Given Cambodia’s reputation for lawlessness and the perceived availability of firearms here, it’s no surprise that international arms dealers would think this a good place to do business. So thought Mick Ranger, a British arms broker who trades weapons between some of the world’s most violent, war-torn nations.
But when Ranger arrived in Phnom Penh last year, offering the Ministry of Defense an exchange of used magazines for Land Rovers and other potential weapons deals, he did not get quite the reception he expected.
“We do not have any extra weapons to sell. And if we did, we would not sell them, even if they were old,” said Co-Minister of Defense Tea Banh Tuesday of his exchange with Ranger’s company, Imperial Defense Services.
Ranger offered to exchange the sports utility vehicles for 135,000 handgun magazines, at a unit value of $1 each.
Tea Banh demurred. “If we sell them, we will be accused of arms smuggling,” he said.
Ranger persisted: The initial exchange, Ranger suggested in a letter, could lead to more substantial weapons deals. But the minister wouldn’t budge. And so Ranger, whose deals have spanned continents and who has been a forerunner in the trade of small arms since the 1980s, flew back to Britain empty-handed.
David de Beer, program manager for European Union Assistance on Curbing Small Arms and Light Weapons in Cambodia, which works closely with the government on disarmament, was pleased with the ministry’s decision.
“The government was offered a chance to get involved in the international arms trade, and the co-minister of Defense made it very clear that he wasn’t willing to do so. He wanted to continue with the weapons management program that the government is currently running with the EU.
“I think it is to the government’s credit that they turned this offer down,” said de Beer, who followed the offer closely.
Plenty of other governments have not turned IDS down. Its Web site boasts of weapons bought and sold around the world. IDS has agents in Bulgaria, Cyprus, Nigeria, Australia, South Africa and Vietnam, but the company’s connections are spread far wider.
“Our business is truly global, with no geographical limitations, therefore no country or its needs are of difficulty to us, with the sole exception of countries currently under UN embargo,” the Web site states.
“Apart from countless transactions involving small arms in general, we have completed transactions for surface to air missiles, anti-tank weapons and a large quantity of missile warhead fuses, rifle grenades and heavy machine guns.”
Operating out of Frog Hall, a farmhouse in a southeast England village, Ranger has set up and shut down a long list of arms dealerships and bank accounts, according to the British-based pressure group Campaign Against the Arms Trade.
Ranger’s business does not break any laws; it is accredited by the European Union and is fully licensed under British law, according to British Ambassador Stephen Bridges.
Nevertheless, Ranger recently agreed to deal with a reporter from the British newspaper The Observer posing as a customer who wanted to buy weapons for use in Iraq, an nation embargoed by the UN.
IDS’ connection with the Cambodian government began early last year, when Ranger contacted the Ministry of Defense from Britain to propose doing business.
The government’s response at this stage was positive, Bridges said. “The door was open, and so IDS came to do business here.”
In July, Ranger sent his agent in Vietnam, John Harding, to Phnom Penh to make contact with the government and the British Embassy, de Beer said.
But by this time, Bridges said, the minister had consulted various agencies about IDS’ proposal.
“[The ministry] adhered to the regulations, went to the various agencies, thought about how it would be perceived, and on the basis of this advice, decided it wasn’t worth it,” Bridges said.
Harding was unable to break through in his negotiations with the government, and in August, Ranger himself came to Phnom Penh, and paid EU ASAC’s de Beer a visit.
“I was in a meeting when Ranger came into my office without an appointment, demanding to see me urgently,” de Beer said. “He asked me to approve the magazine deal; I said it was not within my mandate to do so. He asked me who he should contact in Brussels to approve the deal, and I told him it wasn’t their approval that was needed, but that of the government itself.”
“At that point he became very annoyed and stormed out of my office,” de Beer said.
Officially, IDS’ intentions in Cambodia never went beyond the purchase of firearm ‘accessories’—such as magazines.
“IDS stated that these accessories would be either melted and redeployed, or used in a non-lethal way, like in sets for films and television,” Bridges said.
But in a letter obtained by the Cambodia Daily addressed to the Ministry of Defense and dated July 8, 2002, Ranger makes explicit reference to the possibility of future, more significant deals.
“All export licenses will refer to the UK as the country of export of the merchandise, and will not refer to the Kingdom of Cambodia as the country of purchasing goods,” according to the letter, which was signed by Ranger.
However, export licenses would need to be more closely examined “when we proceed further to the purchase of actual firearms,” the letter says. These would have been exported either through Phnom Penh International Airport or shipped from Sihanoukville, Ranger wrote.
Whatever the potential of Ranger’s offer, the episode’s outcome demonstrates how far the government has come in recent years, according to both de Beer and Bridges.
“The fact the government turned IDS down proves that the mechanisms put in place for this sort of thing work,” Bridges said.
Neither Harding nor Ranger were immediately available for comment.
(Additional reporting by Thet Sambath)