Saturday, March 8, 2008

Why Was Viktor Bout in Thailand When He Was Arrested?

By Zachary Abuza

Today Thai authorities announced that they had arrested the international arms trafficker, Victor Bout. For more on Bout, I ask that you see my colleague Doug Farah's posts and excellent book. But Bout's arrest in Thailand begs the question: what was he doing there?

Bout has armed insurgencies in the region in the past, in particular in the Philippines. There is more to suggest that Bout was in the region not to arm insurgents, but to negotiate the purchase of arms. Though there is an insurgency in Southern Thailand, almost all of their weaponry has been captured.

Thai authorities announced that they will hold a press conference on Friday on the details of Bout's arrest. They have revealed little information other than the fact that he had recently landed in Thailand, though had been in the region for a period of time and that they had been tracking him. That he was arrested on a DEA tipoff suggests that he may have been involved in narcotics, metamphetimines or heroin from Burma, serious concerns for both the Americans and Thais.

If he was shopping for arms, my educated hunch is he was buying surplus Chinese weapons from the Burmese junta. They have enormous stockpiles of weapons provided by China and need the cash. Bout used to buy up the huge cache of weaponry (mainly Chinese) at the border market between Thailand and Cambodia, but his consignment-amount of weapons aren't so available there anymore.

Bout may also have been in either Burma or Cambodia to illegally purchase end-user certificates which would allow him to purchase large amounts of weaponry illegally. One could also not rule out a meeting with North Korean arms dealers. North Korean operatives are active in Southeast Asia, where they purvey everything from weapons, to metamphetimines, to "Super Notes" (high-quality counterfeit U.S. dollars). The Koreans have a history of selling end-user certificates to unsavory figures. A few years ago they sold the Tamil Tigers end-user certificates that allowed them to purchase a large consignment of weapons from NORINCO.

Thailand is the regional transit hub, and it has a long history of being a center of narcotics trade and document forging. But since 9/11 the government has upgraded its intelligence capabilities as well as its border security. Bout was not the first big fish to be arrested there. These investments are paying dividends.

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