A FIGHT TO THE DEATH

Following the example of the Philippines, and earlier that of Thailand, Bangladesh has adopted a shoot-to-kill policy in an effort to tackle an illicit drug epidemic afflicting the country. Nicholas Nugent reports from Dhaka

In mid-May, Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed announced a war on drugs in response to what she said was a threat to law and order from an epidemic of illicit drug use. This coincided with the Muslim fasting month of Ramadhan, which is widely observed in Bangladesh. By the end of the month, 122 alleged drug dealers had been killed in 16 days and as many as 7,000 people arrested across the country. The killing spree is continuing.

Crackdowns such as the current one are not new in Bangladesh but incidents logged daily in newspapers show the death rate has already exceeded those during previous campaigns in 2002 and 2016. What is more, larger volumes of illicit drugs have been seized, reflecting a widespread belief that the country’s drug problem is out of control. Drugs seized include heroin, liquid phensedyl – an ingredient of cough linctus –and cannabis, but the greatest increase is in the methamphetamine derivative known locally as ‘yaba’, which is similar to ‘speed’ in the US. By late May security forces had seized two and a half million yaba tablets with an estimated street value of $40 million. Yet this may not be much in a country with an estimated 7 million drug users, when considered alongside the likely quantity not seized.

The prime minister said her government would not spare anyone found dealing in drugs and that ‘the elimination of drugs from society was the desire of the people’. She said the media were giving more attention to numbers killed than the much larger number of arrestees, whom she said will face justice in the courts.

At first those killed were reported to be ‘victims of crossfire’. When journalists questioned who was firing on whom, the terminology was revised and deaths are now reported as resulting from a ‘shootout’, though there is sometime uncertainty whether all those killed were armed.

Critics of government policy argue that summary justice violates the country’s constitution. They point out that the ruling Awami League faces a general election before the end of the year.A spokesman for the opposition Bangladesh National Party has called on the government to refrain from ‘extrajudicial killing’. Apart from its summary nature, the shoot-to-kill policy makes no clear distinction between drug users and dealers as the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), given responsibility for combating the trade in drugs, strives to reach targets.

The new campaign resembles that introduced in the Philippines where an estimated 10,000 people have been killed since President Rodrigo Duterte came to power two years ago. He says the anti-drug drive has been enormously popular among ordinary Filipinos. In Thailand, too, where former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra launched a war on drug traffickers in 2003, the policy was said to have commanded massive popular support.

Critics of government policy argue that summary justice violates the country’s constitution

Most of the drugs reaching all three countries come from neighbouring Myanmar. Another neighbour, Malaysia, reports regular seizures of ‘Crystal Meth’, a more concentrated type of methamphetamine also manufactured in Myanmar. There are believed to be many users of Myanmar-made drugs in southern China as well.

Yaba, meaning ‘mad drug’ in the Thai language, is popular partly because it is in tablet form and is easy to transport undetected. Also, there are no growing fields (as with opium) which can be detected from the air. In the 1960s and 70s the Shan State of eastern Burma – as Myanmar was then known – was notorious as a major producer of heroin, centre of the famed ‘Golden Triangle’.

Yaba is produced in small jungle laboratories, mainly in Myanmar’s Kachin State bordering China. It is based on the chemical pseudoephedrine, smuggled from China or India, mixed with caffeine – often, it is alleged, with the connivance of Myanmar’s military. The process is cheap and easy. By contrast heroin, which is derived from opium, involves a more elaborate production process. Yaba is a distinctive pink coloured, sweet-smelling tablet. A popular brand is ‘88’, named after the anti-military uprising in Burma in 1988.

HITTING TARGETS: Bangladesh’s elite Rapid Action Battalion
HITTING TARGETS: Bangladesh’s elite Rapid Action Battalion

It has been suggested that yaba is brought to Bangladesh by Rohingya refugees fleeing persecution by the army in Myanmar’s western Rakhine state. There is little evidence for this since yaba was widespread in Bangladesh long before the most recent influx of Rohingya. It is more likely to have been brought by Bangladeshi traders along the 270-km Myanmar-Bangladesh border, or across the salient of India that divides the two countries, providing a more direct route from Kachin State. Smugglers are profiting by feeding a growing demand.

Arguments continue in Bangladesh as to whether hitting the user is the most effective means of eliminating trafficking. Yaba is popular among workers with dull, monotonous jobs. According to American journalist Patrick Winn, who has researched the trade, it can lead to an eight-hour ‘high’, making tedious work easier, and can enable a user to stay awake longer – even for several days. He says it is favoured by long-distance lorry drivers.

Newspaper clipping charting Bangladesh’s anti-drugs drive
Newspaper clipping charting Bangladesh’s anti-drugs drive

Bangladeshi commentator Habibullah N Karim argues that ‘criminals are never born but are the products of the society in which they live’. Writing in the Daily Star newspaper, he says that ‘playing whack-a-mole with petty drug pushers is not the way. We need to cut off the transit routes from the source of all hard drugs, educate our youngsters everywhere on the evils of drug abuse and rehabilitate those that have gone astray’.

‘We need to cut off the transit routes from the source of all hard drugs’

The current drive risks being used to settle scores with innocent victims being informed against.  There are already at least two cases in Cox’s Bazar district where political figures have been mown down by bullets for no greater crime than belonging to a rival political party.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina seems to have taken note of the criticism. In late June she told parliament: ‘The masterminds of the drug trade escape easily.’ Her government, she said, was preparing a new Narcotics Control Bill to target ‘drug syndicates and the godfathers’ by investigating money laundering.

Defending her policy of ‘zero tolerance’ against drugs she said that so far this year,15,333 drug-related cases have been registered against 20,767 people in custody, and huge amounts of drugs, arms and ammunition had been seized. Showing no sign that the policy would be ended soon, she expressed optimism that the current onslaughts would bring an end to drug smuggling, pointing out that even under the existing law drug traders are liable for the death penalty.


Nicholas Nugent is a writer and broadcaster specialising in Asia and the former Soviet Union. Previously on the staff of the BBC World Service, he has written books on India and Vietnam and contributed to others on Indonesia and Myanmar. He is working on a history of the Spice trade

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