The Thais set the rendezvous point just beyond the stream that separates Cambodia’s Sangke village from Thailand. In darkness and rain, a third shipment of weapons allegedly collected and hidden at home by Cambodian Mine Action Centre (CMAC) staffer Ub Vireak crossed the international border from Banteay Meanchey province into Thailand’s Sa Kaeo province and was loaded into waiting vans.
Not long after, in the early hours of July 18, the ordnance, including three mortar tubes and as many rounds, would be discovered by Thai authorities. Five Thai nationals, the alleged transporters, were arrested on the spot at a petrol station in Sa Kaeo.
By last Friday, police in Cambodia had also arrested the 48-year-old Vireak, and two farmers – both Vireak’s brothers-in-law – from the neighbouring Battambang province, while Thai authorities near the border with Myanmar seized a sixth suspect, who is accused of ordering the shipment from Cambodia.
Speaking this week, the wives of Vireak’s two brothers-in-law – Chim Lin, 36, and Yim Savy, 38 – said they were “shocked” by the arrests and claimed they had never met their husbands’ co-accused, whose property in Battambang town’s O’Char commune now stands gated and locked.
“I do not believe my husband has done this,” said Savy’s wife, 28-year-old Chim Lea, speaking at the couple’s 4-hectare cassava farm in Battambang’s Phnom Proek district.
“He goes to work and comes home, sometimes a little late, but he always comes home,” she added, explaining that the couple had two children, and that Savy and often worked as a hired farmhand in the area to make ends meet.
Yet Banteay Meanchey Penal Crime Office Director Phoeurng Mansing said the pair had acted as the “brokers” in the arms smuggling operation, helping to find buyers for the ordnance stashed by Vireak.
Mansing said he believed Vireak had found a large cache of “thousands” of weapons stored underground by the Khmer Rouge during the course of his work clearing forests of ordnance for CMAC, and decided to keep some for himself, stashing it under the metal and wood roofing of his home.
“He was in charge of destroying the weapons but when found the new weapons, he did not destroy them, and he kept them for selling,” Mansing said.
“The weapons that were confiscated were old, but he painted them to look new.”
Vireak linked up with a buyer in Thailand through Lin, according to Mansing, who said that the group had previously arranged two shipments that included about 10 AK-47s each without being arrested.
“He used to go and eat rice at [Lin’s] house. They knew each other,” he said. “Later on, with the weapons hidden, he asked Lin who wanted to buy them, and Lin knew Thais who wanted to buy them.”
Speaking from her home in Sampov Loun district, Lin’s wife, Chan Aun, 31, said she did not believe her husband had any such contacts in Thailand. The pair owned a 10-hectare farm, she said, and spent most of their time cultivating mangoes and cassava to support their three children.
“He has never been to Thailand,” Aun said of her husband, whose Nissan pickup truck was seized by police as part of the case.
“He uses the car to carry workers to the farm. I asked him [about the claims], but he did not answer. When they came to arrest him I thought I was dreaming,” she added.
The trio have been charged with weapons trafficking by a Banteay Meanchey provincial prosecutor, while police continue to hunt for at least four other people allegedly also involved in transporting the arms.