Interior Minister Sar Kheng has vowed an investigation into an alleged arms trafficking operation linked to a Cambodian official, saying information from suspects indicated the guns were smuggled via a “corridor” in Cambodia’s Koh Kong province into Thailand and did not pass through the international checkpoint.
The comments, delivered on Friday at the swearing-in ceremony of new Koh Kong Governor Mithona Phouthorng, are the most forthright on the case by a senior Cambodian official since the June 3 arrest of immigration officer Leang Piseth in Thailand’s Trat province following the discovery of a cache of weapons in the wrecked pickup truck of a Thai air force officer just beyond Cambodia’s border.
“According to the information and confession, the weapons had left from our Koh Kong province through a corridor of our Koh Kong province,” the interior minister said.
“It was not the international checkpoint, it was a corridor.”
Though he did not mention Piseth by name, Kheng addressed elements of the case, including assertions by Thai authorities that the cache of AK-47s, machine guns, grenades and ammunition were destined for ethnic Karen rebels in Myanmar. “In Burma, even though there was an election, there is yet to be a uniting of the nation between the rebels and the government who they are against,” Kheng said, using an alternative name for Myanmar. “There are six or seven [rebel] groups, so the war still exists. Therefore, I believe that it is these groups who look for weapons in order to build up their military force to fight against the government.”
Vowing an investigation, he acknowledged the case flew in the face of Cambodia’s efforts to coordinate a regional response to weapons smuggling, an apparent reference to the Kingdom’s proposal of a Asean convention on trafficking in firearms. “Now, His Excellency General Neth Savoeun is working with Thailand’s National Police commissioner in order to investigate about this case to find the roots of it,” he said.
“Within the Asean framework, we are [taking the lead] in charge of anti-weapon smuggling, but ultimately Cambodia itself became smuggler and what can we say about it?”
Interior Ministry and National Police representatives were unreachable yesterday to provide further details on the “corridor” referred to by Kheng.
An official speaking at the border earlier this month said Piseth’s car was spotted on June 3 crossing into Thailand via a private road through the border-side casino of ruling party Senator Ly Yong Phat, which they said was not subject to immigration controls. The company, however, has denied this is the case.
Defence Minister Tea Banh previously said his ministry would investigate the smuggling, though last week was forced to distance himself from Piseth after The Post revealed the pair was related by marriage.
Banh had also previously made assertions in the media that appeared attempts to minimise the Cambodia link to the alleged operation, including denying the weapons were from the Kingdom and claiming Piseth was not official, a claim contradicted by several officials.
Last week, the Immigration Department’s Keo Vanthon referred questions about the case to department administration head Kerm Sarin, whom he identified as Piseth’s superior.
Following the weapons’ discovery on June 3, Thai officials called for increased efforts to clamp down on smuggling, particularly in the wake of a separate bust in Bangkok only days earlier. Jon Grevatt, an industry reporter for defence analyst IHS Janes based in Bangkok, said the Bangkok appeared determined to rein in rogue elements of its armed forces, and would no doubt lean on Cambodia to tackle the flow of weapons.
Carl Thayer, an expert on Southeast Asia defence and a professor at Australia’s University of New South Wales, said there would be regional pressure on Cambodia to deliver intelligence on the alleged smuggling network. “I’m sure if I was sitting in Myanmar in public security, I would think, ‘Right, OK, these weapons are destined for the Karen. How are they getting there?’ Then you want to contact Thailand and then tap Cambodia,” Thayer said.
Referring to information gleaned from the arrested Thai air force officer, Pakhin Detphong, Thai media have reported Piseth brought the weapons to Thailand on June 2. The cache was allegedly exchanged at a hotel about 20 kilometres inside Thailand. Piseth, charged with illegal weapons possession, has denied involvement in smuggling.
Outgoing Koh Kong Governor Bun Leut, who is Tea Banh’s brother-in-law and also related to Piseth by marriage, denied there were corridors across the border outside the Cham Yeam International Checkpoint.
There is, however, another crossing in Koh Kong, about 20 kilometres north of Cham Yeam in Mondol Seima district, controlled by the Cambodian military’s 303 Border Unit. According to a soldier there this month, the crossing is controlled by the Thai military on the other side. The soldier, who gave his name as Sarith, said Piseth had not been seen at the checkpoint.
Noting cases about a decade ago of Sri Lankan separatists sourcing weapons in Cambodia, Thayer, the defence expert, said Cambodia’s culture of “relative impunity” and its “porous borders” meant arms smuggling would likely continue. “People will make money because they can get away with it.”