Refugees recruited as meth mules as drug trade forges unlikely link between Rohingya and Myanmar troops
Drug seizures in Bangladesh camps are skyrocketing, as organised crime gangs recruit from the vast pool of cheap and expendable labour
Huge quantities of meth are seeding unrest inside Bangladesh’s refugee camps, as jobless Rohingya turn drug runners for a criminal chain that stretches back to Myanmar – and the soldiers who drove them out.
The little red methamphetamine pills, better known as yaba, that have got Southeast Asia high for decades are pouring westwards from Myanmar.
Rohingya refugees are moving them across Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar district, which hosts around one million of their stateless Muslim minority.
And drug money is bringing new problems to an already traumatised refugee community.
Bangladesh authorities warn shootings, extortion and kidnappings linked to drug disputes are on the rise, adding another layer of complexity and danger to life in the seething camps.
“Many young men are falling into the drug lords’ trap,” said Abdus Salam, a Rohingya community leader in the Shamlapur refugee camp.
“It’s very easy to exploit refugees.”
Over 100 Rohingya have been arrested on drug charges since last August, when a vicious crackdown by Myanmar’s army expelled the Muslim minority into Bangladesh in huge numbers.
Drug seizures in Cox’s Bazar are skyrocketing, as organised crime gangs recruit from the vast pool of cheap and expendable labour.
On March 15, 1.8 million tablets were dumped along the Cox’s shore by spooked traffickers. Days later, a further 900,000 were found abandoned in boats.
But a lot more are getting into Bangladesh undetected, according to the country’s Department of Narcotics Control, which estimates 250-300 million pills will be popped this year.
Drug money is also blurring dividing lines in unexpected ways, as ethnic Rakhine Buddhists – who loathe the Rohingya and helped force them out – elbow their way into the trafficking racket into Bangladesh.
With the price of a yaba pill tripling to US$3-US$3.5 in Bangladesh “no one cares who is Buddhist or Rohingya”, said Bangladesh Border Guard commander Lieutenant Colonel Asadud Zaman Chowdhury.
Nearly all of Bangladesh’s yaba arrives from Myanmar across the Naf river, which last year was packed with boatloads of fleeing Rohingya, their exit framed by dark billows of smoke from torched villages.
Now, the boats also ferry pills, made in the meth labs of eastern Myanmar.
They arrive around Teknaf, where locals say the trickle-down of narco profits can be seen in the souped-up motorbikes and lavish homes that stand out in an otherwise scruffy district.
A single main road runs from Teknaf north to Cox’s Bazar City.
It is peppered with checkpoints, but still the poorest locals and increasing numbers of Rohingya take the daily risk of trafficking drugs.
On a recent Friday AFP witnessed two seizures within an hour along the road.
The first was of 12,000 of the vanilla-scented pills, found stuffed under a seat on an abandoned bus, which was aptly named the Nil Enterprise.
Soon afterwards, a woman travelling with her young daughter was arrested with drugs stashed inside pouches of tamarind. She could be jailed for up to two years.
On the other side of the border, the identities of those at the pinnacle of the Rakhine drug pyramid remain elusive, but lower down the chain, officials, local businessmen and soldiers have all been caught.
On Monday an army private was arrested at a checkpoint in Myanmar’s Maungdaw district with 200,000 tablets – a subsequent search led to a stash house with 1.6 million pills packed in bags ready for transit.
On October 1, 2017, while Rakhine was still white-hot with violence, a pair of soldiers were detained in Maungdaw town – a few kilometres from the Naf river – with nearly two million yaba pills worth around US$2.8 million locally.
Big pay days are also stirring unlikely alliances.
Speculation was mounting that Rakhine and Rohingya militant groups, both fighting Myanmar’s state for different reasons, were collaborating over drugs.
“They are involved in trafficking together to buy weapons,” a Myanmar drug police source said, requesting anonymity.
Trapped in poverty and unlikely to return to Myanmar any time soon, Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar are using drug money to claw their way from penury.
“I got involved in this business five years ago after meeting a powerful local man,” a Rohingya mule-turned-dealer said.
The money got his family out of the refugee camp to a flat in Cox’s Bazar city.
“If I don’t do it, someone else will,” he added.
But where the drugs flow, violence follows.
Anwara Begum pushes her finger through a hole in a T-shirt made by the bullet that killed her son, Hossein Ali, in a squalid lane of the Nayapara camp near Teknaf.
Police linked the killing to drugs and a notorious thug in the camp with alleged ties to a Rohingya militant group.
The victim’s family denied the drug link, saying Hossein was killed over a festering dispute between families.
Regardless of the motive, his murder – and a spate of kidnappings – has electrified the Rohingya camp grapevine with fear and rumour.
“Thirty or forty guys in each camp are gangsters,” said his older brother Hassan Ali, 32, who said he was the intended target.
“I don’t feel safe any more, but we have nowhere to go.”