Tamil Tigers shopping for arms in Cambodia
T HE Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) – one of the most feared and intricate
separatist movements to span the globe – are planning to buy surface-to-air missiles
(SAMs) from unspecified Cambodian arms dealers for their war effort in Sri Lanka.
There are also growing local concerns that the LTTE has established a front in Phnom
According to well-placed sources in the Sri Lankan capital Colombo, the Tamil Tigers
are busy arranging the purchase and shipment from Cambodia of SAMs to be used in
the defense of their strongholds on the Jaffna peninsula.
In a note faxed to the Post Sept 10, Iqbal Athas, a Colombo-based journalist who
covers defense-related issues, said a deal was being worked out to ship SAMs to Jaffna.
A Sri Lankan diplomatic source, speaking by telephone from Colombo, confirmed that
his government believed a deal was in the making.
“We have received extremely reliable intelligence reports, that within the past
two months, Selvarajah ‘KP’ Pathmanathan, the chief arms procurer of the LTTE – and
quite a few other LTTE members – have been seen working out of Phnom Penh and Bangkok,”
“They are also looking to buy automatic weapons such as AK-47s which are easily
available on the Cambodian market at reduced prices.
“However, there is a lot of speculation about the purchase of SAMs being made
from the Khmer Rouge,” he added. “The Phnom Penh government has given us
assurances that they will cooperate with us fully on this matter.”
The source was referring to the August visit to Cambodia by Bangkok-based Sri Lanka
Ambassador, Sarala Fernando, to present her credentials to the Royal Government.
One Cambodian diplomat acknowledged that, in a meeting with First Prime Minister
Prince Norodom Ranariddh, Fernando had conveyed Colombo’s alarm about the Tigers
running armaments, munitions, and explosives out of Southeast Asia.
“The first prime minister gave the Sri Lankan ambassador assurances that Cambodia
would not be used for trading in contraband arms,” said Marina Pok, under-secretary
of state for Foreign Affairs.
“Ranariddh mentioned to her that immigration controls would be tightened and
foreigners would be screened more carefully so that criminals will be prevented from
entering the country.”
But Cambodian officials contacted by the Post said they were unaware of any LTTE
operations here, or any collusion with either KR or RCAF commanders.
Meanwhile, General Lay Bun Song, the Defense Ministry’s head of International Relations,
said he had never heard of SAMs being used by Khmer Rouge insurgents, and that Russian-made
SA-7s had been part of the Soviet-backed State of Cambodia’s arsenal.
A western military analyst confirmed that the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces possess
SA-7s and that the Khmer Rouge – which has a stock of Chinese-made SAMs – have “most
probably” gotten their hands on a cache of the Russian-made variety.
However, the analyst explained that the Khmer Rouge – given the shortage of SAMs
at its disposal – would be reluctant to part with them, even to flog them off to
the highest bidder.
“The KR would only use this type of weapon sparingly, in the rare event of an
air-strike by jet fighters belonging to RCAF,” he added. “Chances are,
they would not be willing to sell off any of their SAMs.”
The latest alleged SAM deal would mark the second time in as many years that the
Tamil Tigers have reportedly been in Cambodia shopping around for surface-to-air
According to a cover-story which appeared last month in Asiaweek, KP Pathmanathan
procured a consignment of SA-7s from “corrupt Cambodian generals” in late
The missiles were reportedly shipped out of Cambodia across the Thai border, and
were later used to destroy two Sri Lanka Air Force transport planes over Jaffna.
The news of the second SAM deal comes at a time when Lankan expatriates in Phnom
Penh have expressed concerns about what they suspect is an increase in Tiger activity
They suspect that Tiger operatives are arriving with Tamil refugees and migrants,
staying for short periods, and then moving on to other contact points in the region.
There are strong indications that the LTTE have set up a safe-house in Phnom Penh,
from where they engage in arms buying, drawing on lucrative sources of revenue such
as passport and visa forging, and heroin trading.
“Compared to before, there are many more Tamils coming to Cambodia,” said
one expatriate who has lived in Phnom Penh for several years. “I believe there
is a general business going on here which is linked to the Tigers.”
Another expatriate who has closely monitored the LTTE over years – and who claimed
he would be traced and killed by the Tigers if his name was used – has tracked their
movements in Cambodia within the past two years.
“The Tigers are supposed to be building up here,” he said.
“So far it is very small scale here… they are mostly buying B-40 rocket launchers,
AK-47s, but they are only just starting up.”
He explained there is a mobile cell of 40 to 50 LTTE “operatives or sympathizers”
who travel here under the cover of the refugee umbrella.
He agreed LTTE agents are passing through Phnom Penh in transit to other cities in
the region where they make contacts and purchase arms and ammunition.
The expat is also convinced that funds in the order of “millions of dollars”
have been sent to Phnom Penh from Paris – one of the LTTE’s main centers in the West
– through “different methods”, for the procurement of arms, munitions,
and possibly narcotics, and for the purchase of authentic travel documents which
are eventually doctored.
Several Sri Lankan expatriates – all of whom insisted on anonymity for fear of reprisal
– said Tamil refugees and migrants are regularly being escorted from Pochentong airport,
by the same group of men, to Bangkok, Hong Kong, Ho Chi Minh City, and Singapore.
From those destinations, it is believed they travel to the West by circuitous routes.
For instance, those traveling to Canada or Europe will arrive via China, Russia,
and Finland, entering the West using professionally forged passports and visas.
The beauty of the LTTE operation, expatriates said, is that it is hard to distinguish
Tiger operatives from political refugees and economic migrants, who regularly pass
in and out of Cambodia.
Desperately seeking passage to the West, they rely on intermediaries – most likely
LTTE middle-men – to secure forged travel papers at exorbitantly high fees.
“The going-rate for an American passport is $25,000,” said an expatriate.
Meanwhile, it is also rumored within diplomatic circles that the LTTE have extended
their international heroin trading network to Cambodia.
The Tamils are suspected to be shipping heroin down the Mekong river from the Golden
Triangle, and out of the country from Koh Kong.
According to Police General Skadavy M Ly Roun, chief of Cambodian Interpol’s anti-drug
unit, “some Sri Lankans” had been spotted in Steung Treng province, close
to the Laotian border in August.
He said they had been seen engaging in “some kind of economic activity”,
but would not specify exactly what, as the Interpol investigation has not been completed.
Skadavy said it was too soon to tell whether Lankans are running heroin through Cambodia.
According to foreign intelligence reports, a similar front was set up in Bangkok
in the early 1990s.
Those reports state that LTTE operatives would use a safe-house, which masqueraded
as a safe-haven for refugees and migrants, as they passed through Bangkok in transit
to the arms bazaars of Asia.
Out of the Thai capital, they would arrange and buy Cambodian arms and explosives.
These would be shipped overland, across the Thai border to Phuket, where they would
be off-loaded onto Jaffna-bound freighters.
The allegations about the Tiger-operated refugee racket, the counterfeiting of travel
documents, and the heroin connection are also consistent with the findings of a detailed
study done on the LTTE by the MacKenzie Institute, an independent Canadian think-tank.
Its Dec 1995 report – cited in the London-based journal, Sri Lankan Overseas – shows
that, within the LTTE’s complex and sophisticated international network, refugee-
running is intermeshed with narcotics trading and extortion.
According to MacKenzie – and corroborated by Lankan expatriates in Phnom Penh – the
LTTE will use brass-knuckle tactics worldwide to elicit payments or services rendered
to the cause from members of the Tamil Diaspora.
One instance is cited in which an LTTE extortion ring was exposed in Germany. The
LTTE, having extorted 50DM per month from Tamil families, had amassed about 200,000DM.
MacKenzie also examines the heroin angle. Having thrived on the trade of Pakistani
heroin, the report suggests the Tigers may have been compelled to look eastward as
their cover in West Asia has gradually been eroded since the mid-1980s.
“About 134 kg of heroin had been seized from these [Tamil] traffickers by early
1984,” MacKenzie said.
“One Western police official estimated that this only accounted for 7-10 percent
of the total volume of traffic. Soon the Tamils were moving over 1000kg a year, and
much of the profit was going to the LTTE.”
Concerning the refugee-running dimension, the report says the LTTE also makes a lot
of money out of smuggling Tamil refugees and migrants to the West.
Apparently, the LTTE supplies them with forged visas and passports which are given-up
upon arrival, and then doctored again. Passports from Canadian Tamils bought for
$200, and fitted with new photographs and passport details, are then couriered to
India for use by other illegal migrants.
MacKenzie concludes that the narco-trade and refugee racketeering are “complementary”
and vital to the financing of the Eelam cause.
The news that the Tigers may have established a foothold in Cambodia was met with
alarm by the Indian embassy, whose government has called for the extradition of their
leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran.
The LTTE is widely believed to have been responsible for the May 21, 1991 suicide
assassination of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.
NK Saxena, the first secretary at New Delhi’s mission to Phnom Penh, said he was
not so much worried about the LTTE trafficking in arms as he was worried about the
likelihood that they have established “a base of operations” in Cambodia.
“I am not really worried about whether Tamils are coming in and out of the country,”
“But if, in fact, the LTTE is setting up a base of operations here, then that’s
trouble to me.”
“If these, indeed, are Tamil Tigers, the Indian embassy is an obvious target,”
“At the height of the Indian Peace Keeping Force operation in Sri Lanka, in
1987, ’88, and ’89, the Tigers assassinated Indian diplomats in Norway and the UK.”
The Indians are all too familiar with the methods of the LTTE in advancing their
nationalist cause. The suspected slaying of Gandhi by the Tigers was one such instance.
Another took place three years ago, when a shipment of arms and explosives – which,
according to intelligence reports had come from Cambodia – ended in disaster.
As related in the Asiaweek article, when the ship carrying these weapons was intercepted
in the Bay of Bengal by the Indian Navy, rather than give up his cargo, the LTTE
commander – one of Prabhakaran’s most loyal lieutenants – allowed the crew to swim
Then he and his fellow Tigers who had accompanied him on the mission, blew up the
ship, as well as themselves.
Source: Phnom Penh Post