​Tamil Tigers shopping for arms in Cambodia | Phnom Penh Post

Tamil Tigers shopping for arms in Cambodia


Publication date
20 September 1996 | 07:00 ICT

Reporter : Imran Vittachi

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T HE Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) - one of the most feared and intricate

separatist movements to span the globe - are planning to buy surface-to-air missiles

(SAMs) from unspecified Cambodian arms dealers for their war effort in Sri Lanka.

There are also growing local concerns that the LTTE has established a front in Phnom


According to well-placed sources in the Sri Lankan capital Colombo, the Tamil Tigers

are busy arranging the purchase and shipment from Cambodia of SAMs to be used in

the defense of their strongholds on the Jaffna peninsula.

In a note faxed to the Post Sept 10, Iqbal Athas, a Colombo-based journalist who

covers defense-related issues, said a deal was being worked out to ship SAMs to Jaffna.

A Sri Lankan diplomatic source, speaking by telephone from Colombo, confirmed that

his government believed a deal was in the making.

"We have received extremely reliable intelligence reports, that within the past

two months, Selvarajah 'KP' Pathmanathan, the chief arms procurer of the LTTE - and

quite a few other LTTE members - have been seen working out of Phnom Penh and Bangkok,"

he said.

"They are also looking to buy automatic weapons such as AK-47s which are easily

available on the Cambodian market at reduced prices.

"However, there is a lot of speculation about the purchase of SAMs being made

from the Khmer Rouge," he added. "The Phnom Penh government has given us

assurances that they will cooperate with us fully on this matter."

The source was referring to the August visit to Cambodia by Bangkok-based Sri Lanka

Ambassador, Sarala Fernando, to present her credentials to the Royal Government.

One Cambodian diplomat acknowledged that, in a meeting with First Prime Minister

Prince Norodom Ranariddh, Fernando had conveyed Colombo's alarm about the Tigers

running armaments, munitions, and explosives out of Southeast Asia.

"The first prime minister gave the Sri Lankan ambassador assurances that Cambodia

would not be used for trading in contraband arms," said Marina Pok, under-secretary

of state for Foreign Affairs.

"Ranariddh mentioned to her that immigration controls would be tightened and

foreigners would be screened more carefully so that criminals will be prevented from

entering the country."

But Cambodian officials contacted by the Post said they were unaware of any LTTE

operations here, or any collusion with either KR or RCAF commanders.

Meanwhile, General Lay Bun Song, the Defense Ministry's head of International Relations,

said he had never heard of SAMs being used by Khmer Rouge insurgents, and that Russian-made

SA-7s had been part of the Soviet-backed State of Cambodia's arsenal.

A western military analyst confirmed that the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces possess

SA-7s and that the Khmer Rouge - which has a stock of Chinese-made SAMs - have "most

probably" gotten their hands on a cache of the Russian-made variety.

However, the analyst explained that the Khmer Rouge - given the shortage of SAMs

at its disposal - would be reluctant to part with them, even to flog them off to

the highest bidder.

"The KR would only use this type of weapon sparingly, in the rare event of an

air-strike by jet fighters belonging to RCAF," he added. "Chances are,

they would not be willing to sell off any of their SAMs."

The latest alleged SAM deal would mark the second time in as many years that the

Tamil Tigers have reportedly been in Cambodia shopping around for surface-to-air


According to a cover-story which appeared last month in Asiaweek, KP Pathmanathan

procured a consignment of SA-7s from "corrupt Cambodian generals" in late


The missiles were reportedly shipped out of Cambodia across the Thai border, and

were later used to destroy two Sri Lanka Air Force transport planes over Jaffna.

The news of the second SAM deal comes at a time when Lankan expatriates in Phnom

Penh have expressed concerns about what they suspect is an increase in Tiger activity


They suspect that Tiger operatives are arriving with Tamil refugees and migrants,

staying for short periods, and then moving on to other contact points in the region.

There are strong indications that the LTTE have set up a safe-house in Phnom Penh,

from where they engage in arms buying, drawing on lucrative sources of revenue such

as passport and visa forging, and heroin trading.

"Compared to before, there are many more Tamils coming to Cambodia," said

one expatriate who has lived in Phnom Penh for several years. "I believe there

is a general business going on here which is linked to the Tigers."

Another expatriate who has closely monitored the LTTE over years - and who claimed

he would be traced and killed by the Tigers if his name was used - has tracked their

movements in Cambodia within the past two years.

"The Tigers are supposed to be building up here," he said.

"So far it is very small scale here... they are mostly buying B-40 rocket launchers,

AK-47s, but they are only just starting up."

He explained there is a mobile cell of 40 to 50 LTTE "operatives or sympathizers"

who travel here under the cover of the refugee umbrella.

He agreed LTTE agents are passing through Phnom Penh in transit to other cities in

the region where they make contacts and purchase arms and ammunition.

The expat is also convinced that funds in the order of "millions of dollars"

have been sent to Phnom Penh from Paris - one of the LTTE's main centers in the West

- through "different methods", for the procurement of arms, munitions,

and possibly narcotics, and for the purchase of authentic travel documents which

are eventually doctored.

Several Sri Lankan expatriates - all of whom insisted on anonymity for fear of reprisal

- said Tamil refugees and migrants are regularly being escorted from Pochentong airport,

by the same group of men, to Bangkok, Hong Kong, Ho Chi Minh City, and Singapore.

From those destinations, it is believed they travel to the West by circuitous routes.

For instance, those traveling to Canada or Europe will arrive via China, Russia,

and Finland, entering the West using professionally forged passports and visas.

The beauty of the LTTE operation, expatriates said, is that it is hard to distinguish

Tiger operatives from political refugees and economic migrants, who regularly pass

in and out of Cambodia.

Desperately seeking passage to the West, they rely on intermediaries - most likely

LTTE middle-men - to secure forged travel papers at exorbitantly high fees.

"The going-rate for an American passport is $25,000," said an expatriate.

Meanwhile, it is also rumored within diplomatic circles that the LTTE have extended

their international heroin trading network to Cambodia.

The Tamils are suspected to be shipping heroin down the Mekong river from the Golden

Triangle, and out of the country from Koh Kong.

According to Police General Skadavy M Ly Roun, chief of Cambodian Interpol's anti-drug

unit, "some Sri Lankans" had been spotted in Steung Treng province, close

to the Laotian border in August.

He said they had been seen engaging in "some kind of economic activity",

but would not specify exactly what, as the Interpol investigation has not been completed.

Skadavy said it was too soon to tell whether Lankans are running heroin through Cambodia.

According to foreign intelligence reports, a similar front was set up in Bangkok

in the early 1990s.

Those reports state that LTTE operatives would use a safe-house, which masqueraded

as a safe-haven for refugees and migrants, as they passed through Bangkok in transit

to the arms bazaars of Asia.

Out of the Thai capital, they would arrange and buy Cambodian arms and explosives.

These would be shipped overland, across the Thai border to Phuket, where they would

be off-loaded onto Jaffna-bound freighters.

The allegations about the Tiger-operated refugee racket, the counterfeiting of travel

documents, and the heroin connection are also consistent with the findings of a detailed

study done on the LTTE by the MacKenzie Institute, an independent Canadian think-tank.

Its Dec 1995 report - cited in the London-based journal, Sri Lankan Overseas - shows

that, within the LTTE's complex and sophisticated international network, refugee-

running is intermeshed with narcotics trading and extortion.

According to MacKenzie - and corroborated by Lankan expatriates in Phnom Penh - the

LTTE will use brass-knuckle tactics worldwide to elicit payments or services rendered

to the cause from members of the Tamil Diaspora.

One instance is cited in which an LTTE extortion ring was exposed in Germany. The

LTTE, having extorted 50DM per month from Tamil families, had amassed about 200,000DM.

MacKenzie also examines the heroin angle. Having thrived on the trade of Pakistani

heroin, the report suggests the Tigers may have been compelled to look eastward as

their cover in West Asia has gradually been eroded since the mid-1980s.

"About 134 kg of heroin had been seized from these [Tamil] traffickers by early

1984," MacKenzie said.

"One Western police official estimated that this only accounted for 7-10 percent

of the total volume of traffic. Soon the Tamils were moving over 1000kg a year, and

much of the profit was going to the LTTE."

Concerning the refugee-running dimension, the report says the LTTE also makes a lot

of money out of smuggling Tamil refugees and migrants to the West.

Apparently, the LTTE supplies them with forged visas and passports which are given-up

upon arrival, and then doctored again. Passports from Canadian Tamils bought for

$200, and fitted with new photographs and passport details, are then couriered to

India for use by other illegal migrants.

MacKenzie concludes that the narco-trade and refugee racketeering are "complementary"

and vital to the financing of the Eelam cause.

The news that the Tigers may have established a foothold in Cambodia was met with

alarm by the Indian embassy, whose government has called for the extradition of their

leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran.

The LTTE is widely believed to have been responsible for the May 21, 1991 suicide

assassination of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.

NK Saxena, the first secretary at New Delhi's mission to Phnom Penh, said he was

not so much worried about the LTTE trafficking in arms as he was worried about the

likelihood that they have established "a base of operations" in Cambodia.

"I am not really worried about whether Tamils are coming in and out of the country,"

he said.

"But if, in fact, the LTTE is setting up a base of operations here, then that's

trouble to me."

"If these, indeed, are Tamil Tigers, the Indian embassy is an obvious target,"

he added.

"At the height of the Indian Peace Keeping Force operation in Sri Lanka, in

1987, '88, and '89, the Tigers assassinated Indian diplomats in Norway and the UK."

The Indians are all too familiar with the methods of the LTTE in advancing their

nationalist cause. The suspected slaying of Gandhi by the Tigers was one such instance.

Another took place three years ago, when a shipment of arms and explosives - which,

according to intelligence reports had come from Cambodia - ended in disaster.

As related in the Asiaweek article, when the ship carrying these weapons was intercepted

in the Bay of Bengal by the Indian Navy, rather than give up his cargo, the LTTE

commander - one of Prabhakaran's most loyal lieutenants - allowed the crew to swim

to safety.

Then he and his fellow Tigers who had accompanied him on the mission, blew up the

ship, as well as themselves.

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