Kuwait's Tragedy a Boon to Arms Merchants

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

THANKS to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, Maurice Byham has a new sales pitch. ``Look at the way Iraq has devastated Kuwait,'' says the marketing director of the Defense Manufacturers Association of Great Britain. ``We don't know what the future will bring, but everyone has to be ready.''

Arms dealers are finding lots of customers among the small, military-dominated states of Southeast Asia.

Although the region is far from a Gulf theater of war, weapons sales are brisk in Southeast Asia, the biggest arms bazaar after the Middle East, defense executives say.

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``This is the market with the greatest potential in defense and police and internal security,'' says Mr. Byham.

To feed this seemingly insatiable appetite for modern weaponry, the region's top military men flocked to Bangkok for a glitzy, pre-Christmas defense show. Most prominent was a delegation from Burma headed by Gen. Khin Nyunt, the intelligence chief in charge of the brutal crackdown on the country's democracy movement.

As the generals browsed among the displays for anti-aircraft missiles, tanks, and mortars, Kuwait was a frequent sales theme. Salesmen echoed warnings from countries such as Singapore that small nations must learn a lesson from Kuwait.

``We're a long way from the Gulf, but what happened to Kuwait could happen to anyone, at anytime, anywhere,'' says Mohamad Ali Abdul Malek, who writes for the Asian Defence Journal, a trade publication based in Malaysia.

Some of the largest exhibitors were armaments firms from France, the United States, and Britain, which are among the countries sponsoring an international search for peace in war-torn Cambodia.

Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore also set up shop, signaling the emergence of a growing arms industry within Southeast Asia.

Yet amid the gleaming high-tech weaponry and the speculation of war, an occasional doubt emerges.

``It's worrying. Everyone is arming themselves, but against who or what we don't know,'' Mr. Malek says. ``All this money could be better spent on schools and hospitals.''

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