Thai Border: A Wild West of Anarchy
By Nate Thayer
Phnom Penh Post
Friday, 20 November 1992
BANGKOK, Thailand-Thai officials, black market traders, and U.N. workers who have operated on the Thai-Cambodian border for years say U.N. efforts to impose economic sanctions against the Khmer Rouge will be virtually impossible to enforce.
The U.N. hopes to pressure the Khmer Rouge into rejoining the deadlocked peace process, in part by sealing the 830-kilometer border, where Khmer Rouge timber and gem concessions add millions of dollars a year to the coffers of the powerful guerrilla faction.
Except for a strip of only a few kilometers near the Thai border town of Aranyaprathet, the central government is not in control of most of the border, from the Gulf of Thailand to Laos.
Aside from the Khmer Rouge, the Cambodian-Thai frontier is home to a powerful plethora of shady businessmen, rebel groups, warlords, fortune seekers, gangsters, and assorted bad guys who have operated without serious hindrance for generations.
Since the days of the anti-French resistance in the 1940s, Khmer rebels and outlaws have used the sanctuary of the mountain and jungle escarpment to fight whoever was in power in Phnom Penh. Scores of other warlords have maintained small armies that control trading routes.
Since 1979 the border has been home to the three Khmer resistance factions. The signing of peace accords in October 1991 resulted in the factions’ foreign backers cutting off all supplies, forcing the groups to seek revenue elsewhere.
Now that there is “peace” in Cambodia, some of the rebel armies have embarked on an orgy of lucrative trading. No longer under the control of their nominal commanders, dozens of separate military units are carving out control of their own plots of Cambodia, selling everything from toothpaste to surface-to-air missiles. While some of the trading ends up in the central coffers of these groups, most is controlled by loosely-monitored bands of independent operators.
With the peace plan mandating that the Cambodian armies disarm and turn their weapons over to the United Nations, many of the soldiers have opted for a more profitable alternative. The frontier has turned into one of the biggest arms bazaars in Asia, with thousands of weapons being sold in recent months.
Arms traders recently offered the Phnom Penh Post a selection of SAM-7 surface-to-air missiles at 280,000 Baht (U.S. $11,200) each. Tanks, helicopters, artillery, and assorted light weaponry and ammunition are also available.
Intelligence officials and black market arms dealers say that the border has attracted representatives of a number of groups from around Asia looking for weapons. They say that the notorious Burmese drug warlord Khun Sa recently purchased two surface-to-air missiles, as did anti-Burmese Karen rebels. Anti-government guerrillas from the Philippines and Sri Lanka have also made inquiries, as have representatives from Sikh separatist organizations in India and Muslim separatists from the Burmese-Bangladeshi border.
“I think you should buy them,” said the arms dealer with a look of alarm. “Some of the people I am dealing with seem to be very dangerous people. It is better that you have them all.”
Black market traders on the Thai border, who operate easily with Cambodian guerrillas as well as Thai officials, say that processed heroin is available for sale, as are ancient Khmer artifacts looted from temples, and even uranium.
The border has also turned into a freeway for cars stolen in Thailand and slipped over the border, where hundreds of vehicles have showed up in Phnom Penh to be openly sold in the markets. Some are seen with military license plates of the Phnom Penh regime attached to make transport across western Cambodia less difficult at checkpoints.
Across from southeast Thailand, more than a 100,000 Thais and Burmese have crossed the border to seek their fortune in Khmer Rouge-controlled ruby mines, a major source of income for the faction. The miners say that they can carry out handfuls of gems worth millions of baht in their pocket, and they laugh at the thought that the blue-bereted UN peacekeepers will be able to stop them.
Thai Minister of Parliament Thanit Traivut, who represents the border province of Trat adjoining the Khmer Rouge-controlled gem mines, told the Post that 57 Thai companies now operate in the ruby area, with nearly 1,000 earth-moving vehicles. He said that U.N. sanctions could cause the companies, which have invested more than 3 billion Thai baht on equipment, to lose their shirts.
One rai (1,600 square meters) of earth is leased to the mostly small companies at a cost of 2 million baht (U.S. $40,000). Whole divisions of Khmer Rouge fighters have turned into “economic cadre” to provide security, build roads, and check permission papers of the Thai miners. The miners say that no Cambodians are allowed to work in the area.
On the northern borders, controlled by the notorious one-legged Khmer Rouge commander Ta Mok, Thai logging companies said to be linked with senior members of the Thai military have paid millions of dollars for the right to cut logs in Cambodia.
The Thai government has sold the rights to 17 entry points to Thai companies who in turn are given the right to tax logs coming into Thailand. Senior Thai officials are reportedly on the receiving end of some of the profit.
According to traders, the highly-secret Thai intelligence unit known as 838, which was responsible for covert liaison and weapons supplies to the Khmer Rouge during the 13-year war against the Vietnamese, receives 40 baht (U.S. $1.60) for each cubic meter of wood that crosses into Thailand.
Through a complicated procedure of payoffs, Thai loggers pay fees of around 5,000 baht (U.S. $197) per cubic meter for soft wood, and considerably higher for hardwoods. Several Thai companies, known to be controlled by Thai organized-crime groups, are involved in the logging concessions, with the sanction of several well-known Thai political figures.
Thanit Traivut, in an interview with the Post, said that UNTAC officials have asked Thailand to be prepared to close the border by the end of the year. He said that Thailand “will request to postpone [implementation of sanctions] until next year in order to allow Thai companies to recoup their losses.”
Furthermore, the Phnom Penh regime is involved in buying logs from their enemies-the Khmer Rouge-paying fees to the Khmer Rouge in many areas in order to transport logs through Cambodia, often to the port at Kompong Som. This adds further complications to the effectiveness of U.N. sanctions, which are not directed at the Phnom Penh regime.
In case U.N. officials are looking for reference points to study in their effort to impose the sanctions, they need look no further than the Thai border to the west with Burma.
There Khun Sa, reputed to be the world’s number one opium trader and with a U.S. arrest warrant à la Manuel Noriega on his head, controls a section of Burma from which he exports the drug through Thailand.
Despite the efforts of hundreds of U.S. drug and intelligence agents, and with the stated support of both the Thai government and military, the flow of opium and its derivative heroin continues virtually unabated.
One Thai weapons trader, reflecting on the reaction of the Khmer Rouge if the United Nations attempts to cut its purse strings, said: “Right now the Khmer Rouge do not hurt the U.N. But if the U.N. does that, they will have to kill them. You know, they don’t like foreigners anyway.”
Another Thai arms dealer, with long experience running weapons through Thai borders with several neighboring countries, said: “It will be easy to order sanctions, but impossible to enforce. The order just comes from air-conditioned rooms. But in the field, too many people are making money.“