Sarah R. Rose-Jensen, Research Fellow
Earlier in July, the Phnom Penh Post reported that four men were arrested after attempting to illegally bring a shipment of arms from Cambodia into Thailand. A few days after these arrests, a second group of men, all Thai nationals, were also arrested smuggling arms from Cambodia into Thailand. Several Cambodians, one of them associated with the Cambodia Mine Action Center (CMAC), were later arrested in conjunction this case as well. In both cases, it was initially alleged that the arms were stolen from the Cambodian military, but the Cambodian military has refuted this claim. And, in both cases, the arms were apparently destined for Karen fighters based in Thailand who are still struggling for independence from the Myanmar state. While this is certainly a success for law enforcement and regional legal cooperation, it also highlights a disturbing trend: arms smuggling. Historically, Cambodia was a regular source of weapons for various groups seeking political change (most well known being the regular presence of Tamil Tiger weapons buyers in Phnom Penh in the 1990s) - and while at a much lower level, the problem is still, well, a problem.
It is no secret that Cambodia’s borders are quite porous. In the Northeast, Vietnamese and Cambodian workers and goods cross the border each direction multiple times a day, in large numbers and in the West Cambodian workers cross to work illegally in Thailand. In the Southwest as well as Northeast, illegal timber, illegally traded wildlife, and gemstones of dubious origin pass the borders to Vietnam and Thailand, with traders either bribing their way through official checkpoints or passing through unofficial border crossings. In the Southwest, additionally, there is the drug trade: amphetamines and heroin come in from Thailand and safrole oil, one of the raw materials for the drug MDMA, goes across the border into Thailand. Much of the illegal cross-border trade seems to be accomplished with a nod and a wink – there are established, though of course informal, understandings as to how to get people and goods across formal, legal border crossings, as well as informal border crossings which seem to be well known and accessible, as the author discovered in the course of her field work in Cambodia.
In the June smuggling case, one Thai official allegedly escaped by going by going through a casino and its adjacent property, thereby avoiding the official border crossing. Anyone who has crossed the Thai-Cambodia border on foot, either in Koh Kong or Poipet can attest that lively trading takes place in between the official, recognized border checkpoints. This trade, within the recognized border checkpoints, has proven to be a boon to the local economy and to the development of some of Cambodia’s poorer regions. And while trade is obviously an essential driver of growth, it is vital to recognize the negative externalities that come along with porous borders and their implications for regional and national development.
We hear much more about smuggling of timber, natural resource, and humans being across the Cambodian borders, but the anecdotal case mentioned above (owing to the nature of this topic a more through and methodologically solid approach to data collection is quite clearly infeasible, similar to analyses of corruption - collected journalistic accounts of "successes" in combating corruption can provide a useful basis to measure the scale of the problem) indicate that arms smuggling, to some extent, is also taking place.
The issue of illegal cross-border activity indicates the negative externalities of porous borders and the diversity of resource flows which local entrepreneurs willing to operate outside of the framework of the law. Regular violation of formal legal systems undermines the "demand" for law and decreases the probability of the establishment of a functioning, successful legal and judicial system. Moreover, the fact that the weapons discussed above were destined for Karen fighters further deepens the case for the need to strengthen Cambodia’s borders and vividly depicts the negative implications for the stability required for the subsequent development of the various ASEAN states (Myanmar in particular) and the importance of the Royal Government recognizing and fulfilling its role as an ASEAN member in maintaining a peaceful and stable ASEAN region.
Both Shan and Karen fighters have long operated along the Thai-Myanmar border, where they are able to evade the Myanmar military. As discussed in the extensive literature on intra-state conflict in Africa and Asia (e.g. ZANU’s presence in Mozambique in the 1970s and most obvious to those familiar with the Mekong region, the North Vietnamese presence in neutral Cambodia in the 1960s and early 1970s), this is a common technique of rebel and separatist groups, i.e., to maintain a base in a neutral country that allows for easy border crossing into the neighboring state to conduct military operations, then to retreat across the border. Weakly enforced borders have facilitated the extension of numerous African conflicts beyond what otherwise might have been their anticipated end. In the Myanmar case, the conflict remains largely quiet; however, the presence of ethnic separatists in Thailand, combined with weak governance throughout the entire region, and the probability of Cambodia serving as a continued source of arms flow into Myanmar, collectively indicate the instability of the existing "peace" equilibrium.
People, goods, and resources tend to flow, despite any constraints placed on them. Grey or shadow economy activities support and are intertwined with the legitimate and legal cross border trade in complex ways. Gems which are initially looted or smuggled, for example, may eventually make it onto the legitimate market and into the hands of consumers who have little understanding of their provenance. Stopping these flows entirely is probably not feasible (barring the establishment of some sort of Enver Hoxha-style, Albanian autarchic state); however, understanding them and their contribution to the (“black” or underground) economy can provide a more accurate portrait of the economy of the region, as well as the effects of weak governance, poorly controlled borders, and the primary negative externalities of this problem, i.e. the incentivization of corruption and contribution to the potential destabilization of another ASEAN state.
 Niem Chheng, Koam Chanrasmey, Shaun Turton, Fourth held in Thailand weapons case, Phnom Penh Post, 18 July 2017, accessed on 30 July 2017
 Niem Chheng, Thai police arrest still more smugglers hauling 'Cambodian' ordnance, Phnom Penh Post, 20 July 2017, accessed on 30 July 2017
 Niem Chheng, Deminer among three Cambodians arrested for arms sale, Phnom Penh Post, 24 July 2017, accessed on 30 July 2017