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Joe, who has three daughters of his own (his family thinks he is a building contractor), is to collect three 12-year-old girls and take them to Kuala Lumpur as prostitutes. As they are virgins, they will fetch $4,700 each. He hates doing it, Joe says, grimacing again, but he's only a lower level operative, a cog in a huge machine.
A few large syndicates based in Thailand and Malaysia control the arms-smuggling trade but it is administered by a dizzyingly complex system of middlemen like Joe. When the police do crack down, those at the top, the brains running the muscle, are never touched. Take a man like Samnang. A 45-year-old arms trader, his daytime job is as a border guard on the Thai side of the border with Cambodia. "I am an ex-Khmer Rouge soldier," he says, smiling easily. We are talking outside his office at the bustling gateway, and Samnang is dressed for work blue shirt and pants and a walkie-talkie. "Even when we were in power, I started selling weapons to make more money. You know how poor we were and the war made us poorer."
Samnang gets the weapons from his contacts within the Cambodian army, ex-Khmer mates and the villagers along the 700-km border. He mainly sells AK-47s, rocket-propelled grenades and hand grenades. "I sell them to my buyers but I don't know about the end users because there are so many people in the chain. I have some protection from my boss who runs a syndicate. He is close to the powerful people."
According to one estimate by Panitan Wattanayagorn, a regional security specialist, one-third of the arms flowing into the region is left over from Cambodia's decades of war. Another third consists of new weapons smuggled into Cambodia and sometimes into Thailand through neighboring Laos from China. The last third is from illegal sales by the Thai army, like the one I saw with Joe.
One level up from buyers like Samnang are the brokers who collect large orders from buyers and arrange for the gun shipments. Chay, a broker in his early 30s, seems nervous when we meet just after dawn in the urine-redolent upper room of a bar 15 minutes outside Bangkok. A heavily built Thai, Chay fidgets a lot, looking down at his hands. His discomfort may be caused by his boss who is sitting at another table, an obese, balding man in his 50s who scowls behind thick, gold-rimmed glasses and cigar smoke.
When I arrived I was searched by guards who found a tape recorder in my back pocket. One pulled out a gun and pointed it at my head. I said I just wanted a record of what was said, that I had no idea they would object. After half an hour the men calm down but the boss still isn't happy. Slowly, Chay starts to talk, glancing at his boss regularly. "The network is huge," Chay says. The weapons he buys are stored in warehouses on the Thai-Cambodian border, then moved by truck to Burma or other destinations. "Usually my trucks don't even get stopped for checks. It's easy to bribe people. Who does not want money?"
At this point, Chay's boss takes over. He is in touch with many overseas syndicates, he says: "I have never met the end buyers but from my syndicate contacts, I know that it goes to Acehnese rebel groups, Burmese minority groups like the Karen, Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines and the rebel groups in Indonesia." Since he is playing such a dangerous game, doesn't he worry about getting caught? "The Thai army openly sells weapons," he says. "They are the biggest source of protection for the people involved in this business. What more do we want?"