Weapons have been smuggled from Cambodia to the war-torn Indonesian province of Aceh, where Indonesian troops are engaged in a fierce offensive to rout pro-independence fighters, senior Indonesian military officials said on Tuesday.
The Aceh weapons-smuggling issue was raised at a meeting of military officials from the 10 Asean members and defense representatives from 10 other countries, including the US, China, Russia, Japan, Australia and India.
Though cooperation in counter-terrorism, regional security and tackling transnational crime topped the agenda, the smuggling of light weapons was high on Indonesia’s list of priorities, said Major General Sudrajat of Indonesia’s Department of Defense.
The Indonesian army has been fighting a monthlong campaign in Aceh to crush the Free Aceh Movement. Some 230 people have been killed in the fighting.
“We have the evidence that the weapons [in Aceh]…. Some of them are from Cambodia and the border of Thailand, and some are from Sri Lanka,” said the Indonesian officer during a break from meetings on Tuesday.
“All the ex-conflict areas are a good, cheap market for light weapons,” said Sudrajat, who like many Indonesians uses only one name.
Sudrajat said the issue of Cambodian arms in Aceh was raised indirectly at the defense meeting.
“Not directly, but we addressed [that] there is some suspected arms smuggling coming from the ex-conflict areas in the region,” Sudrajat said.
In line with Asean’s long-held line of non-interference in other members’ domestic affairs, the organization is also extremely circumspect in its approach to raising sensitive bilateral issues.
Officials in Phnom Penh have long been irked by claims that arms are being smuggled regionally from Cambodia.
Asked to address the issue of Aceh weapons smuggling at a press conference on Monday evening, Foreign Ministry Undersecretary of State Sieng Lapresse noted Cambodia is undertaking illegal weapons reduction efforts and that arms smugglers are seriously punished in this country.
A second foreign military official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said on Tuesday that Chinese-made AK-47 assault rifles discovered in Aceh have been traced to Cambodia.
The source of the trade could be the former Khmer Rouge stronghold of Pailin, the official said. The weapons were old and likely sold by individual, demobilized soldiers, according to the official.
The weapons were likely smuggled through southern Thailand to Aceh, the official added.
Philippine Army Brigadier General Pedro Ike I Inserto, who also attended Tuesday’s meeting, discounted reports that the militant Abu Sayyaf rebel group was also procuring arms from Cambodia.
In April, the Washington Times newspaper quoted an Abu Sayyaf member who claimed their organization’s weapons were being shipped through Cambodia and Vietnam, then to Malaysia and on to the southern Philippines.
The claims were unlikely, said Inserto, adding, “[The Abu Sayyaf] normally deal with arms dealers in Southeast Asia,” rather than buying second-hand weapons.
Though the fate of Aung San Suu Kyi has so far dominated the Asean talks, terrorism and regional security are likely to be thrust center stage with the presence of US Secretary of State Colin Powell and Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer at today’s Asean Regional Forum talks.
“Australia has led efforts to identify practical ways for the ARF to tackle the terrorism challenge. I will encourage ARF members to translate words into action,” Downer said in a statement received on Tuesday.
In a joint communique to mark the end of the Asean Ministerial Meeting on Tuesday, Asean members re-affirmed their support for Jakarta’s operations in Aceh.
“We recognized the efforts of the Indonesian Government to restore peace and order in Aceh. We also pledged our support to deny the separatist movement access to means of violence through, among all, preventing arms smuggling into Aceh province,” the communique stated.
The Asean communique also noted that increased intelligence sharing between member states has resulted in the arrest of militants and “helped prevent the occurrence of terrorist acts.”
Asean also renewed its “determination to cooperate closely with the international community in combating international terrorism,” the communique stated.
Cambodia has recently charged three foreigners and one Cambodian Muslim with international terrorism linked to the militant Jemaah Islamiyah group, which has been blamed for last year’s Bali island blast.
Cambodian officials said the four were arrested based on information from the US.
However, the US-based Human Rights Watch organization warned on Monday that Asean’s zealous adoption of counter terrorism initiatives may encourage the abuse of human rights.
“The regional security forum has pledged support to the international campaign against terrorism, but has been conspicuously silent on rights issues,” Human Rights Watch said in a statement.
“Many ARF members were abusing human rights on the pretext of fighting terrorism, or had extended new security assistance and cooperation to abusive governments in the region,” the statement added.
Human Rights Watch accused Australia, China, India, Indonesia, Russia, the US, Malaysia, Singapore and “many” European Union countries of using counter-terrorism to infringe on human rights.