Special Report

Illicit firearms chipping away at the State – 2

Groping in the dark

Hemantha Perera and Vishvanath

The danger of firearms in the wrong hands became evident, last Friday, when a lone gunman mowed down 50 persons in a mosque and left many others injured in Christ Church, New Zealand. Armed with an automatic weapon, he carried out the barbaric attack, which he livestreamed, much to the horror of the civilized world. The massacre has jolted New Zealand into reviewing its gun policy.

Most of the Sri Lanka Police crime busters, interviewed by Counterpoint, were of the opinion that the available information indicated that illicit firearms accounted for the majority of the violent incidents, where human lives were lost. In 2018, there were as many as 3,140 armed crimes in this country, according to the police.

The gravity of the problem of the proliferation of illicit firearms became clear recently, when the Special Task Force (STF) detected an arms cache belonging to a confederate of drug lord cum contract killer Madush Lakshitha aka Makandure Madush. Among the weapons, seized by the elite police commandos from his hideout in Rawatawatte, on March 11 were a T-56 assault rifle, two pistols, 2,803 rounds of T-56 ammunition and 12 FG type bullets. A many as 177 kilos of heroin were also taken into custody.

TYPES OF ILLCIT WEAPONS IN SRI LANKA AND THEIR PRICES

Arms seizures by the police over the last several decades indicate that the illicit weapons in circulation include both military and non-military types. Only the military-type weapons usually receive media attention and others become mere statistics.

The common types of illicit weapons in Sri Lanka:

  1. Shotguns and repeater guns
  2. Pistols and revolvers
  3. Locally produced muzzle-loading guns and galkatas
  4. T-katas or locally manufactured guns firing T-56 ammunition
  5. T-56 and AK-47 assault rifles
  6. Others including SLR (self-loading rifles)

According to the latest statistics, obtained by Counterpoint, the police seized 1,212 illicit firearms, in 2018, in different parts of the country. Among them were 32 pistols, 01 AK-47 assault rifle, 07 repeater guns, 87 twelve-bore shotguns, 38 galkatas (locally manufactured guns), 22 revolvers, 191 T-56 assault rifles, 738 trap guns and 96 others.

The prices of illicit firearms have increased sharply since 2004, and this indicates that there has been a steep rise in the demand for lethal weapons and it has been far in excess of the supply which has also increased according to statistics obtained from police investigators. (These are only approximate figures.)

Interestingly, only the price of the galkatas has remained unchanged over the years.  The massive increases in the prices of illicit firearms have also aggravated the problem of their proliferation in that a lucrative business attracts suppliers. The police believe that the sharp increase in the prices of weapons has led to small-time criminals hiring them at varying rates.

THE RISE OF T-56 IN THE UNDERWORLD

When the police statistics, related to illicit firearms over the years, are perused, an interesting trend emerges. It may be dubbed the rise of the T-56 assault rifle, which has apparently become the favourite weapon of the underworld assassins. The contract killers who shot dead four persons at the Kudawella fisheries harbour a few months ago also used a T-56 rifle.

There has been a fourfold increase in the use of T-56 assault rifles in the underworld over the years if the number of those weapons seized by the police is any indication. There has been a marked decrease in the number of galkatas taken into custody. The number of hand guns has also decreased.

(Note: 2005 can be considered an exception. The number of assault rifles seized by the police was exceptionally high in that year. As many as 572 assault rifles were taken into custody.)

This trend suggests that that the underworld now has easy access to sophisticated weapons, and the armed criminals are competent to handle them; they include ex-soldiers and military deserters with some battle-hardened Special Forces personnel among them.

The T-56 assault rifle has been mostly used by the Sri Lanka army for the last several decades. The LTTE preferred A-K assault rifle though it also used T-56 rifles, which were mostly seized from the army and the police.

The AK-47 has been named after its inventor Makhail Kalashnikov and ‘47’ is the year (1947), when it was cleared for mass production for use by the Soviet military. The AK family has grown over the decades. Nine years after the AK-47 became the choice of the Soviets, the Chinese copied it. Initially, the AK-47 copy was known as AK-56, the number denoting the year in which it was introduced to the Chinese military, officially. AK-56 has come to be dubbed Type 56 or T-56, as it is commonly known, at present.

It was because the T-56 rifle is widely used in Sri Lanka’s underworld that some of these lethal weapons, acquired by the state, found their way into the hands of criminals either through military deserters, some of the armed forces personnel who served in the war zone, where the caches of weapons the LTTE had seized from the army were kept, rogue elements in the tri-forces and the arms dealers who had links to the LTTE.

AK - 47

AK – 47

T-56 assault rifle

T-56

Interestingly, there was only a single AK-47 rifle among the 1,212 weapons seized by the police in 2018 whereas there were as many as 191 T-56 rifles besides 76,849 rounds of ammunition.

SCRATCHING THE SURFACE

The police believe that the weapons, taken into custody, are only a fraction of those in the hands of criminals, and tens of thousands of sophisticated arms which belonged to the LTTE are lying buried in the North and the East or perhaps even in Colombo. It is believed that most of the LTTE’s arms and explosive caches have not been detected yet.

Some of the high-ranking police officers, interviewed by Counterpoint, were of the opinion that it was not possible to give even a ballpark figure as regards the number of illicit weapons in the country. “We are groping in the dark,” one of them said, noting that not even a national survey on illicit firearms conducted in 2006-2007 had helped shed much light on the issue.

In April 2016, the Terrorism Investigation Division of the Sri Lanka Police, acting on a tip-off, found, in a house, at Chavakachcheri, one of the former LTTE strongholds, a suicide jacket, four side chargers, three parcels of about 12 kilos of TNT (plastic explosives) two parcels of 100 rounds of 9 mm pistol ammunition and two battery packs used to detonate side chargers.

In September 2013, four years after the conclusion of the war, the police chanced upon 120 kilos of TNT concealed in the chassis of a lorry, which had been taken into custody on suspicion and kept near the Kotahena police station for 17 long years! The lorry was first found near Sama Viharaya, Kotahena, in 1996, and an initial search yielded 75 kilos of TNT, in secret compartments inside the vehicle’s fuel tank. The truck was later taken to a place near the Kotahena police station. The second detection was made while it was being dismantled for scrap iron.

THE APPOINTEMENT OF NCAPISA

The proliferation of illicit firearms and the attendant increase in the crime rate prompted the Chandrika Kumaratunga government to appoint the National Commission against Proliferation of Illicit Small Arms (NCAPISA) in 2005. The move was in keeping with international best practices recommended by the UN. The   commission was tasked with the coordination of the approaches to small arms-related problems in the country.

The NCAPISA conducted a comprehensive national survey from Nov. 2006 to April 2007, covering all parts of the country except those held by the LTTE, at that time. The aim of the survey was to ‘provide accurate information to the NCAPISA and the government of Sri Lanka, in general, on the small arms situation in the country as the basis for taking measures to strengthen existing small arms controls, prevent armed crime, increase community security, and eliminate illicit trafficking.’ It was expected to help formulate a National Small Arms Policy.

NCAPISA DEFINITION OF SMALL ARMS

The NCAPISA defined small firearms as follows for the purpose of its survey:

“There are many definitions of small arms and light weapons (SALW). The 1997 UN Panel of Governmental Experts on Small Arms broadly defines them as follows: ‘small arms are those weapons designed for personal use, and light weapons are those designed for use by several persons serving as a crew.’ This definition focuses on military-type weapons. For the purpose of this survey a broader definition of small arms is used. This term is used to cover all types of firearms – from crude homemade weapons, such as trap guns, galkatas and muzzle-loading guns, to shotguns, hunting rifles, hand guns (such as pistols and revolvers) and military-type small arms including self-loading rifles (SLRs), assault rifles, sub-machine guns and light machine guns. The UN definition also includes munitions and ammunition. This is also covered in this report, particularly ammunition of types used in all of the identified types of small arms, as well as hand grenades. This survey does not cover light weapons such as mortars, portable anti-aircraft guns, rocket propelled grenades and portable anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles.”

(Next issue: The full story of the police sergeant selling the entire stock of arms captured from the JVP in Kuliyapitiya and weapons issued to politicians during the second JVP uprising.)
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