Dhaka (Bangladesh), April 23, Smuggling of the highly-addictive drug yaba -- and its soaring acceptance among the youth and even celebrities -- is a challenge Bangladesh faces increasingly as Rohingya refugees from neighbouring Myanmar are suspected to be peddling it as a means of survival, say border guard officials.
On a recent trip to the border areas of Bangladesh, an Indian media group was told that a wave of yaba use has swept over the country as young people from the middle and upper income classes are experimenting with this "crazy medicine" and fuelling an alarming surge in addiction rates.
Officials of the Border Guards Bangladesh (BGB) said they have seized 5,297,234 pieces of yaba pills this year up to March and arrested 151 smugglers, including 15 Myanmar nationals, as a massive influx of Rohingya refugees brought increased smuggling from that country. The number of seized pills was around 14,997,570 in 2017 when 649 people, including 15 Myanmar nationals, were held.
Raids on fishing boats on the Naff river-- which divides Bangladesh and Myanmar, countries that share a 271-km boundary -- have reaped a massive haul of yaba pills, which is a rage among Bangladeshi youth.
"In one raid on March 15, we seized 1.8 million yaba pills abandoned in four sacks in the Naff river," Brigadier General S.M. Rakibullah told IANS.
Rakibullah, Additional Director General and Regional Commander of BGB's Adhoc Region Headquarters in Cox's Bazar, said: "It is the biggest ever yaba seizure by the BGB. The guards arrested 11 smugglers in March, including seven Rohingyas."
Shahidur Rahman, Director, BGB Battalion, Feni region, said yaba pills have become an easy source of income for the Rohingyas who have poured across the border since the Myanmar military launched a crackdown in their native Rakhine state on August 24-25 night last year.
Rohingya refugees act as carriers of yaba, which is known as "crazy medicine", and hand over the pills to dealers on the Bangladesh side of the border who then take them to the country's main cities, Rahman said.
Three young Rohingya refugees -- identified as Mohammed Saddam, Masud Talukder and Jamil Hossein -- were arrested last week in separate drives and over 100,000 yaba pills (worth in crores) were recovered from their possession in the Cox Bazar area, the official said.
He said "it is a way to make easy money as one tablet is sold illegally for 300 Taka".
A BGB official, on condition of anonymity, said the force has been facing tough times to stop the yaba smuggling because of the difficulty in patrolling the 54 km of the Naff river.
"Smuggling of yaba came to light some time towards the end of 2015, but the menace has grown since the influx of Rohingyas who are lured by Myanmar crime syndicate as carriers. The internal carriers have increased. Some of them are desperate just for survival," the official said.
The Sheikh Hasina government in Bangladesh has called for "zero tolerance" on smuggling of yaba, which has one too many nicknames and was outlawed in Thailand in the early 1970s.
Another BGB official said Thailand is one of the largest sources of yaba while Myanmar is one of the biggest producers of it. "Yaba pills are produced in labs on the Myanmar side."
He said Yaba is mostly popular among those who suffer from sexual or mental problems. "Some unscrupulous doctors and chemists prescribe and sell pills laced with yaba for immediate relief."
The drug is believed to have led to organised crime rackets, official corruption, street violence and broken families, said the official.
Many syndicates are bringing yaba pills from Teknaf to Dhaka through new routes after the contraband tablets are smuggled from Myanmar. From Teknaf, the pills first reach Patuakhali's Kuakata in fishing boats and then make their way through different modes of transport.
Acting regional commander of south east region of BGB, Colonel Gazi Md Ahsanuzzaman, said that yaba smuggling had gone up since last year.
"Tablets worth Taka 1.25 crore are smuggled per day into Bangladesh. Earlier the number was in a few lakhs. The tablets are smuggled through the Naff river via no-man's land near Gumdhum village in the Cox region of Bangladesh."
Yaba is spreading from urban to rural areas with drug abuse particularly increasing among street children, he said.
According to drug control authorities, from 2007 to 2010, illicit trafficking and abuse of yaba has increased almost 40 times in Bangladesh.