Small Arms Trafficking In South And South East Asia – Analysis


Following the end of the Cold War, the apartheid in South Africa, and the end of conflicts around the world paved the way for democratization. As a result, it brought an end to rivalry between the Soviet Union and the United States but it led to an outbreak of inter-state and intra-state wars and conflicts, often of a religious or ethnic character and often it resulted in violent outbreaks. Moreover, non-traditional security threats like environmental degradation, mass population movements, small arms proliferation, and drug smuggling to name a few, have gained prominence. This article is intended to address the issues regarding the small; arms trafficking in South and South East Asia. Since the above-said area is vast, I have concentrated my research on small arms trafficking and especially in countries where the situation is alarming. 

According to the United Nations (UN) “small arms and light weapons” will mean any manportable lethal weapon that expels or launches, is designed to expel or launch, or may be readily converted to expel or launch a shot, bullet or projectile by the action of an explosive, excluding antique small arms and light weapons or their replicas. Antique small arms and light weapons and their replicas will be defined in accordance with domestic law. In no case will antique small arms and light weapons include those manufactured after 1899:

a. “Small arms’ are, broadly speaking, weapons designed for individual use. They include, inter alia, revolvers and self-loading pistols, rifles and carbines, sub-machine guns, assault rifles and light machine guns.1

The destabilizing accumulation and illicit manufacture, trade and circulation of small arms and light weapons will increase the insecurity and the duration of armed conflicts. The rise of illegal trade of small arms undermines the sustainability of peace agreements and frustrates prevention efforts. In essence, the illicit flow and excessive accumulation of such weapons compromises the effectiveness of the UN and other organizations in discharging its primary responsibilities to maintain international peace and security. The UN secretary general António Guterres have consistently raised this issue of the role of illicit small arms and light weapons and the deeply cross cutting and wide-ranging impact of illicit small arms throughout the biennial reports. Moreover, the United Nations Security Council has taken two thematic resolutions adopted on small arms and light weapons named Resolution 2117 (2013) and Resolution 2220 (2015).

The destabilizing accumulation, emissive transfer and misuse of small arms and light weapons continue to initiate sustain and exacerbate on conflict and pervasive crime. In conflict zones and areas of post-conflict, most acts of violence are carried out with small arms and light weapons. On a global scale, small arms were used in nearly 50% of all violent clashes between 2010 and 2015. With an estimated 1 billion small arms in circulation worldwide, the use of these weapons in lethal violence whether in conflict or non-conflict zones, is prevalent across the world. No state is immune from the challenges posed by illicit arms flows. Small arms and light weapons are the weapons of choice in intrastate conflicts and terrorism organized crimes and gang warfare. The South Asian region has been especially affected due to the widespread availability and uncontrolled flow of small arms and light weapons and their ammunition.

Although the causes behind the recent interwar across the globe from Sierra Leone and Sri Lanka to Bosnia to Afghanistan and many more have varied. However, these conflicts are particularly acute in the regions identified as ‘Third World’ countries 2. These countries are often referred to as ‘weak states’ who are faced with issues in their ethnicity, linguistic, religious or economic divisions which makes them more prone to possible internal conflicts 3. The government forces, insurgent groups and other non-state actors prefer small arms and light weapons. There are several reasons why small arms and other light weapons have gained prominence. Firstly, due to its low price and its simplicity it has made it attractive for non-state actors who lacked the financial resources and the training needed to operate the heavy weaponry. Secondly, small arms are easy to deliver and conceal and they do not require extensive maintenance capabilities and fourthly. from a combat point of view, small arms are highly effective.

The use of small arms in internal conflicts has caused immense casualty to humans. Around 50 percent of wartime casualties are accrued to the civilians. These humanitarian implications of small arms have recently brought the issue to the international agenda. The human suffering and atrocities caused by small arms have alerted the international community to the importance of confronting the proliferation, accumulation, and misuse of these kinds of weapons.

However, it could also be argued that the growing international interest in small arms is due, to a large extent, to the lack of political will on the part of the international community to address the underlying causes of internal conflicts. By concentrating on the tools of violence instead of the causes of violence, by treating the small arms problem as an independent or a compartmentalized issue, the interested parties have hoped that within the prevailing political constraints at least some of the negative effects caused by internal conflicts could be avoided or controlled. 

The use of small arms has adversely affected the ongoing conflicts and on post-conflict peacebuilding and reconstruction. The widespread availability of small arms may further extend the duration of the conflict, increase human and material costs, and as a result it will reduce the chances of opposing parties to come into an agreement for the future, as well as it prevents the international organizations and other peaceful non-governmental organizations from fulfilling their duties effectively 4. Not just in the cases of intrastate wars, the small arms are also the main tools of violence for criminals like drug traffickers. The drug traffickers use small arms to protect their interests and often supply weapons to other criminal factions and non-state actors.

Many of the violent non-state actors indulge in the sale of narcotics so as to be financially stable and to acquire small arms 5. The link between the small arms and drugs are so devastating that it can undermine the efforts of a democratic institution who seeks to control the threat and as a result, it would force such institutions to implement measures that are draconian in nature. The proliferation of arms around the world partly reflects in the ‘shift of armed conflict progressively from the regular to irregular. It has been institutionalised to such an extent that it has created a new kaleidoscope wherein neither the old rules nor new weapons apply.’6

This article focuses on the different dimensions of the small arms problem in South and South East Asia. This article aims to highlight the areas seriously affected by the proliferation, accumulation and the misuse of small arms and it aims to highlight the gravity of the situation in the region by describing ways in which the small arms problem manifests itself within the South Asian context.

The South and South East Asian Region 

The situation in the South and South East Asian Region are particularly alarming given the nature of small arms trafficking. The region of Pakistan and Afghanistan is known to house the world’s largest concentration of illegal weapons, given the nature of the socio-political situation and being the centre for terrorist and extremist ideologies it has made that particular region more volatile. Whereas in the case of Myanmar and Afghanistan, they are considered to be the world’s largest producers of opium. Due to the large amount of drug activities, it has also fuelled the illegal trafficking of small arms to protect their needs. The relation between the drugs and small arms are directly affecting its own security as well as its neighbour countries such as India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and others around the region. 

The rampant spread of religious fundamentalism across South Asia have seriously affected its state of security, whereas in the case of Pakistan it has been following it as an instrument of regional policy and in the case of Afghanistan post-Najibullah events, also saw the infusion of several negative patterns with deeper ramifications for South Asian security. The large scale weaponization of the population in Afghanistan, Baluchistan and the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) and the intertwining relationship of weapon production and narcotic trade, lumped together as the “Kalashnikov culture,” has set off a fundamentalist drive into Kashmir, Tajikistan, Chechnya, Bosnia and elsewhere 7. As a result India is more vulnerable against these rising illicit transnational narcotics trade, affecting its socio-political issues. India is caught in the middle of the three largest heroin and opium producers in the world such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Myanmar who often resort to the use of small arms to cross into India and cause conflicts. Even Sri Lanka suffers heavily from the proliferation of small arms. The Sri Lankan militants along with its drug connection, often tests the strength of the Sri Lankan army. 

The area known as the ‘Golden Crescent’ and the ‘Golden Triangle’ are notoriously known for their production of drugs and illegal trafficking of small arms. The region of the ‘Golden Crescent’ consists of Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran. Whereas the region of the ‘Golden Triangle’ consists of Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam. They both are in close proximity to India’s borders as well as to the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). With the sea routes of the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal they are able expand their interests for the supply of both arms and narcotics as well as to spread beyond South Asia.  

The Cold War left behind a legacy that could undermine the peace and prosperity of the developing nations. During the Cold War, both superpowers the United States and the Soviet Union resorted to employing rebel groups around the world with the sole purpose of undermining the communist or capitalist forms of government, respectively. However, the irony is that, today many of these illegal transfers of arms by these two countries have come back to haunt them. In essence, they became victims of their own creations. For example, the United States is engaged in a fight against the Colombian and other South American drug lords who were armed by the United States through illegal means back in the 1980s to undermine the Communist governments. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) gave birth to Osama Bin Laden and helped to form al Qaeda. They were trained by the CIA and were funded by the Saudis, in order to defeat the Russians in Afghanistan and much like Al Qaeda, the Islamic State (ISIS) is made-in-the-USA, an instrument of terror designed to divide and conquer the oil-rich Middle East and to counter Iran’s growing influence in the region 8.

Circulation of Small Arms 

Small arms consist of both military-style weapons and commercial firearms. Small guns include weapons like revolvers and self-loading pistols, rifles and carbines, assault rifles, sub-machine guns and light machine guns. There are many benefits for the smugglers and other terrorist organisations in using the small arms. It is easier to obtain, easier to conceal and to smuggle across borders, and it is easier to use and maintain. It has reached an extent where such people are resorting to employ innocent children, many of them as young as seven years and then turning them into ruthless warriors and killers. Such weapons are becoming so advanced yet so lethal that it is capable of firing as many as 700 rounds a minute. 

One of the most widely used small arms is the AK-47, 9 and it has proved its worthiness since its inception. Between the years 1940 and 1995, around 14 countries had the licence to manufacture the AK series of weapons, and it is estimated that around 35 to 40 million AK rifles were produced and are still used in around 80 countries. The AK-47 rifles gained their prominence due to their ease of production, excellent performance under severe conditions, as well as its ease of assembly and disassembly. Moreover, the AK-47 rifle is easily available across the global arms market and can be illegally sourced to different areas. This rifle is so prominent that it became a symbol of resistance and guerrilla movements worldwide, including the Afghanistan Mujahideen, the African National Congress, the Irish Republican Army, UNITA, and the Kosovo Liberation Army 10.

The problem of excessive and destabilizing accumulations of small arms and light weapons in South Asia was significantly shaped by the war in Afghanistan from 1979 to 1988. During that period, both sides in the cold war exported huge quantities of both major conventional weapons and small arms and light weapons into the region. As a result of the numerous conflicts in Afghanistan, it has certain spill over effects, such as the continuing flow of weapons and ammunition in Afghanistan thereby affecting the political and social fabric of the subcontinent. Today, Afghanistan is a leading source of unaccounted weapons. The conflict continues and much of the current inflow of weapons is due to illicit deals involving a circuitous network of manufacturers, buyers, suppliers, and distributors which are able to operate because of a lack of State authority. Moreover, there is a lack of cooperation among several other States in the region that also contributes to the problems of illegal supply and poor controls over small arms and light weapons. Weapons originating from Afghanistan have been used in acts of terror, criminality, and other violent activities across South Asia.

According to a statement released by the 52nd session of the United Nations General Assembly, “Harmonization of state-to-state relations is hindered by the activities of non-state actors operating at times in collusion with organized crime networks and providing financial, ideological or logistical support to each other. An alarming increase in delinquency and drug addiction is threatening to claim the energies and human resource potential of the younger population in the subregion flanked by Myanmar, as the largest, and Afghanistan as the second largest producer of opium in the world. Money raised by the sale of drugs is used to buy weapons to feed insurgencies, fight armed conflicts and commit banditry. The borderlines between political and criminal violence become blurred as precious time is lost in waiting for the overall settlement of longstanding issues which become more entangled as the search continues for a lasting resolution of problems firmly entrenched in history.”11

Not just in Afghanistan, Pakistan also has a huge role in the trafficking of small arms in South Asia. In fact the flow of small arms into the Indian side has seriously affected the relationship between them over the past decade 12. Large numbers of Kashmiri and Sikh militants were able to acquire small arms to spread their propaganda and reign of terror. The militants obtained their weapons either directly from the Inter Service Intelligence (ISI) of Pakistan or from the arms bazaars situated in the North-West Frontier Province. The militants from North Eastern India have also been sourcing their weapons from Pakistan. The militants mainly represent the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA), the National Socialists Council of Nagaland (NSCN) and the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB). They acquire the weapons via Pakistan’s ISI and the Afghan Mujahideen. Moreover, they also get training from these countries and receive their weapons via a pipeline which originates from Pakistan and another one from South-East Asia going through Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore.13, 14 

The Andamans and Nicobar Islands were considered to be an insecure region. The waters surrounding this region were used as a route to transport illegally sourced small arms and other weapons from China to Bangladesh and other Southeast Asian countries. And via these routes these arms would reach the insurgent outfits in the North-East of India. Due to the above said reasons, the Government of India decided to upgrade the security systems surrounding the island in 1998 to combat such illicit moves and to keep an eye on illegal shipping and other issues related to maritime and it had established a High Service Command to fulfil such duties. One of the driving forces of Narasimha Rao’s (the then Prime Minister of India) ‘Look East Policy’ was also to combat the illicit trade around the Andamans and Nicobar Islands. It’s close proximity with the South-East Asian states makes it even more strategic. 

According to several Indian Intelligence Reports, Pakistan’s ISI has several madrassas and mosques in Sylhet and Cox’s Bazaar areas that are being used to hoard and transfer arms procured by the ULFA from Thailand and Myanmar. The benefaction from the ISI had allowed the ULFA to buy arms in Cambodia and pay them in hard currency which is routed through Nepal. Moreover, ULFA has direct support from Bangladesh and China. It had close connections with the Chinese army and was able to source Chinese weapons to the ports of Bangladesh often under the guise of merchant ships of different countries (including North Korea). The Muslim United Liberation Tigers of Assam (MULTA) and the Muslim United Liberation Front of Assam (MULFA) are the chief suppliers of arms for the ULFA through Bangladesh. This group has reportedly set up bases at the hill region of Meghalaya, to coordinate transit of arms coming through Bangladesh.15

Sri Lanka is another country which suffers from the proliferation of small arms. The proliferation of small arms in Sri Lanka is due to a rebel secessionist movement led by The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) who were fighting for independence from Sri Lanka. They illegally sourced weapons from North Korea, Myanmar, Ukraine and many more. Until the Indo-Sri Lanka Peace Accord, India used to train several LTTE guerrillas and was permitted to run their camps. However, following the accords the arms flow from India dried up and LTTE was able to source weapons from other countries through illegal means. Weapons originating from China, North Korea and Hong Kong are trafficked across the South China Sea, via the Malacca straits to Bay of Bengal and finally to Sri Lanka. The LTTE was able to establish a naval base in Twente, an island in Myanmar and had another base in Phuket, Thailand. Arms flow from Cambodia, Vietnam, and Myanmar pass through Thailand before reaching Sri Lanka on board a vessel. Whereas the weapons from the Eastern Europe, Ukraine and Middle East come via the Suez Canal, the Horn of Africa and then to Sri Lanka. Whereas the arms originating from Africa are smuggled via the ports of Liberia, Nigeria and Angola through Madagascar and to Sri Lanka.16

In the case of Thailand, it acts as a main transit area for light arms from Cambodia. Around 80% of illegal weapons pass through Thailand. The main reason being, Thailand’s close proximity with Cambodia, secondly being the large presence of tourists and foreign nationals allowing these traffickers to blend more easily and the existence of advanced communication and transportation infrastructure enables them to traffic small arms in large quantities.

According to Peter Chalk, “Typically weapons are channelled through dealers located in centres such as Bangkok, Phuket and Chiang Mai, or via ‘middle-men’ who have established contacts with frequent buyers. Consignments are generally smuggled from Cambodia, either overland via Chantaburi province in the east, or by sea from Kampong Saom in the south, moved through Thailand and transferred to ‘shipping agents’ who arrange final or onward delivery. Many of the weapons are trafficked to narco-insurgents in Myanmar, who either keep the arms for their own use or resell them, generally to groups operating in India or Sri Lanka.” 17

Not just to South Asia, significant proportions are also smuggled via the ports of Thailand via Malaysia to Muslim guerrillas operating in Indonesia and the Philippines.

Role of the United Nations

Over the years the United Nations (UN) has taken global efforts to combat the proliferation of Small Arms and Light Weapons. In 2001, the UN has passed certain legislations such as the adoption of the United Nations Programme of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All its Aspects (PoA), the subsequent adoption of the International Tracing Instrument, and the Firearms Protocol of the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime, have established an overall framework within which Member States and regional organizations have, both individually and collectively, enacted numerous legislative and administrative measures to combat the proliferation of these weapons. Of these, only the Firearms Protocol, which entered into force in 2005, is legally binding.18

Every year the UNODA (United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs) submits reports on the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons to the UNGA and the UNSC. The 2020 report consists of requests from the member states on the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons and the recommendations for states to tackle the illicit traffic in small arms and light weapons. The report includes an overview of challenges related to the diversion of small arms and light weapons at the national, regional and international levels. It provides an overview of good practices, lessons learned and recommendations on preventing and combating the diversion and illicit international transfer of small arms and light weapons to unauthorized recipients.

The views of Member States, the United Nations system, the International Criminal Police Organization, and the World Customs Organization are reflected as well. Not just in these matters the report also investigates the continuing effects on women, men, girls and boys. In essence it aims to understand the gendered nature of small arms and light weapons.19

Regional Initiatives 

The problem of illegal small arms trafficking was raised at the 1997 ASEAN Ministerial Meet held in Malaysia. The meet emphasized on the need for a regional cooperation in combating the illegal trafficking of small arms and other transnational crimes such as combatting terrorism, trafficking in persons and drugs, money laundering and piracy. At the second ASEAN Ministerial meet on Transnational Crime in 1999, they adopted the ASEAN Plan of Action to Combat Transnational Crime and the 2002 Work Programme was implemented to further bolster it. Members of ASEA were tasked to:

  • Create a compilation of Member States’ national laws and regulations on arms smuggling.
  • Study trends and modus operandi governing arms smuggling in the region and record these in a database
  • Enhance information exchange and cooperation among ASEAN Chiefs of National Police (ASEANPOL), customs and immigration officials and legislators.
  • Create a database of international treaties and agreements pertaining to arms smuggling.
  • Harmonise systems for marking arms and ammunition.
  • Cooperate in exchanging intelligence both within ASEAN and with organisations such as Europol and Interpol.
  • Strengthen law enforcement capabilities through comprehensive domestic legislation against illicit arms trafficking.
  • Share experience and best practice on the investigation, monitoring and reporting of illicit arms smuggling.
  • Create procedures for Member States to declare surplus arms destroyed, missing, and lost from government stockpiles.
  • Enhance information exchange with ASEAN Dialogue Partners, regional organisations, UN Agencies, and other international organisations, particularly on the identities, movements, and activities of known transnational criminal organisations involved in arms smuggling.
  • Implement the UN Programme of Action on small arms.

At the 2000 ASEAN Summit the issue of illegal trafficking of small arms were treated as separate item, stressing on its importance leading to the First Regional Seminar on Illicit Trafficking in Small Arms and Light Weapons, jointly organised by Indonesia and the UN Regional Centre for Peace and Disarmament in Asia and the Pacific in cooperation with Japan. This resulted in the member states to further extend their commitment in strengthening the law enforcement, intelligence sharing, border and customs controls and the exchange of information. 

Whereas in the case of South Asian countries, Pakistan has given great importance to fight against the illicit trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons (SALW) and is committed to the implementation of the UN Programme of Action (PoA). Since 2001, Pakistan is engaged in a policy to combat, prevent and eradicate illegal trade in small arms and light weapons, for example it has made efforts to make sure that the production and manufacturing of small arms and light weapons is done by the public sectors and measures would be taken to create a record of all arms manufactured in the country. In the case of Bangladesh, it has in 2005 signed the United Nations Programme of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All its Aspects (PoA). The country has passed tougher legislative laws to regulate the possession, manufacture, conversion, sale, export, import and transport of small arms and light weapons. In order to create more awareness among the people, the government has designated 9th July as “Small Arms Destruction Day” and on that day the government destroys all the confiscated weapons in front of the public. 

In the case of India, it has supported international co-operation to achieve the goal of eradicating the illicit trade of Small Arms and Light Weapons (SALW) multilaterally, regionally, and bilaterally. India’s domestic policy on SALW is regulated by the Arms Act (1959) and Arms Rules (1962). Both the acts cover all aspects of lawful possession, manufacture, sale, transfer, transport, export, import of arms and ammunition, and provide penal provisions for violation of these acts. Moreover, the Government of India has implemented several laws relating to the illegal possession, manufacture of SALW. These include Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act 1967 as amended in September 2004, and the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act. The GOI has taken bilateral initiatives with numerous countries to combat the illicit trade in SALW. India has also entered into an agreement with the BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) and established a Joint Working Group to coordinate efforts in areas such as intelligence sharing and capacity building as well as to strengthen joint efforts on counter terrorism and trans-national crime.


It is a herculean task to control the flow of the illicit small arms and its ammunition and it is evident that the spread of illicit arms and drugs in the South and Southeast Asian region has led to an alarming and volatile situation. And it is quite impossible for a single country to handle and control this issue. Various regional organisations like the SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation), ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations), the ASIA Pacific Economic Cooperation, and several other regional organisations like the Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, Thailand Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), and the Mekong Ganga Cooperation Project could join hands to tackle this rampant proliferation of small arms and drugs plaquing the South Asia and South East Asian region. Multilateral agreements must be implemented for the destruction of surplus armament stocks. Initiatives to develop a South Asian version of the Organisation of American States’ (OAS) Convention Against the Illicit Manufacturing of and Trafficking in Firearms, Explosives and Other Related Materials.

The governments of these countries should make an effort to register all the weapons produced in their respective countries and promote ‘traceability’ by tagging weapons and ammunition. This could help them trace the source of the arms seized from terrorists and other traffickers. For a safe, secure future, the United Nations, and its Member States must seize the opportunities that are now before them to combat the proliferation of Small Arms and Light Weapons. 

*Joseph Punnen, Research Intern, Centre for Security Studies, Jindal School of International Affairs (JSIA), O.P Jindal Global University (JGU)


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