Thu, 30 Aug 2001

Time to disarm arms traffickers

Before (President Megawati Sukarnoputri) arrived (in Bangkok), Thai and Indonesian officials expected her to do little more than shake hands, exchange pleasantries and ask if Thailand would, perhaps, like to buy a few more light, Indonesian airplanes. (We wouldn't). Instead, in her meeting with Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra she brought up the arrest last May of two Thai army sergeants in Songkhla.

Still sketchy reports said they were charged with preparing to ship hand grenades, rifle ammunition and land mines to rebel forces in Aceh. Mr. Thaksin promised Mrs. Megawati he would look into the problem. He should do that, and he should pursue the inquiries. Anything less, now that he has been warned publicly of the problem by a foreign head of state, would be unacceptable.

Thailand has been named in many reports over the last decade as a major trafficker in illegal small arms. The last U.S. report on money laundering said Thai arms trafficking was as important as drugs and human trafficking. Last year, police even seized an underwater craft being built in Phuket and allegedly bound for the Tamil Tiger terrorists in Sri Lanka.

Thai-supplied arms have allegedly shown up in battles in Nagaland and Assam in India. The supply of arms to the most vicious rebel forces in Sri Lanka and Indonesia is troubling. It means Thai arms merchants have no scruples beyond their own gains. Like drug dealers and white slavery merchants, Thai arms traffickers have badly hurt the nation's image. Mr. Thaksin should, indeed, look into the problem.

Reports by the United Nations, human rights organizations and the Thai media have made a common allegation. It is widely believed that high-ranking, corrupt military officers are behind the Thai arms trafficking. The Thai army has vastly improved its image in recent years, but the arrest of the sergeants in Songkhla touched off allegations that they were merely scapegoats for their superior officers.

Thailand must not contribute to such problems in neighboring countries. More to the point, it must not be seen to be trafficking in small arms. Mr. Thaksin must take a two-pronged, and serious approach. He must instruct police to investigate, and take necessary action. And he must tell the military it is on notice to wipe out any involvement by the brass -- no excuses. It is time to tackle this criminal activity, and to thank Mrs. Megawati for bringing it up.

-- The Bangkok Post