By Kamran Reza Chowdhury
Methamphetamine tablets made in Myanmar that were traditionally smuggled through southeastern Bangladesh are coming across the border from India, Bangladeshi officials told BenarNews.
Meanwhile, local law-enforcement authorities confirmed that smuggling rose sharply during the past three years in Cox’s Bazar district, where 14 suspected drug dealers, including five Rohingya, were shot dead by police this month. Cox’s Bazar, located in the southeastern corner of Bangladesh, borders Myanmar and is home to hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees.
Despite recent statements from Bangladeshi officials that they had demolished a drug network in the district, evidence suggests that smuggling routes shifted north in response to an anti-drug crackdown in Bangladesh. In October 2018, the government of the South Asian country approved a draft law allowing the death penalty for drug offenses.
“We have come to know from the field that they [drug smugglers] are now trying to push yaba through the Bangladesh-India international border,” said Jamal Uddin Ahmed, director general of the home ministry’s department of narcotics control.
In its 2018 report, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said India’s anti-narcotics bureau had seized huge quantities of yaba tablets, which contain a mixture of meth and caffeine. The drugs appeared to have originated in Myanmar and were destined for Bangladesh and the seizures occurred between August 2017 and February 2018.
Champai district in India’s Mizoram state, which shares a 400-km (250-mile) unfenced border with Myanmar, has emerged as the main transit hub for smuggling yaba from Myanmar, a senior narcotics department official in Guwahati, India, told BenarNews.
“From there to Agartala in Tripura state and Kolkata to be sent to Bangladesh,” said the official who requested anonymity.
“Many clandestine factories are run by militant groups that supply Myanmar with pseudoephedrine, which is used to make methamphetamine and other derivatives,” the official said.
At least 53 million yaba pills, mainly from the Teknaf sub-district of Cox’s Bazar, which sits next to Myanmar’s Rakhine state, were recovered in 2018, according to figures from Bangladesh’s narcotics department. By comparison, authorities seized almost 41 million yaba in 2017, a significant jump compared to the 29.5 million tablets confiscated in 2016.
“Of course, yaba smuggling increased,” the official told BenarNews.
Authorities in and around Cox’s Bazar have partly blamed Rohingya refugees for the rise in sales and soaring use of methamphetamines from neighboring Myanmar. Rohingya leaders, on the other hand, said their young people were being pushed into crime because they could not legally work in Bangladesh.
From Jan. 4 to 24, at least 14 alleged drug dealers, including five Rohingya, were killed in Cox’s Bazar, Prodip Kumar Das, officer-in-charge of Teknaf police station, told BenarNews.
More than 700,000 Rohingya fled their homes at the height of a military crackdown in Myanmar’s Rakhine state in 2017. The United Nations, rights groups and the United States have accused Naypyidaw’s security forces of committing “ethnic cleansing” in Rakhine.
Rohingya refugees live in squalid, makeshift shelters and have no formal employment opportunities in Cox’s Bazar, but were considered carriers of the banned drugs, the source said.
“Maybe some of their leaders have been involved. But they cannot solely be blamed for increasing yaba smuggling,” said Ahmed, Bangladesh’s anti-narcotics chief. “As they are poor, they can easily be exploited as carriers.”
At least 37 suspected drug dealers were killed in shooting incidents and internal feuds among suspected drug dealers in Cox’s Bazar last year, an official said.
“The major yaba smugglers have gone into hiding as many of their leaders were killed in gunfight incidents,” Das said. “So the network has been destroyed. The flow of yaba into Bangladesh came down due to the ongoing anti-narcotics drive.”
“The Rohingya are increasingly getting involved in yaba smuggling,” he said, adding that at least 50 Rohingya were arrested during the past two months on charges of possession of yaba tablets.
“Most of the yaba carriers are the Rohingya. They secretly go to the Myanmar border and bring yaba into Bangladesh,” Maj. Sariful Islam Jomaddar, deputy chief of the Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) in Teknaf, told BenarNews.
Most of the yaba tablets are produced in clandestine laboratories in the China-Myanmar border of Shan and Cochin states, possibly near to the border of Bangladesh and Myanmar, according to a report from Bangladesh’s anti-narcotics department. Narcotics are smuggled from Myanmar’s Rakhine state through Maungdaw district and Buthidaung township in Rakhine, it said.
Coastal areas along the Bangladesh-Myanmar border and the Naf River are usual smuggling routes of yaba from Myanmar, the report said.
Bangladesh’s narcotics crackdown spurred criticisms from rights groups last year after police claimed that more than 200 suspected drug users had been shot dead over seven months beginning in May.
The killings prompted fears among rights groups that the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who began her fourth term this month after a landslide election win marred by fraud allegations, was imitating a Philippine-style campaign to wipe out drug addicts.
Jhumur Deb in Guwahati, India, contributed to this report.