Bangladesh Launches Deadly Drug Crackdown as Rohingya Crisis Fuels Smuggling
Some 13,000 people are detained and more than 100 killed in police raids since mid-May
By Jon Emont and Muktadir Rashid – June 17, 2018 8:00 a.m. ET
DHAKA, Bangladesh — Hundreds of police officers toting carbines swarmed a gritty Dhaka slum recently, overturning beds in homes, riffling through the wallets and bags of cafe patrons and eventually shoving 50 suspected drug users into the back of police vans.
It was a regular night in a new crackdown on drugs in Bangladesh, marked by an aggressive campaign since mid-May in which police have arrested some 13,000 people and killed more than 100 in raids, according to the government.
Odhikar, a Bangladeshi human rights group, accused the security forces of carrying out 149 extrajudicial killings in May, most of them in connection with the drug crackdown, compared with an average of less than 20 a month in the first four months of the year, according to its statistics.
Hasanul Haq Inu, Bangladesh’s minister of information, said that the expanded campaign was necessary to disrupt drug distribution networks, and that the killings involved situations where armed drug criminals shot at police.
The antidrug campaign stems from an influx of a cheap methamphetamine concoction known as yaba finding its way into Bangladesh, fed in large part by the turmoil since some 700,000 Rohingya were driven from their homes in Myanmar by the military last August into Bangladesh, according to Bangladeshi police.
Yaba is mainly produced in lawless regions of northern Myanmar, where rebel militias that rely on drug revenue have long held sway and fed markets in Thailand and Cambodia. But the security breakdown in western Myanmar since the Rohingya, a persecuted Muslim minority in the Buddhist-majority country, were expelled last year is giving the traffickers an expanded opportunity, Bangladeshi police say.
“Only Myanmar is pushing yaba,” said Jamil Hasan, deputy commissioner of the detective branch of the Dhaka Metropolitan Police, observing as police pushed suspected yaba users into vans during a roundup. Though the United Nations antinarcotics agency has said that Myanmar and Bangladesh could foil trafficking networks if their border police worked together, Hasanul Haq Inu, Bangladesh’s minister of information, said the Rohingya crisis had created tensions that made coordinating the forces difficult.
“Cooperation in stopping the yaba trade is a little bit cumbersome and slow,” Mr. Inu said. His government has repeatedly asked Myanmar’s authorities to shut down yaba labs.Police Col. Aung Myat Moe, head of the Myanmar police force in Rakhine State, where the Rohingya lived, said police have established more than 80 land and sea checkpoints to intercept drug traffickers but said they didn’t know who was behind the yaba trade.
Jeremy Douglas, regional representative of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime for Southeast Asia, said that skilled chemists working for rebel groups in northern Myanmar have scaled up yaba production in recent years, even as demand has peaked in traditional markets.
“They have extra supply and they’re dumping it into Bangladesh at a low price point,” Mr. Douglas said. The gangs prefer making and distributing yaba over opium, used in the region’s older heroin trade, because it cuts out poppy farmers and concentrates profits in their hands.
Bangladeshi police say drug traffickers are using young Rohingya men in the camps, who lack employment opportunities, as drug runners. Rohingya have been arrested by Bangladeshi authorities as part of the antidrug campaign, including a recent case where a 12-year old boy was compelled to ingest a load of yaba capsules and bring them into Dhaka, the capital, before members of the ring that recruited him were arrested.
Police arrest a woman on drug charges in Dhaka. Police say their crackdown stems from an influx of cheap methamphetamine, fed largely by the turmoil since Myanmar’s military forced some 700,000 Rohingya out of their homes and across the border into Bangladesh. Photo: Yousuf Tushar for The Wall Street Journal
The violent antidrug campaign is drawing comparisons by human-rights groups with similar crackdowns in the region, where the Philippines war on drugs launched by President Rodrigo Duterte has led to thousands of deaths.
“Bangladesh deserves to be commended for its tremendous support for Rohingya refugees, setting an example for the world,” U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said, in a statement condemning the drug killings. “I urge the government to build on this respect for human rights in other areas, including in its fight against drug-related crimes.”
Critics accuse Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government of taking advantage of the drug crackdown to intimidate her opponents in the lead-up to elections expected in December. Human-rights groups have accused the government of arbitrarily arresting hundreds of opposition supporters and of using excessive force against protesters.
Humaiun Kobir, a spokesman for the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party, said Ms. Hasina’s followers are using the antidrug campaign as a “smokescreen” to kill party members. The BNP says at least three figures associated with the opposition, including a student leader named Amzad Hossain, 25, have been killed, despite no evidence that they were involved with drugs as alleged.
Borhan Uddin, a police commander in the district where Mr. Hossain lived, said he was killed in a gunfight as part of the antidrug campaign. Family members said police took Mr. Hossain alive in a 2 a.m. raid at the family compound on May 22. The next morning, they viewed his body at the morgue with seven bullets in the chest.
Mr. Inu, the information minister, denied that drug killings were politically motivated and said any police officers who behaved improperly would be investigated and punished.
During the drug raid earlier this week, dogs began barking and rickshaw drivers honked, as police crowded slum streets, blocking traffic. One commander, requesting anonymity, said the problem of yaba flowing from Myanmar wasn’t so different from the Rohingya crisis. “Myanmar sends them into our country. It’s not our problem, but we have to deal with it,” he said.
— Myo Myo in Yangon, Myanmar contributed to this article. Write to Jon Emont at firstname.lastname@example.org