HE WAS the poster boy for a new generation of the post Cold War international arms dealers, able to deliver any kind of weapons anywhere in the world at any time. But after outsmarting the intelligence services for almost two decades, former Russian army lieutenant, Viktor Bout, 41, was arrested in Bangkok on March 6, 2008, when America’s Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents – posing as representatives of Colombia’s guerrilla group- lured him to Thailand from his home in Moscow.
It is unclear whether Bout will be extradited to the United States – where he is facing charges over an alleged plot to funnel weapons to Colombian guerrillas. But one thing is quite clear; that his weapons have not only fuelled wars and conflicts in Africa and Middle East, but also in Asia.
A senior Thai police officer told Asia News Network that the immediate focus of the investigation is whether he has used Thailand as a base for negotiating weapons deals with terrorists and insurgent groups in Asia – a region buffeted with conflicts, feudal wars and terrorism.
“We know about his (Viktor Bout’s) African arms dealings. But we want to know whether he has done any arms deal in Thailand or in our neighbouring countries,” said a top Thai police officer on the condition of anonymity. “We will take legal action against him here in Thailand before deporting him to face trial in another country,” he added.
Thailand is a major transit hub for illegal arms bordering a flourishing underground arms market in Cambodia, Myanmar and Laos, and it is from here that Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam’s (LTTE) chief procurer of arms – Kumaran Padmanadan, known as KP – is said to be operating. It is hard to believe that KP would have missed Bout, given his high profile reputation for ready supply of arms to any party under any circumstances. Bout is reported to have purchased a huge cache of Chinese weapons from the military junta of Myanmar and re-sold them to the militant groups worldwide.
Bout started supplying weapons in Asia during the Afghan war when he smuggled weapons into Afghanistan with his own private air fleet. He took advantage of the cheap Soviet air force planes and a massive stockpile of weapons after the collapse of the USSR. On Aug 25, 1995, the Taliban forced his cargo plane to land in Kandahar, Afghanistan and impounded AK-47 small arms ammunition meant for the government forces in Kabul.
Later, Bout developed connections with the Taliban fighters and according to reports, armed the Taliban on behalf of the Pakistani government. But a spokesman for the Pakistani government that time said that the weapons allegedly supplied by Bout were delivered legally.
Whatever the case, the Taliban’s proximity to the Al Qaeda facilitated the supply of weapons to other parts of the region. It is widely acknowledged that his AK-47 assault rifles (and its Chinese copy T 56), which Bout allegedly supplied to different Afghan mujahideen groups, were smuggled into Kashmir and other parts of India through Pakistan. The biggest and the most dominant militant group in Kashmir – Hizbul Mujahideen – had close ties with the Afghan mujahideen and most of its members were trained and armed in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Bout has also flown the UN peacekeepers to Sri Lanka, after the 2004 tsunami and been accused of supplying weapons to the LTTE.
The frustrating news for the Thai authorities is that Bout’s arrest in Thailand has once again revealed that Bangkok is becoming a safe haven for international criminals. Bout was just the latest of half-a-dozen world renowned criminals to be arrested in Thailand over the past five years, raising the question on why these criminals flock to Thailand.
Besides Bout, other notorious criminals who have recently been arrested in Thailand include American bank robbery suspect Morgan Michelle Hoke and Canadian pedophile Christopher Paul Neil. Then there was also news about the arrest of the LTTE’s top commander KP. Nurjaman Riduan bin Isamuddin, better known as Hambali, was also arrested in Thailand in 2003. He was the operations chief of the shadowy militant group Jemaah Islamiah (JI) and was wanted in Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines in connection with a series of bomb attacks.
Thai police admits that Thailand has become a heaven for international criminals. “Thailand is their heaven. Thai people are kind and friendly so the criminals feel at ease here,” said Crime Suppression Division deputy chief Petcharat Saengchai.
The huge rush of foreign tourists, drawing more than 13 million visitors a year, not only facilitates the entry of criminals but also helps them blend with other tourists and evade the authorities. And Thailand being an air hub with porous border, there are many ways to get out of the country if trouble erupts. Thailand prisons, which are filled with foreign criminals, drug dealers and terrorists, tell a grim story.
According to government figures, Thailand has witnessed an increase in the number of foreign prisoners in recent years and more than 7,134 foreign drug dealers, gangsters, terrorists and criminals are languishing in different Thai prisons.
Many believe that Thai police is quite efficient but the problem is that there is widespread corruption in the police force. Take the case of Indian gangster Chhota Rajan, who managed to escape from Samitivej hospital after he was hit by a rival gang in the Sukumit area of Bangkok. The investigation into the case failed to answer how he managed to escape from the hospital and eventually from the country, despite tight security. Later, none other than Rajan’s lawyer Sirichai Piapichetkul alleged that he escaped after paying Thai police 25 million baht (US$795,671).
Bout might have also tried to bribe the Thai police. But this time, with a complex web of international police agencies following him, it was not easy. The game was finally over for one of the world’s most-wanted arms traffickers.
Afghanistan: Bout started supplying weapons in Asia during the Afghan war
Pakistan: His weapons, from Afghanistan, went to Pakistan
Kashmir: From Pakistan, weapons were smuggled into Kashmir and other parts of India
Sri Lanka: He is accused of supplying weapons to the LTTE
Myanmar: He purchased weapons from the military regime of Myanmar
Thailand: Authorities are investigating his links with Thai insurgents
(ANN, Apr 04, 2008)