Impact of small arms and light weapons

Neila Husain

The recent trend of bomb blasts in Bangladesh, without attempting to undermine its devastating effects, has done one thing good: it has woken up security experts and law enforcing agencies to the reality that this country is experiencing. Those who have been in a state of denial for years are now forced to admit that small arms, explosives and light weapons are a serious threat to the security of Bangladesh. Why has it taken us so long to understand the potential danger of uncontrolled inflow of weapons that range from indigenous-made firearms to automatic rifles and hand grenades?

A rundown of events will show that the issue of small arms and light weapons were in the dark for decades, even in the West. The proliferation of nuclear and biological weapons found themselves in the top agenda of most conferences, summits held during the Cold War. It was only in the 1990s, when studies identified small arms and light weapons to be the cause of 90% of the war casualties worldwide, that the attention shifted to weapons that were so small and light. What it is that makes small arms so dangerous? For one thing, rapid development in technology, small arms and light weapons have become small, light and 'user friendly' to the extent that even a child as young as ten years old can shoot and kill an enemy. Their size, which is small enough to carry by hand or on shoulder, makes it even easier to transport in huge quantities from one place to another without being caught by law enforcing agents.

Secondly, one must take into consideration the larger picture: the global business of small arms and light weapons is one that is very profitable for the producing country as well as the intermediaries, which is why the scale and volume of arms production continues to increase every year in spite of the devastating effects of these arms. The interest groups are numerous starting from the manufacturing companies, the lobbyists in the government, the agents, the dealer, transnational organizations, insurgents, organized criminals, etc. It is almost impossible to identify and take action against those who are involved in the transactions. Even the intelligentsia plays a vital role in the transfer of arms to non-state actors of other countries. It would not be an exaggeration to say that incidences such as the CIA supplying arms to the Contras in Nicaragua or to the Mujahideens in Afghanistan not only did encourage the arms manufacturing industries to produce more but were also responsible for turning the whole arms transfer scenario more complex, more daring. The business is so commercially profitable that more and more arms manufacturing companies are literally turning a blind eye to the effects of unchecked, unverified sales to third parties.

Proliferation of small arms and light weapons in Bangladesh
For decades, unknown to many and ignored by some, Bangladesh has been a transit country for illegal weapon transfers to the insurgency-ridden areas of southern Asia. But it is only recently that security experts agree for a fact that Bangladesh is also an end destination for a considerable bulk of weapons that range from hand guns to military style weapons such as the AK47, AK56, M16, hand grenades, rocket launchers, etc.

The process in which Bangladesh evolved from a transshipment country into an end use destination was gradual. This can be divided roughly into four periods that are not time-bound and therefore are overlapping and continuous processes. The first phase was most probably inherited from the Pakistan period, i.e. before 1971. At that point, Bangladesh's sea and land borders were used extensively for illegal trafficking of weapons that were deported at the offshore of Cox's Bazaar and transported through different trawlers, boats, and trucks to insurgency groups of the neighbouring countries. The advantages for such transshipments to take place in the first place are many. Some of the `convenience factors' for the traders/smugglers to carry out their operations in clandestine manner were the country's geographic location near the high seas, less border control, the hilly terrain, corrupt law enforcing agents, and so forth. India accused and Bangladesh denied that the latter was used as a passage for the trafficking of arms to the ULFA in India's Northeast and as a safe haven for the Northeast insurgents.

Even though Bangladesh was initially a transit country only, the smugglers could also see the potential of this country to become an end destination itself. They also knew that even though the market was small, there was a possibility that the demand would rise in the future. The opportunity came in the seventies with the starting of the insurgency in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) that was the beginning of the second phase. Strong political dissatisfaction among the hill people, external power interests strong enough to support the agitation in both material and moral terms, and, of course, Dhaka's military action in the CHT were all the ingredients needed to create a strong militant group, the Shantibahini. Small arms and ammunitions were illegally supplied to the insurgents in the CHT, though limited in variety and perhaps not sophisticated but the continuous supply was enough to prolong the conflict for more than 20 years with over thousands of casualties.

The third phase started towards the end of the 1990s, when the peace accord was signed between the government and the political wing of the Shantibahini, PCJSS, which officially ended the twenty year old insurgency. Not all the arms that were funneled in through different channels were surrendered. Nor did the supply of fresh arms completely cease. With the help of the local underworld criminals and insurgents, their market expanded beyond the CHT area. This time, the demand primarily came from mainstream political parties. Arms and ammunitions were bought and sold through legal and illegal channels by godfathers in influential positions who used their power to protect and expand their sphere of influence. It is perhaps at this point that political violence all over Bangladesh reached its peak in terms of casualties including deaths, murder, as well as public and private property destruction.

The fourth and current phase started with the series of bomb blasts in the country. Never before was the civilian the primary target. Public casualties were until now accidental or a result of crossfire. Recent trend is to terrorize and kill the innocent people in public places. Moreover, it appears from the Udichi bomb blast, the bombing of cinema halls in Sylhet and the 21 August 2004 attack on the opposition rally that powerful explosives, such as the hand grenades that are meant for military purpose only, are also available in the black and grey markets. The series of bomb blasts last year in 63 districts within less than an hour on 17 August 2005 also demonstrate that even home- made cocktails can terrorize a country if used in a coordinated way. This also leads one to assume that the whole incident was carried out carefully by a dedicated group of people who have received training and perhaps money to do so. If Jama'atul Mujahideen can be proven with evidence that it was responsible for the August 17 incident, Bangladesh is in that case definitely witnessing a new trend in terrorism that is driven by religious extremism and one that targets the civilian, including women and children.

Ramifications: Social, Political, Security and Cross-border
Social Ramifications: The social impact of the proliferation and misuse of small arms and explosives has always been undermined in this country. Factors like “self interest”, “power”, and “money” led relevant authorities to be blind and ignorant of the problem, while “fear” and “harassment” crippled the civil society. The combination of the two led to the unchallenged rise of armed cadres and their anti-social activities in Bangladesh. The easy availability of arms and the protection provided by “godfathers”, coupled with domestic economic factors (low per capita income, high unemployment rates, illiteracy, poverty, staggering economic growth, and overpopulation) are pushing more and more youths into the world of crime and terrorism. Children as young as 13 years of age are now the new breed of criminals in the country, according to a latest report.

Political Ramifications: The fact that small arms have become an integral part of our political culture is perhaps the major political backlash. While it was taboo to even mention the linkage even a few years ago, it is today an open secret that all the major political parties and some individual politicians finance and support armed cadres to protect and expand their own power base. The nexus between politics and the underworld is a strong one, one that cannot easily be detached. The line has become so thin that even the ordinary person would not waste time to think otherwise.

Security Ramifications: The impact on security as a result of the unchallenged proliferation of small arms and light weapons is quite a new issue for our security experts. When there is so much of political and social ramification, it is only natural that this will have spill over effect on security in general. In our case, it was prolonged ignorance and denial of the effects of armed violence and the lack of communication between our intelligence agencies and the relevant authorities that have encouraged extremist groups like the <>Jama'atul Mujahideen<> (JMB) to be what and where they are today. What is more important is for us to understand that in the aftermath of the September 11 attack security of any country is closely linked to international security. Any incident of terror in this country has become an invitation for intelligence agencies with or without clearance to carry out what they consider to be in their best interest. This is another potential danger that our security experts need to look into.

Cross-Border Ramification: The problem of small arms proliferation does not only have internal ramifications but also cross-border implications that can develop in the future as a contentious issue between two countries. Such has been in the case of Indo-Bangladesh relations and to some extent in Bangladesh's ties with Myanmar. Blame fixing one another as to who is sponsoring and providing shelter to the criminals, terrorists and insurgents will not solve the problem. Bilateral talks and meetings of top level officials do address the problem occasionally but how much they are able to resolve the problem remains an open ended question. The fact that there is very little or no result from these talks is evident from the continuous flow of arms from and to these countries. In fact, talks on transborder law enforcement cooperation are essential to curb the infiltration of small arms in the neighbouring countries.

Small arms and light weapons will continue to be a threat to humanity as long as its production and distribution continues without vigorous check and balance. It seems countries understand the danger but are unwilling to take necessary action to reduce production and restrict distribution. The UN Conference on small arms held in 2000 in UN Headquarters is still to see the fruit of its endeavours to curb the menace. Bangladesh for one is a signatory to the UN document. But, little has been done in terms of implementing its terms. What Bangladesh needs to understand is that now, more than ever, its own security is under real threat largely due to the unchecked influx and growing misuse of small arms and light weapons, and also because of the message it is sending to investors and donor countries.

The author is Research Fellow, BIISS and currently a PhD candidate.

©, 2006. All Rights Reserved