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
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
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
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."