Bangladesh is currently in the midst of a war against drugs, championed by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and distinguished members of her Awami League party. The campaign started after talks between Hasina and her Indian counterpart Narendra Modi in May, ahead of general elections in both countries. It is being implemented by the Rapid Action Battalion, Bangladesh’s elite anti-crime and anti-terrorism paramilitary force, and the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence, the military intelligence service of the Bangladesh Armed Forces. Though a state of Emergency has not been declared, the Constitution of Bangladesh is no longer in effect.
For at least three weeks now, during the month of Ramzan that usually sees no political activity in Bangladesh, people alleged to be involved in the drug trade, or drug addicts, have been arrested with little respect paid to due process and killed without trial. A minimum of 130 people have been confirmed dead, and over 12,000 arrested, straining an already overcrowded prison system. Bangladeshi human rights activists allege that they have evidence that the rate of extrajudicial executions stands at a dozen a day, but the fear of reprisals keeps them from speaking up.
India’s silence on the matter, particularly given its enormous sway in the region, implies support. The failure of major international human rights organisations – including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International – to take up the matter reveals that even the world of humanitarians is not free of realpolitik.
The likely reason for this apathy is the fact that the victims of the anti-narcotics drive are from the lower and lower-middle classes. These people lack the resources and ability to lobby human rights organisations, as war criminals have done in the recent past. This has emboldened cabinet ministers and high-ranking members of the ruling Awami League, with its general secretary Obaidul Quader declaring that citizens are guilty until investigations prove their innocence – turning the established legal principle on its head.
While the border with Myanmar – from where drugs such as methamphetamine are smuggled – remains porous, Rohingya refugees who fled Myanmar last year are being blamed for the influx of drugs. This appeases India’s anti-Rohingya sentiment. But worryingly, the singling out of Rohingyas may be a dog whistle. The community is already under scrutiny from the Bangladeshi military, which has a history of targeting the most vulnerable.
Drug trade in Bangladesh
Drug abuse is a decades-long problem in Bangladesh, but it has been absent from the national and public discourse.
According to Bangladesh’s Department of Narcotics Control, of the 70 lakh drug addicts in the country, 50 lakh are hooked on to yaba, as methamphetamine is known in this region. No coherent plan to cripple the drug trade has ever been designed, let alone a comprehensive policy aimed to educate and provide proper treatment to those affected, and to choke off imports and manufacturing. Indeed, if drug dealers, like Islamists, are capable of as much violence as the state suggests, this breakdown of law and order has occurred on the current government’s watch.
Rather than being a populist move to remedy previous negligence and incompetence, an anti-drug drive is the perfect cover for settling personal and political scores, and for targeted attacks on those who have drawn the ire of the Rapid Action Battalion and Directorate General of Forces Intelligence.
The Rapid Action Battalion comprises police and military personnel, with command resting with the military. It has been a contentious instrument of suppression since its formation in 2004 during the coalition government of Bangladesh Nationalist Party and Jamaat-e-Islami. After commencing operations in mid-2004, the death squad conducted extrajudicial executions of over 900 Bangladeshi citizens under the guise of an anti-crime initiative. This continued until the end of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party-Jamaat government in late-2006.
India’s practice of encounter killings was imported into Bangladesh, complete with the rhetoric. In addition to the murders, hundreds of cases of enforced disappearances and torture attributable to the Rapid Action Battalion have been documented since then. These were already staples of the modus operandi of the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence.
When a civil society-backed military regime replaced the Bangladesh Nationalist Party-Jamaat regime in 2007-’08, many praised the actions of the Rapid Action Battalion and Directorate General of Forces Intelligence, including Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus. Masquerading as an anti-corruption drive, the killings and kidnappings by the state continued and mutated.
Ironically, one of the few vocal critics of the Rapid Action Battalion during its formative years was Sheikh Hasina. She is now directing its current actions, refined and made more lethal and absolute through years of impunity.
The elite: Higher than the law
Yaba, which is sold in the form of a blood red pill, was first popularised as an expensive appetite suppressant amongst the Bangladeshi elite. Yet, the elite class remains immune to the law enforcement operation, enabling its members to be enlisted in the services of the state that grants them their riches. Apologia from them has ranged from dressing up fighting drugs and fighting crime as a patriotic duty commanded by the prime minister, to stoking nationalism, and diverting attention to the perceived problems or inefficiencies of other countries, especially any whose diplomats have been critical of Bangladesh. Other diversionary tactics include labelling critics as foreigners who are not aware of the reality on the ground. Furthermore, the elites make statements tacitly accepting authoritarianism, which masks their complicity and culpability in the problem by virtue of their continued refusal to hold power to account.
The government’s assertions about not sparing drug lords ring hollow when noted kingpins – such as Awami League MP Abdur Rahman Bodi, convicted on corruption charges related to illegal wealth in the past – are exonerated and allowed safe passage abroad.
Therein lies the real heart of the issue: The drug trade is impossible without the active participation of members of the ruling party and the very law enforcement agencies entrusted with rooting it out. However, these people will escape justice, thereby leaving the upper tiers of the drug network intact and the drug problem prevalent. Instead, people caught in the crosshairs of the government, Rapid Action Battalion and Directorate General of Forces Intelligence, such as Akramul Haque, will be murdered. The Rapid Action Battalion has said that they killed Haque in a gunfight on May 27 but his family has alleged that his was an extrajudicial killing and released audio clips as evidence of their claim.
Activists, press intimidated
When a handful of citizens dare to raise their voices in protest, the Rapid Action Battalion will be deployed, as it was in Dhaka on June 6, when members of the paramilitary force picked up activists protesting against the anti-narcotics drive.
When the media deviates from the state narrative and reports evidence of wrongdoing by the Rapid Action Battalion and Directorate General of Forces Intelligence, there are repercussions. For instance, on June 2, the website of The Daily Star newspaper was blocked in Bangladesh after it released the audio clips that implicated the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence and the Rapid Action Battalion in Haque’s murder.
the precedent of Thailand’s failed war on drugs, which eventually led to military rule in that country, signals a grim future for Bangladesh. A regime becomes more authoritarian as its foundations weaken. The corollary of this is that regime change only becomes possible by military might, which would plunge the citizens of Bangladesh into further crisis. The nation is being put on that road paved with violence and terror, perhaps irreversibly.