The Sulu Arms Market: Globalized Gunrunning Since 1521

In March 2013 a Malaysian Air Force F-18 initiated an assault on a tiny East Malaysian village near the city of Lahad Datu. Its target was the final stronghold of the Royal Sulu Army, armed henchmen loyal to the Sultanate of Sulu, a defunct political entity that at one time spanned the borders of the modern Philippines and Malaysia. In the smoking aftermath of the final battle with the group, 80 people lay dead (including 10 Malaysian soldiers and policemen), over 700 were in custody, and police confiscated a surprising assortment of powerful weapons and ammunition.

Portrayed as misguided terrorists by Malaysian leaders, the ethnic Tausug invaders that confounded Malaysian authorities for over a month armed themselves with assault rifles and ammunition from an illicit arms market that thrives in the poorly controlled border areas of Malaysia, the Philippines, and Indonesia. Although Malaysia dealt decisively with the Royal Sulu Army in 2013, the arms market that supplied them is part of the history and culture of the area and remains a security problem for at least five member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

The Sulu Arms Market, described in the 2011 book by the same name, is not a market in the physical sense, rather it is an economy of guns where firearms and ammunition are the currency of a thriving international trade in violence. Its 500-year history of competition and conflict is older than most, yet the Sulu Arms Market is quite common in that it is both a source and a destination for smuggled guns. Due to the richness and politically fractured characteristics of the tri-border area, the Sulu Arms Market is intertwined with piracy, terrorism, and the traffic of other illicit commodities. At various points since the Spanish conquest of the Philippines in 1521, European colonialists, Moro (Philippine Muslim) independence groups, Communists, Islamic militants, and criminal gangs all played a major part in the market’s development making it a truly globalized enterprise.

Smuggling routes in the approximate area of the Royal Hashemite Sultanate of Sulu and North Borneo, a defunct political entity. A number of factors have contributed to both abundance of and demand for weapons that are easily trafficked into and out of the Sulu Arms Market. Source: https://bookshop.iseas.edu.sg/
Smuggling routes in the approximate area of the Royal Hashemite Sultanate of Sulu and North Borneo, a defunct political entity. A number of factors have contributed to both abundance of and demand for weapons that are easily trafficked into and out of the Sulu Arms Market. Source: https://bookshop.iseas.edu.sg/

The Players

While the Sulu Arms Market has its origins in colonial struggles between Spain, England, Germany, and the Netherlands its modern foundation was established in the political chaos of Southeast Asia following the Second World War. Communist guerillas across Southeast Asia, trained and equipped by the Allies during the War, turned against their post-war governments and became the primary recipients of arms shipments from abroad. As the Cold War set in, these groups drew direct support from communist China, the Soviet Union, and eventually Vietnam and North Korea. Added to the massive volume of guns remaining from the fighting in the Philippines, this Communist supply spilled over to similar movements throughout Asia including the Khmer Rouge, the Pathet Lao, the communist parties of Indonesia and Thailand, as well as Nepalese and Indian groups.

The Moros also rearmed after the Second World War. Organized initially as a secular nationalist movement, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) waged guerilla warfare against Manila for control of historically Muslim southern islands. Led by an ethnically Tausug leftist agitator and Sulu nationalist named Nur Misuari, the MNLF received political support and clandestine logistics (including arms) from Malaysia.[1] It was not long before Misuari developed direct ties with a number of powerful external sponsors, including Libya’s Muammar Ghadaffi and Pakistan’s president Yahya Khan, both of whom sponsored Islamic causes around the world. MNLF’s secular approach began to fall apart however in the 1980s when a number of its officers established a religiously inspired splinter group: the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

The MILF brought jihad to the southern Philippines and with it, Islamist arms sources. Powerful new sponsors, inflated by victory over the Soviets, found the religious MILF more worthy of support than the secular MNLF. As Misuari and the MNLF pursued a secular agenda in peace talks with Manila, jihadi suppliers like Al Qaeda shifted their support (mostly in arms and training) to the MILF and Abu Sayyaf Group, another Islamist Moro faction. The MILF’s connection to these jihadi groups was critical to finance the import of weapons from Sabah during the 1990s. Guns poured into Mindanao from every corner of the globe via well-known smuggling routes through the Sulu archipelago. In 1992, the scale of black arms shipments to the Moros attracted suppliers from Afghanistan, Colombia, China, Pakistan, Cambodia, Palestine, Lebanon, Sudan, Libya, North Korea, Thailand, Saudi Arabia and Malaysia (Sabah); with transit points in Singapore, Indonesia, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Vietnam, and Myanmar. As a result of this influx of weapons, the MILF was secure enough to continue fighting independently when Misuari’s MNLF reached a peace agreement with Manila in 1996. With as many as 12,000 men under arms, the MILF sat atop an enormous black arms trade and controlled roughly 10 per cent of Mindanao and large parts of the Sulu archipelago. Control of this territory allowed large arms shipments to become routine and with violence at a low ebb, the Sulu Arms Market once again became a source of guns for the rest of Asia.

http://www.themalaysianinsider.com/malaysia/article/sulu-guerrilla-tactics-wont-work-in-sabah-says-analyst
Violent conflict between Malaysian forces and the Royal Sulu Army around Lahad Datu, Malaysia in 2013 provided proof that a market for illegal arms exists in the Sulu Archipelago. Image Source: http://www.themalaysianinsider.com

Sensing opportunity, Asia’s criminals soon became significant players in the Sulu Arms Market. At the lowest end of the scale are the “ant traders”; Sulu or Sabah natives that benefit from access to both sides of the border. Their opportunistic, few-guns-at-a-time operations thrive in border areas where one country has a legal market and the other does not. As a result, ant trading accounts for much of the arms and ammunition transiting between the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia.

At the other end of the scale are transnational organized crime gangs from Japan, China, and Taiwan. Strict and well-enforced gun laws in northeast Asia make high quality handcrafted Filipino counterfeits called paltiks very popular among these gangsters. In an effort to control this dangerous cottage industry, the Philippine government created licensed manufacturers in Cebu with the idea of luring paltik craftsmen into legitimate employment in state factories. Not surprisingly, this move created ideal conditions for parts-smuggling that feeds the very paltik industry it was designed to destroy.

The criminality of arms trading is less clear when it involves wealthy and influential Filipinos. They are primarily arms consumers, stockpiling enormous arsenals that offer them increased prestige and protects them from weak gun laws. When these politicians and businessmen also identify themselves as either leftist, Moro or Christian, the lines between criminality, politics, and terrorism become extremely blurred as we saw in the case of the Maguindanao Massacre in 2009.

Sulu as a Source

The rise and fall of the Royal Sulu Army demonstrates that the Sulu Arms Market is real. It persists despite a multitude of countermeasures against it by governments both in and out of the region. It is a security problem of unmeasured proportions and its deadly products flow increasingly outward as violence reaches a low ebb. Moro weapons have made their way into the hands of separatists and militias in Papua New Guinea, Irian Jaya, East Timor, and the Malukus. But insurgent guns are not the only ones supplying the demand. Legally produced rifles, ammunition, and machine guns also end up in the black market through intentional overproduction, diversion, theft or loss. Known paltik manufacturing operations in Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines reinforce the supply from legal sources. Lastly, leakage from regional military and police sources is famously commonplace. Pilferage of stocks of obsolete weaponry continues to occur as both the Philippines and Malaysia replaced their standard infantry rifles with 45,000 M-16 rifles from the United States in 2009.

It is not hard to imagine that as violence reaches historic lows in Mindanao due to MILF-Manila peace efforts, cash-strapped armorers in those countries will ignore the long-term profit potential of black arms exports. If the governments of the region fail to keep a close eye on the Sulu Arms Market (or perhaps even if they do), peace in Mindanao could come at the cost of the southern Philippines evolving once again into a for-profit illicit gun store for Asia.

[1] Though Nur Misuari served Kuala Lumpur’s interests in 1969, he was widely seen as provoking the Royal Sulu Army’s invasion of Sabah in 2013.

Lino Miani

Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC. 

Intervention Tension: Burundi’s Moment of Truth

On 10 July, the tiny central African country of Burundi announced that its presidential elections, slated for 15 July, would be postponed by one week. The move marks the second electoral delay, and since April there have been protests, violence and a population exodus as the president postures for an unconstitutional third term. As one of the world’s poorest countries with limited strategic and resource importance, one has to wonder what the international community’s response will be should Burundi plunge back into the dark days of civil war and genocide. The moral lessons of history teach us that we must respond, but if historical events are any indication, it is unlikely that we will see much more than a token effort to restore stability in this part of the Great Lakes region.

Burundi’s Challenge

The events in Burundi have been coming to a slow boil over the past year and a half. Last year, President Pierre Nkurunziza’s party, the National Council for the Defense of Democracy – Forces for the Defense of Democracy (CNDD-FDD) unsuccessfully attempted to reform the constitution in a way that would not only upset the balance of ethnic representation in government, but would also allow their leader to run for a third term. International condemnation was swift, however the CNDD-FDD persisted and announced Nkurunziza as their candidate earlier this year.

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A  leader of an African nation overstaying his term limit is nothing new. Image Source: aidleap.org

Public outcry and hostilities in Bujumbura quickly followed, and less than one month later members of the military attempted a  coup d’etat while Nkurunziza was in Tanzania. Since then, ruling party supporters, to include the violent CNDD-FDD youth wing known as the imbonerakure, have sent scores of refugees fleeing into Burundi’s neighboring countries. According to Médecins Sans Frontières, one camp in Tanzania has swelled to 122,000, a number expected to increase as Election Day draws closer.

Last week on the international stage, United Nations (UN) Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed “concern” over the compromised political and human rights environment unfolding in Burundi. The United States also condemns the ongoing violence and claims that it will “seek to hold accountable those responsible for gross human rights abuses.” Meanwhile, the Burundian Ambassador to the UN suggests reports of a rapidly deteriorating situation in his country (a place that only ten years ago emerged from a 12-year civil war that left 300,000 dead), are overblown. The most recent report from the UN states that we can expect more violence.

According to Burundian law, elections must be held at least one month before the final day of Nkurunziza’s second term,  26 August, and they cannot be pushed back again. This means that sooner rather than later, this Sub-Saharan country will enter a new phase of uncertainty and with stability in the country already compromised, the outlook does not look good. This summer Burundi already held parliamentary elections which the UN says were not free or credible. An increasing number of high level government officials, to include a Deputy Vice President, several electoral commissioners, and a senior judge—all citizens who do not agree with the ruling party’s measures—have fled for fear of being targeted as non-supporters of the CNDD-FDD.

An African leader aiming to overstay his term limits is nothing new, and indeed neighboring Rwanda faces a similar scenario in the run up to elections in 2017. As poor countries like Burundi experience upheaval as a direct result of this rule bending, the question then falls to the international community: how are we to respond? When does interference become a necessity in the name of safeguarding human rights? And if a response is needed, the more pertinent question must be pondered: will the international community be moved to act?

Never Say Never Again

I would argue that countries with little to offer in terms of strategic location and exploitable resources are the ones the world will most likely ignore.  In Rwanda, a Central African country of comparable size and composition, the genocide of 800,000 Rwandans was completed over 100 days while the international community largely leaned back on its heels and watched from afar.  The United Nations woefully under resourced its Assistance Mission For Rwanda (UNAMIR) from the beginning despite repeated requests for increased support by the mission’s force commander, Lieutenant General Roméo Dallaire.  When the atrocities finally saturated the world media, cries of “never again” echoed throughout.

The reasons behind the Rwandan genocide as well as the international community’s response to it are complex and not identical to what we see taking place today in Burundi. Still, the broader question of “How much should we care?” persists. If the situation reaches a point where Twitter becomes saturated with images of crimes against humanity, will there be a call to action? Big players like the United States are undoubtedly already asking themselves whether they have the political will, resources, and most importantly, any real regional interest to link arms with the international community and put a swift end to bad behavior. Sadly, I’m not so optimistic that we really ever mean it when we vow, “Never again”.

The United States, much like other asset-rich countries, is stretched thin as it battles enemies on multiple fronts in the Middle East and Central Asia. These campaigns speak nothing of the myriad other “fires” that currently rage on the African continent: Al Shabaab in east Africa, Boko Haram in the Lake Chad region and of course the Islamic State’s move into northern Africa. With so many other high-priority missions to tackle, does anyone really care about a tiny nation of 10 million that most Americans could never find on a map? Would the public really approve of troops being sent to a place that has no apparent impact on their day-to-day lives? Again, I am not so optimistic.

Masf. Image Source:
Violence attributed to loyalist factions such as  CNDD-FDD, continues to force citizens to leave their homes to seek safety elsewhere. Image Source: www.unhcr.org

General Dallaire wrote in his memoir that he doubts the world will pay anything but lip service to these far off countries of little immediate consequence to the international community.

“We have fallen back on the yardstick of national self-interest to measure which portions of the planet we allow ourselves to be concerned about. In the 21st century, we cannot afford to tolerate a single failed state, ruled by ruthless and self-serving dictators, arming and brainwashing a generation of potential warriors to export mayhem and terror around the world. The leaders of the free world are well versed in the importance of regional stability, but it would appear that they are hedging their bets when they choose which ones they will assist and which they will supply with only a string of strongly-worded condemnation.”

The clock is ticking for Burundi, and as the hour draws near for their electoral moment of truth, there’s a good chance that the rest of the world, as they stand-by and watch, will face a moment of truth of their own.

Megan Hallinan is an active duty US naval officer who holds a bachelor’s degree in International Affairs from Trinity College in Dublin as well as a master’s in Nonfiction Writing from Johns Hopkins University. She lived for three years in Dakar, Senegal under the Olmsted Scholarship program. The views expressed here are her own and not those of the US Navy or the George and Carol Olmsted Foundation.

Asian Aspirations: NATO Looks East

As NATO’s mission in Afghanistan completes its transition from the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) to the non-combatant Resolute Support Mission (RSM), the question on the minds of senior Allied leaders is how to maintain Alliance cohesion without the massive political-military gravity of the war to keep the Nations engaged with one another. Cohesion may seem like an odd thing to worry about after 70 years of Allied success but what is not apparent to many is that for the last 14 years, the war in Afghanistan has given NATO tremendous energy and unity of purpose. Now, even with events in the Ukraine giving the Alliance renewed vigor, NATO finds itself adrift, searching for a purpose that all 28 member states can agree on even as Europe is beset on all sides by complex and serious challenges to its security.

The Ukraine crisis aside, NATO’s answer to this dangerous environment is to look outside its borders. With compound threats from transnational terrorism, illicit drugs, human trafficking, and seemingly endless instability on Europe’s southern flank, it is very easy to see why this strategy makes sense. While the Alliance has a growing number of legal vehicles at its disposal for reaching out, it was adoption of the Berlin Partnership Policy in 2011 –specifically the creation of the Individual Partnership Cooperation Plan (IPCP)– that truly opened doors to military cooperation beyond Europe and North America. Since that time, Japan, South Korea, Iraq, New Zealand, Sweden, Mongolia, and Australia have finalized IPCPs with NATO.

Measuring Asian Engagement

While all the military diplomacy sounds very promising, in real terms it has not yet amounted to much. The Nations all agree that military cooperation with non-NATO partners is important but other than to support RSM or Operation Ocean Shield, an ongoing operation in the Gulf of Aden, NATO forces have not ventured beyond Europe since the 2011 Foreign Ministers meeting that led to the Berlin Policy. While it would be a good first step to have Asian forces participating in NATO exercises, military cooperation will need to occur on partner nation territory to meet the goals of the Allied strategy. This is no small matter. Funding, organizing, supplying, and controlling multinational exercises is a complex and expensive endeavor; even with 70 years of procedure to guide the planning. IPCPs lack the administrative backbone necessary to run a large-scale NATO exercise outside its borders and a notable exercise failure could make such cooperation very unpopular very quickly. In this sensitive space at the intersection of politics, military action, diplomacy, and fiscal restraint, the utility of one tool rises above all the others: Special Operations Forces or SOF.

Reliable, rapidly deployable, relatively inexpensive, and capable of secrecy and discretion, SOF has long been a favorite tool of nations for building new relationships of this type. In Asia in particular, Special Operations Forces have broader utility than naval or air units for the simple reason that while not all potential Asian partners have viable navies or air forces, most have credible SOF. Paradoxically, when it comes to Special Operations, limitations on engagement lay with NATO partners which rarely share their SOF capabilities with the Alliance. Even those member states that maintain robust relationships with Asian SOF units (the United States and the United Kingdom, and to a lesser degree, France, Germany, the Netherlands, and Portugal), rarely commit their special forces to NATO missions. But as Asia grows in economic, social, and political importance, there are many reasons why Allied nations may be more likely to share their SOF in the future.

Asian SOF Sniper
Credible SOF partners: Cold weather training of ROK Army Special Forces snipers in 2014

Asia is a Big Deal

The rough numbers behind Asia’s rise are no mystery to readers of The Affiliate Network: 60% of the planet’s population is Asian, their defense budgets comprise 25% of the world’s total, and their economies represent 30% of global gross domestic product; but relationships between NATO SOF units and their Asian counterparts are underdeveloped. It is therefore important to remember some things about SOF in Asia: with the exception of Thailand, Asian security services from India to Indonesia to North Korea trace their roots directly to the Japanese Imperial Army or to Allied efforts to counter it. During the Second World War, Japanese graduates of the intelligence school at Nakano mobilized the political and military leadership of occupied areas to maximize contributions to the greater Japanese economy.[1] This fact ties modern Asian security services to politics in ways that have been remarkably consistent over the last 70 years. Secondly, though Asian governments generally maintain active relationships with their former colonial sponsors, these relationships are not proprietary, nor have they been constant. The result is that with few exceptions, European SOF have very little experience in what is rapidly becoming the world’s most important geopolitical arena. Today, as NATO and its member states wake up to the opportunities and risks inherent in South and East Asia, this lack of experience collides squarely with a desire to build relationships there and to operationalize the Berlin Partnership Policy in a way that can provide a springboard to larger and more regular interactions.

Addressing this capability gap begins at home. European SOF seeking to operate in Asia will find themselves in a bewildering cultural and linguistic landscape where modern politics intersects 5000 years of history and religion in confounding ways. While vital cultural awareness is next to impossible to build in a classroom, language capabilities can and should be developed this way despite the time and money required to maximize these skills. Secondly, many Asian (especially Southeast Asian) top-tier SOF capabilities reside in national police forces whereas European SOF units are overwhelmingly military. This presents an obstacle for many European nations that maintain strict legal prohibitions on military relations with police forces. NATO nations interested in undertaking Alliance SOF missions in the region must take steps to eliminate these regulatory barriers before they cause a problem. Thirdly, European SOF forces lack strategic mobility. While military transport aircraft are available, even large powers France and Germany struggle with lift capacity. European SOF will need to develop a familiarity with the nuances of projecting power via global shipping, something that is often particularly tricky in situations involving weapons, narcotic medicines, and sensitive technologies. Lastly, European SOF will need to sort through a host of details required for success in Asia; from having to contracting support and flexible funding for logistics, to having 220-volt power tools on hand, to coming to terms with murky associations between some Asian SOF units and national political parties, human rights issues, and wide variations in quality of their counterparts.

Engaging militarily in Asia will in some ways be a difficult undertaking for NATO, especially in light of growing threats close to the continent, but armed with the right knowledge and preparation, SOF will be a key tool in expanding partnerships in fulfillment of NATO’s Strategic Concept.  Whether this provides the cohesion Allied leaders seek remains to be seen.

[1] The founders of many post-war SE Asian governments and militaries were trained by the Japanese and later switched sides. Examples are Ne Win and Aung San (Burma), Subas Chandra Bose (India), Sukarno and Zulkifli Lubis (Indonesia), Bảo Đại (Vietnam), and others.

Lino Miani

Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC.