Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh – Bangladesh has for years struggled to cope with a surging drug epidemic, at the heart of which is a wildly popular meth pill smuggled into the country from neighbouring Myanmar.
Known as Yaba, or “crazy medicine” in Thai, the highly-addictive stimulant is a mix of methamphetamine and caffeine that usually comes in the form of colourful, candy-like tablets.
Use of the drug has risen at an alarming rate, with authorities struggling to stem the flow of tens of millions of pills pouring in from Myanmar – where they’re manufactured – and ripping through Bangladesh’s cities and villages.
The illicit trade has long relied on drug trafficking cartels smuggling yaba across the border – and more recently, men living in the Bangladesh camps hosting vulnerable Rohingya refugees have also been recruited as drug mules.
Since the arrival of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees fleeing a brutal crackdown by Myanmar’s army in August 2017, authorities in Bangladesh have seized more than 10 million yaba pills from local drug peddlers and the Rohingya living in makeshift camps in Cox’s Bazar, according to the Dhaka Tribune, a Bangladeshi daily.
“At the beginning of the influx, we couldn’t search every Rohingya man for possession because of the miserable conditions of the camps,” said Md Saiful Hasan, senior assistant to the special commissioner of Cox’s Bazar’s district.
“We gave them open access to our borders, and that’s why some drugs have come in.”
‘I cannot lead a fair life’
Last year, Bangladeshi authorities seized almost 15m yaba pills and arrested 649 people, including 15 Myanmar nationals.
A. was not one of them.
The 35-year-old fidgeted in his seat uncomfortably, only relaxing after dragging on his cigarette, his thin body dwarfed by the large chair he sat on. A. is a carrier of yaba, receiving 5,000 Bangladeshi Taka ($60) for every 1,000 pills he manages to move from Kutupalong camp to Cox’s Bazar, a popular tourist destination 40km away.
“I carry yaba to survive,” he said, speaking in a measured tone. “I am compelled to do this job because I have to provide for my family.”
“Since I am suffering financially, I cannot lead a fair life.”
In October 2016, A., his mother, wife and three sons fled to Bangladesh, taking only a few clothing items with them – like many others from the long-persecuted, mostly Muslim, minority did before and after them in their bid to escape the violent campaigns against them in Myanmar’s Rakhine state.
Despite having lived for centuries in the majority Buddhist Myanmar, the Rohingya are not considered one of the country’s 135 official ethnic groups and have been denied citizenship since 1982, effectively rendering them stateless.
Today, more than one million Rohingya have taken shelter in Bangladesh. They live in bleak conditions in overcrowded camps, rife with sanitary woes and at risk of dangerous landslides during torrential rains.
Upon arriving in the Ukhiya upazila (sub-district) almost two years ago, A. and his family were prevented from entering Kutupalong camp by the Bangladeshi soldiers manning its entrances.
“We hid at different local people’s residences,” he said. “Once we were allowed to settle in the camp, we found life to be very difficult. We were hit with water shortages and shelter crises.”
His family, A. said, struggled a great deal to cope in their new environment. There was no money and only enough food for one meagre meal a day. Without any belongings, they had nothing of value to sell to buy sustenance.
A. said he tried to open a small shop, but that failed as no one would loan him the money he needed. More desperate by the day, he decided to meet a group of men in the camp who he knew transported yaba pills to Cox’s Bazar.
“I was compelled to engage with them,” he said, his eyes expressionless.
“When I sat with them, I found how they collect yaba, how it is consumed and how they deliver it to other parts of the country.”
Bringing in yaba was cheap and selling it was lucrative.
A. confirmed that some Rohingya men, especially those fluent in Bengali, cross the border from the southern sub-district of Teknaf to Myanmar. They return with the drugs, which they then supply to Bangladeshi peddlers.
A. said that at the beginning of the year he travelled with around two dozen men to the border to see how the operations ran.
“We knew which checkpoints we would be searched by police, so we travelled separately, either on foot or motorcycles or bicycles,” he said. “But if you travel in a microbus or three-wheeled rickshaw, you would definitely be checked.”
Yaba trend increase
According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, yaba was first introduced to East Asia during World War II to boost the performance of troops. Since then, the strong stimulant has grown in popularity across the region, including in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Myanmar, where Bangladeshi authorities believe there are more than 50 drug factories.
Although concrete figures are hard to come by, in 2012 it was estimated that there were 4.6 million yaba users in Bangladesh, with numbers increasing by the day.
In 2014, the Department of Narcotics Control said consumption of the drug had jumped by 77 times over the course of a six-year period.
Nongovernmental organisations, however, have compiled their own figures, with DNC Director General Md Jamal Uddin Ahmed stating in May 2018 that “according to [the NGOs], the number of drug addicts is about seven million” – five million of them hooked on yaba.
Drug abuse has been on the rise in Bangladesh since early 2000, prompting Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in May to launch an anti-drug campaign.
Since then, more than 17,000 drug traffickers have been arrested by the police and the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), a paramilitary body.
“The yaba trend has increased in Cox’s Bazar, but law enforcement agencies are working on a 24/7 basis on this issue,” Hasan, the assistant SP, said.
Shahriar Alam, Bangladesh’s state minister of foreign affairs, said the government has taken on a more “holistic approach” to tackling the drug issue.
“The NGOs [in Cox’s Bazar] are feeding information to the law enforcement agencies if there are any suspicious activities going on,” he said.
However, Hasan said that some of the Rohingya involved in drug-peddling are working “under the banner of some NGOs or independent workers”.
Smuggling pills out of the camp
A. has been moving yaba for about a year now. But it’s far from regular work, sometimes it is weekly, other times bi-monthly, or even less frequent.
“On average, if the supply is flowing, I make between 8,000 to 10,000 taka ($94-$118) a month. But in dry spells, I don’t earn any money,” he said, adding that the proceeds are spent on paying back loans, grocery shopping and health expenses.
He went on to describe how the operation is run.
The drug peddlers would drop off a batch of pills either at his shelter or at an undisclosed location deep within the camp. At times, the delivery would contain the maximum 1,000 pills, while other times it was smaller quantities.
“Sometimes we hide the pills inside our shoes,” A. said. “Or we cover them with polythene and stick them on the inside of our belts.
“If the pills are a small amount, like 100 or 200, we carry them in our hands. We fold them in paper and place our mobile phones on top of them. That way, people will think we are only carrying our phones in our hands.”
The refugee camps operate on a curfew basis, with no Rohingya allowed to leave after dark. Those caught outside are penalised, which makes the journey from Kutupalong to Cox’s Bazar all the more challenging.
For A., returning to the camp is easier than leaving.
“I exit the camp and take the hilly routes, not the roads, to Marine Drive,” he said, referring to the road along the Bay of Bengal that stretches 80km from Cox’s Bazar to Teknaf.
“After that, it’s fairly easy going to Cox’s Bazar. I have heard of some carriers being caught at flying check-posts, where they got found out because they don’t speak Bengali fluently. But I always managed to escape.”
Once in town, A. would deliver yaba to the locations specified beforehand by the peddlers, usually in the Baharchara area near the airport or the fishery ghat (landing station/fish market).
He would then board a bus bound to Teknaf, and get off in Kutupalong.
To stave off questions from the camp’s guards, who interrogate everyone coming in late, A. would buy a few goods before entering.
“That way, if anyone asks me where I am coming from I tell them I had to do some emergency shopping,” he said.
Penalties, imprisonment and lack of choice
A. estimated that there are some 400 to 500 yaba carriers in the Rohingya camps, but they do not know each other for security reasons.
“We are not connected, otherwise we would risk bringing attention and unwanted surveillance from the law enforcement agencies,” he explained. “If we all knew each other, then the police can easily arrest us all.”
According to Hasan, Bangladeshi law enforcement agencies have arrested more than 600 Rohingya over the past year for their role in the drug business.
Carriers or peddlers who are caught with a small number of yaba pills, between 20 and 50, go through a summary or instant trial.
“We don’t prosecute them because it’s a lengthy process, and sentence them up to six months in jail or a fine,” Hasan said.
“The highest penalty is hanging, but the government is thinking of amending this,” he added.
There have also been cases of shoot-outs, with at least 211 people killed across the country since the launch of the anti-drug drive. Law enforcement agencies have been accused by the victims’ families of using the drug war as a cover to get rid of political activists.
A. admitted he is afraid of being caught.
“I heard about those killed in gunfights or caught in crossfires,” he said, expressing his worry of being suspected or people from his community bad-mouthing him. “I also heard about imprisonments. Fear is on everyone’s mind.”
“But what choice do I have? If I had money, I would not do this work or be engaged in such crimes.
“If I had money, I could live out my life in a nice way and ethical way, open a small shop. Nothing else.”
In November last year, the governments of Myanmar and Bangladesh reached a repatriation deal for the Rohingya, but A. said he is not hopeful that this will take place.
“If it really happens, I will go back to my country,” he said. “Here, we are restricted. There we have lands and properties where we can farm and grow crops.
“Here we cannot farm even a chicken.”
Follow Linah Alsaafin on Twitter: @LinahAlsaafin