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Thai Border: A Wild West of Anarchy

Thai Border: A Wild West of Anarchy

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."

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