11th March 2001

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Small arms & the man

By Feizal Samath

Thousands of weapons issued to state agencies in South Asia eventually get into the hands of the underworld or gangsters leading to rising crime and mayhem, experts said at a conference on illegal small arms recently.

Sri Lanka is however confronted with a slightly different problem. Of the 20,000-odd weapons given to politicians from all sides of the divide some 10 years ago to protect themselves from leftwing guerrillas, less than 20 percent have been returned to the state, despite repeated calls for the weapons to be surrendered.

Many government and opposition politicians now serving in Parliament have been named in a list provided by the police of those who have failed to return their weapons.

Apart from this, there are some 25,000 army deserters - blamed for much of the crime in recent years - who have taken 7,000 weapons with them on their way out of the forces.

"The rising cost of living, unemployment, corruption at political and bureaucratic levels and youth frustrations have all contribute to a rise in thefts and robberies. Adding to this is the mushrooming of underworld gangs, mafia-type drug barons and casino kings, enjoying political patronage," noted Tassie Seneviratne, a defence specialist and retired Director of the Police Special Branch division. "Those indulging in these nefarious activities today are invariably armed with deadly firearms for attack as well as defence, and this is snowballing."

The former state intelligence chief, speaking at a seminar on "Small Arms in South Asia: National Challenges" last month, said state weapons were in the hands of gangs and underworld lords who are backed by politicians, who in turn are not accountable to anyone.

Some weeks ago, an armed gang forced its way into the nightclub of a posh Colombo hotel despite being refused by staff. Police were called in, but the gang leader brandishing a revolver told the police officer and his men to "get out", which they ( the police) did sheepishly, a security manager at the hotel said.

"These underworld thugs have powerful political backing and roam the streets targeting hotel night clubs. It is a very serious situation and could affect hotels as foreign guests get a firsthand experience of these incidents. These gangs have even threatened the families of some of our employees," he added.

Experts say corruption, indiscriminate issue and non-enforcement of regulations in regard to the movement of arms and ammunition have resulted in the unmanageable proliferation of firearms outside the theatre of Sri Lanka's northeast war, compounding the problem.

The Colombo seminar is one of five being held in South Asia ahead of a UN conference on small arms in July this year.

Dr. Paikiasothy Saravana-muttu, executive director of the Centre for Policy Alternatives, said the proliferation of small arms arose due to insurgencies and attempts to overthrow the state. The increase in illegal arms was also due to lapses in the law on possession of firearms. He said there was a growing rise in the use of small arms in political violence, evident in the past few years where elections have been marred by gun-toting politicians and their henchmen.

Mr. Seneviratne said whenever there is a hue and a cry about the law and order situation and the gun culture, President Chandrika Kumaratunga steps in to stem the tide. "But when such orders are sent down and a clean-up initiated, criminals, underworld elements and mafia thugs enjoying political patronage don't fall into the net because police officers trying to do a job of work are unceremoniously transferred out," he added.

The powerful business community recently joined calls by civil society for the government to halt rising crime through sterner measures. But top businessmen were surprised by statistics revealed by the president, at a meeting between the two lrecently, that the crime rate had fallen in the past few years.

No one believed these figures given the increasing number of crime reports in the media. Political analysts said the figures Kumaratunga gave came from the police, who may have blurred the number to hide the true picture and inefficiencies. Experts at the Colombo meeting said while the cost of almost everything in Sri Lanka is skyrocketing, prices of firearms have dropped drastically in the underworld market with a semi-automatic rifle offered for a mere 15,000 rupees, an automatic pistol traded for 10,000 rupees and a hand grenade available for only 500 rupees.

Mr. Seneviratne said the absence of a proper monitoring mechanism had opened the floodgates for corrupt police and military officers to pass on arms and ammunition to private individuals.

He said some policemen or soldiers serving in war-torn areas returned to their stations with a story of being attacked and losing their guns in the process. "When senior officers with integrity go to these areas, put their foot down and start to investigate the truthfulness or otherwise of these stories, they are greeted with hostility because the practice has been to accept such stories without question," the former intelligence chief said.

Don Hubert, a consultant in Canada's Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade who has studied the phenomena of small arms proliferation in the world, said 95 percent of the world's cache of illegal arms came through the state and ended up in the hands of criminals.

He disagreed with a theory that there are surplus weapons in war-affected countries. "If that is the case how does one explain that there are endless shiploads of weapons from Eastern Europe going to Angola which has been at war for the past 30 years?" According to unofficial figures, as many as 500 million small arms are in circulation across the world including 100 million modern rifles. These rifles alone are responsible for 90 percent of casualties in contemporary armed conflicts, Hubert noted.

Don't desert the deserters

Deserters of the armed forces have become the convenient whipping boys for much of the crime taking place in Sri Lanka today. There is no doubt that deserters have become "dogs of war" or "soldiers of fortune" - selling their services and stolen weapons to the underworld to undertake robberies and contract killings.

Yet a retired army general had a different story to tell of the deserters, dealing with the human side of the problem and the difficulties the young men face while in the army.

"Instead of criticising them, we should sympathise with their problems. Many soldiers desert while returning home on leave and not on the battlefield. These youngsters get a few days leave after four to five months on the field and that time is not enough to solve the number of problems and issues that confront them at home."

"They have been fighting to protect you and me for nearly two decades. Spare a thought for these men who have risked their lives," observed former Army Commander General Gerry de Silva, speaking at the seminar.

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