A recent court verdict in Bangladesh in a case almost 10 years old has brought into focus the continuing scourge of weapons-smuggling from China into South Asia.
A judge in the Bangladesh port city of Chittagong last week sentenced 14 men to death for their role in what was an aborted bid to smuggle in 1,500 boxes of weapons that needed ten trucks to carry.
Among those sentenced were a prominent Bangladesh opposition leader, Motiur Rahman Nizami, several top officials, and Paresh Barua, a fugitive leader of an outlawed Indian armed outfit.
Barua heads the military wing of the United Liberations Front of Assam (ULFA), which wants the north-eastern province to secede from India.
The judge said in his ruling that the weapons seized in the trucks were all made by China's Norinco ordnance company.
His observations have shone the light on the illicit trade that supplies weapons to armed groups in eastern South Asia.
These weapons boost the arsenal of India's Maoists as well as those in the country's northeast , officials say.
According to Major General Gaganjit Singh, former deputy chief of the Indian Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA), Bangladesh's coast, south of Chittagong, had always been the favourite spot to land weapons brought in from China for onward supply.
Preferred transit point
But following the change in government in Dhaka and a subsequent crackdown on armed groups, arms smugglers have opened up other routes, though they have not entirely forsaken their choice of Bangladesh as a preferred transit point.
"Bangladesh was no longer safe for landing Chinese weapons for onward transhipment to Maoists in India and Nepal or rebels in India’s Northeast," says Singh.
The rebels have started picking up Chinese weapons from the Sino-Burmese border and bringing it to their bases in Northern Myanmar, points out G M Srivastava, former chief of Assam police.
"From there, these weapons are carried into India and possibly Bangladesh and Nepal."
But because it is difficult to carry these weapons over the tough mountain terrain of Northern Myanmar, the fighters still prefer Bangladesh.
"From Bangladesh, it is also easy to reach the Maoists in eastern India. It is much more difficult to carry it to them over a long stretch of Indian territory," Srivastava said.
He said that more than seventy percent of the weapons brought in by the ULFA so far have been sold off to the Indian Maoists for a premium.
Indian intelligence officials have long suspected Barua to be the king-pin of the gun running.
"He is more of a warlord now, a mastermind in the trafficking of weapons," says Gaganjit Singh.
Singh has closely monitored Barua's activities during his long years of service in the Northeast.
Indian intelligence says Barua has been traced by signals interception - during a recent telephone call to a junior ULFA commander Jyotirmoy Bharali - to Ruili, a Chinese town on the country's south-western border with Myanmar.
A month ago, he was traced to Tenchong, a Myanmar town opposite Ruili.
Bangladesh intelligence officials suspect that some of these illegally procured Chinese weapons will find their way to the radicals in the country as well.
"That motivates them [the government in Dhaka] to crackdown on these rebel groups," says an Indian diplomat serving in Dhaka, but on condition of anonymity.
"Our government has zero tolerance for terrorism," says M K Alamgir, until recently Bangladesh’s home minister.
'Morocco to Malaysia'
In 2002, US senator Larry Pressler had told Indian media persons in Kolkata during a visit that China was the world's major source of small arms proliferation that were "fuelling conflicts from Morocco to Malaysia".
Recently, Thai police arrested Bangkok trader Wuthikorn Naruenartwanich alias Willy on request from India's National Investigative Agency (NIA).
Willy was said to be operating a maze of fronts for arrested Naga rebel leader Anthony Shimray, who was nabbed in Kathmandu with the help of Nepal police on October 2, 2010.
|Bangladesh security forces carry away huge quantiy of weapons seized at Chittaqgong [BDNEWS24.com]
Shimray, who is a top leader of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN), has told NIA interrogators that Willy had helped him get in touch with Chinese suppliers.
NIA chief Sharad Kumar has told Indian media that a huge consignment of Chinese weapons was to land near Cox's Bazar, south of Chittagong in late 2010, from Beihei port in the South China sea.
It was cancelled after Shimray's arrest.
India is seeking to extradite Willy, as he is booked in the arms smuggling case NIA filed with Shimray as prime accused.
NIA officials say Shimray has confessed to an attempt to bring in 1,100 AK-series rifles, machine guns and rocket launchers valued at $2m in the first consignment - and more later, if the route was found to be safe.
Indian intelligence says that Shimray's attempt to use the Cox's Bazar route indicates that India's northeastern rebels still have strong connections in Bangladesh, especially in the Chittagong-Cox's Bazar area.
"Or else why would Shimray try to bring so many weapons through this route again, despite a Bangladesh regime which is determined to stop it all," says Subir Dutta, until recently with the Intelligence Bureau.
The first time India got conclusive evidence of its northeastern rebels picking up weapons from the Bangladesh coast was in April-May 1995.
Alerted by sources across the border, the Indian army started 'Operation Golden Bird' in the southern parts of Mizoram state bordering Bangladesh’s Chittagong Hill Tracts.
The rebels had picked up the weapons there after they had been carried inland from the Wyakung beach, south of Chittagong.
In a series of encounters with the rebel column, the Indian army killed 38 fighters and arrested 118 with an array of weapons.