It looks more like a sack of potatoes than anything else the coarsely woven brown bag the skinny Thai corporal is hefting onto the rickety table with a grunt. The sack gapes open and dozens of guns clank out, covering the tabletop, several dropping onto the grimy concrete floor. We stare at the jumbled heap of handguns, which I know from Joe, the arms trader who has brought me, are either Brownings or Smith & Wessons. Some have seen long service, the butts chipped and scored. Joe ignores these, instead picking up a snub-nosed Browning, still shiny with gun oil. In less than a minute he strips it down to four component parts, inspects the barrel and reassembles the pistol, slotting the parts back together with a series of clunks. Outside, we can hear the muffled stomp of boots and the cries of an NCO as squads of soldiers are marched around the camp's compacted red earth parade ground. "All right," Joe finally grunts after an interminably slow inspection of 40 or so guns. "I'll take five Brownings and five Smith & Wessons. My friend here wants one, too, for protection like I told you. She'll take a Smith 7 Wesson."
Joe is speaking to the colonel who is selling him the guns. The colonel glares at me. I know he doesn't believe that I'm a friend of Joe's from across the border in Malaysia who needs a gun for protection. He starts to shout in Thai. Joe nods politely, putting to one side the 10 weapons he has selected. Smiling all the time, carefully avoiding eye contact with the colonel, Joe reaches into a waist pack and counts out a thick wad of Malaysian currency. "I won't bring her again, I promise. Here, this is 11,000 ringgit [$2,895], right?" The colonel stops his tirade and waves to the corporal, who takes the cash and laboriously counts it. "Next week," Joe says, accepting a Carlsberg from the colonel, who is now smiling, "I'll be back. I want about 20 or 30 AKs and maybe also some M-16s. We can move the pistols in the same shipment."
For all its latent menace, what happened at that army camp on the Thai-Malaysian border is mundanely commonplace. In Thailand and Cambodia scores of illicit arms exchanges happen every day, some of them for as little as one or two pistols, others for crates holding several thousand Chinese-manufactured AK-47s, still encased in a thick layer of protective green grease. The two countries are the spring from which a flood tide of weapons pistols, automatic rifles, rocket launchers, mortars, even the occasional light artillery piece flows to every corner of Southeast Asia. The weapons are the lifeblood of the region's criminal activity, supplying robbers in Johor Baharu, pirates preying on the cargo ships that chug through the narrow Strait of Malacca and, yes, traders and buyers say, the region's radical Islamic groups such as Abu Sayyaf, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, Laskar Jihad and the Free Aceh Movement.
Gun trafficking feeds the tide of violence that blights the region, threatens democracy and development, and destroys lives. But despite all that, there are few signs that it will be stopped, or even slowed. It's too lucrative for too many people. Take Thailand, for example. "After the collapse of military dictatorship in 1973," says Sungsidh Pirayarangsan, a professor at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok and a specialist on the issue, "local godfathers, drug traffickers, traders of war weapons and others involved in illegal trade laundered themselves through the election process. Today, the contraband arms trade is able to survive because of political influence."
Because of the secretiveness of the business, experts say it is hard to estimate the trade's size. "Income from the underground traffic in arms is lower than that generated by other sources, in particular gambling and narcotics," says Yeshua Moser Puangsuwan, regional director for the Geneva-based Nonviolence International. But those two highly profitable illegal activities which earn billions of dollars annually worldwide are so entwined with arms smuggling they cannot be separated. "If you trade in narcotics, human beings or contraband, you must have access to arms," says Puangsuwan. "It ties them all together."
Joe an amiable 30-year-old Malaysian with bloodshot eyes and a two-pack-a-day habit knows what that means in the real world. As the jeep bumps down the earth road leading from the army camp, his mobile phone squawks. He answers, grunts a few times, then puts the phone down with a grimace. "I have to go to Indonesia tomorrow."