and Burmese origin. Contacts were also established with Tamils on the bustling Silom Road in Bangkok.

Tamil connections in Indochina go back to the French colonial period. Before 1954-when France controlled present-day Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia as well as Pondicherry, Karaikal, Mahe and Yanam in south India-many "French Indians" settled in Indochina, especially the large contingent consisted of Muslim Tamils from Karaikal and even today the mosque in the Lao capital of Vientiane has signboards in Tamil as well. Most Tamils in Cambodia left during the war in the 1970s or shortly before the Khmer Rouge's takeover in 1975, but many have now returned and re-established old links and business. The Tamil community in Laos has been there throughout the communist rule and plays a significant role in local trade and commerce.

While Cambodia is the most important source of weapons, Thailand with its open political climate and excellent infrastructure remains the most important link in the LTTE's southeast Asian networks. Alarm bells rang in several foreign embassies in Bangkok when the Fourth World Conference of the International Tamil Integration Society was held there last May. They suspected that the LTTE had a hand in the event. One of the subjects on the agenda was "the solution for today's pressures on the Tamils". The delegates also discussed the possibility of setting up a World Tamil Centre in Bangkok, including temples, schools and research institutes.

There is precious little the Thai authorities can do to stop such "community activities" and even the nature of the arms trade has changed over the past year. Black-market prices in Cambodia are rising as old arms supplies are beginning to dry up. An AK-47 bullet, for instance, now costs 15 baht and the price of the rifle has doubled. Further, a series of interceptions by the Indian defence forces has made it riskier to send munitions by boat. In February 1998, they launched Operation Leech against gunrunners in the Andamans and killed 6 of them, including Khaing Raza from Burma's Arakan state, and seized a huge consignment of arms from 73 gunrunners.

Over the past few months, the LTTE has seized light military equipment worth millions of dollars from the Sri Lankan army and now it apparently is more interested in obtaining surface-to-air missiles and other heavier weapons from Cambodia. Those pieces can also be shipped more easily direct from Cambodia or Singapore to Sri Lanka, instead of from Phuket and southern Thailand, which now have come under the spotlight.

This article first appeared in The Week, April 30, 2000

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