By Joseph Allchin
When it comes to yaba, Tarique started young. Though he’s only 24, it’s been a long road, visible in his pallid complexion and scrawny frame. It all began at his brother’s wedding: Amid the glitz and uproar of a Bangladeshi celebration, Tarique, then just 14, got his first taste of the vanilla-scented fumes of yaba, a small pink pill that is rapidly sweeping Asia, its rise powered not just by its saccharine aroma, but also by its primary active ingredient —methamphetamine.
Bangladesh is the latest country to fall for this neatly packaged dose of stimulants that includes caffeine, vanilla flavorings and bulking agents along with the meth. It’s usually smoked off tinfoil, as the pill melts and the user inhales plumes of vanilla-scented vapor. A densely populated nation of some 150 million people, Bangladesh is now on the front lines of the yaba epidemic, with Jane’s Intelligence Review, the respected journal on international security, asserting that the trafficking organization in nearby Burma “is deliberately providing a promotional rate for exports to Bangladesh.”
Burma (also known as Myanmar), by far the largest producer of yaba, is a country whose borderlands are often beyond the reach of the government, which only recently became a nominally civilian entity after almost 50 years of military rule. These hinterlands are home to rebel outfits like the United Wa State Army (UWSA) — an armed ethnic insurgent group that is believed to have tens of thousands of members — which have found the lucrative yaba trade to be their new calling, often in connivance with a corrupt central government.Jane’s notes that “unconfirmed media reports of uniformed UWSA personnel seen in the [Burmese] border town of Maungdaw in 2010 raise the possibility of a UWSA trading office having been set up there.”
According to Bertil Lintner, a veteran journalist and author of Merchants of Madness, the seminal work on the trade: “The United Wa State Army is by far the main player and controls large chunks of territory along the Chinese frontier [with Burma] in the northeast, and a smaller base area adjacent to Thailand in the south. Inside this area, yaba producers can set up labs and pay ‘taxes’ to the UWSA.”
More Profitable Than Heroin
For generations, heroin was the most profitable drug produced in the border area between Burma, Thailand and Laos known as the Golden Triangle, with the profits often being used to fund various insurgencies. Professor Alfred McCoy detailed this trade in his book The Politics of Heroin in South East Asia, in which he alleges that the anticommunist Chinese nationalists known as the Kuomintang (KMT), in exile in northern Burma, produced and sold heroin with the help of the CIA to fund their operations. Indeed, he quotes one KMT commander as saying: “We have to continue to fight the evil of Communism, and to fight you must have an army, and an army must have guns, and to buy guns you must have money. In these mountains, the only money is opium.”
Over the course of several decades, however, a complex series of political events led to the rise of the multibillion-dollar yaba industry, which has largely supplanted the heroin trade. For one thing, in 1989, the Communist Party of Burma imploded in a coup. Chinese funding for the country dried up and a new entity, the UWSA, was born. After years of insurgency, the rebel group signed a peace deal with the Burmese military government that had “business opportunities implicit in the agreement,” according to Jane’s Intelligence Review, which also states that “the leading pioneer of the shift into methamphetamine was Wei Xuegang, a senior UWSA commander.”
Meanwhile, in Thailand in the late 1980s, a variant of methamphetamine known as yama (horse drug) started to gain popularity, primarily among truck drivers who needed to stay up all night. Yama’s surge in popularity came about, ironically, after the Thai government banned the sale of conventional amphetamines in 1988. Soon Thai students also began using yama, which was produced and sold illegally. In 1996, as the Thai police started to encounter its effects on young users, they coined a new name for it — yaba (madness drug).
With the market in Thailand opening up, producers like Wei Xuegang sensed an opportunity to shift from heroin, which had long been a profitable export, to yaba because, as Jane’s notes, it was a potent stimulant, “far better suited to markets in a region embarking on rapid economic growth.” It was also easier to produce than heroin and less reliant on erratic harvests.
Yaba grew slowly in the 1990s, with the exports largely confined to Thailand. By the turn of the millennium, Thailand’s version of the DEA, the Office of Narcotics Control Board, estimated that one billion of these small pink pills were being smuggled across the border annually.
This situation could hardly escape the attention of Thai politicians. In 2003, Thailand’s prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, declared war on the yaba trade. In a single year, Thai police killed 2,500 alleged users and dealers of the drug, all without trial. It soon became clear to yaba producers that they needed to open new markets.
That’s when yaba started to appear in Bangladesh. Tarique says his habit began in 2003, after he tried it at his brother’s wedding. “I used to take it to hang out with my friends and roam around, just to have fun — but after a while it changed me; it changed my mentality. After having it, I didn’t feel like talking to anyone. I was all alone. I was freaking out because of a little pin drop of sound… I mean paranoia,” he adds.
Tarique is seated in the CREA rehab center in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. He says his honeymoon with yaba lasted four years — and then things became increasingly desperate. “I took 300,000 taka [$3,750] that was meant for my exam registration and spent that on yaba, and then I ran away from home. That’s when my parents knew I was into yaba,” he says. “I spent the money in seven days — it’s a lot of money.”
He also started dealing to fund his habit. “Once people become addicted, they have to,” he says. “The bigger dealers will give you yaba pills for free.” Tarique would then sell them to his friends. “My dealer was the biggest dealer in Dhaka — he still is. He takes them from Teknaf, near Burma, and then he brings it over here. He was not from a wealthy family; he doesn’t take drugs. He does it because of money — to survive.” The dealer would give Tarique around 100 pills at 10 a.m.; by 5 p.m. he would be sold out.
Tarun Kanti Gayen, the director of the CREA rehab center where Tarique is being treated, says: “Before 2011, we were receiving yaba clients, but the numbers were very low — 80% of our clients were heroin users… Since 2011, the numbers started rising, and right now around 60 to 70 percent are yaba users.”
According to Shafiq Ur Rahman, the director general of police in Chittagong, Bangladesh’s second-largest city, which is close to the Burmese border, they first noticed a growth in smuggling five years ago. Since then, interdiction rates suggest an incredible growth in the yaba trade. In 2008, the Bangladeshi authorities seized some 36,000 pills. One year later, that number had risen to 130,000. By 2012, the exponential growth in the drug’s popularity led to seizures of nearly two million pills in a single year.
Authorities in Thailand estimate that these seizures represent only 10 percent of what is actually being smuggled, since law enforcement in Bangladesh has far fewer resources than in Thailand. Aiding the trade is rampant corruption. Tarique alleges police connivance: “Even the police are dealers over there [in his neighborhood]. You won’t believe me, but it’s true.” He also claims that his dealer set him up. Tarique was scheduled to receive a delivery of 700 pills, but then the cops suddenly showed up, confiscated the drugs, released his dealer and put Tarique in prison.
“I cried for days — hell is better than jail,” Tarique says. In Bangladesh, ordinary criminals are mixed with the lifers, who would “forcefully try and make love,” as well as beat up newcomers. The jail was also awash in drugs. He got out after three weeks, but only because his family was able to bribe a judge.
“A Well-Organized Export Drive”
Yaba is cheap to make, which means it’s especially attractive as a source of profits. One pill costs around nine cents to produce in a lab in northern Burma. By the time the pills reach the town of Maungdaw on the Burma-Bangladesh border, they fetch around 25 cents apiece. Once the shipment crosses the border, the pills have been marked up to 60 cents each; then the price virtually doubles at every step as the pills move closer to the Bangladeshi capital. Once in Dhaka, a good pill will cost around $6.25 on the street, with lower-quality pills going for around $3.
“Nowadays, everybody is selling yaba — you can find it across the street [from the rehab center],” Tarique says. “Four to five years back, it was rare, but now it’s dangerous… you can find yaba everywhere.” He adds that you can even have the pills delivered to your house, often by poor young children enlisted as couriers.
Despite the booming trade, CREA director Tarun argues that “the demand is not created by the users. Yes, it is maintained by the users,” he adds, “but in the initiation phase, the demand is created by the peddlers or dealers — so it’s all about the availability of the drug.” His argument is corroborated by the research conducted by Jane’s, which notes: “The striking surge since 2009 and the distance of the Bangladesh border from production centers in Shan State [in northeast Burma] appear to reflect a well-organized export drive rather than a more gradual growth in the user base.”
Bangladesh is indeed a fertile market. The country has a population of over 150 million, almost three times that of Thailand. While the majority of people are still very poor, the country’s economy, like many in Asia, is growing fast, at around five to six percent every year. This has meant a burgeoning middle class. And since Bangladesh is also a Muslim-majority nation, alcohol is banned and hard to come by, which means that students or affluent young people are short on ideas for fun on a Friday night (or Tuesday daytime for some).
The country’s drug culture, meanwhile, is also evolving. Up until the 1980s, few narcotics were consumed in Bangladesh except for marijuana. This was a traditional, even spiritual practice that saw government-registered dispensaries selling pot over the counter. Rural communities still grow their own bush weed and relieve a hard day in the fields with a toke.
However, an official ban on marijuana in the 1980s soon saw heroin flooding the market. “Ganja was restricted from the 1980s under the military rule of Ershad,” says Tarun, referring to Hussain Muhammad Ershad, the Bangladeshi autocrat who ruled from 1983 to 1990. “After that, we saw a rise in the use of hard drugs — so maybe there is a correlation.”
As a result of the ganja ban, Bangladeshis replaced marijuana with heroin and, latterly, yaba. Many suspect that Ershad’s business associates were involved in the heroin trade. Moreover, Ershad was staunchly pro-American during the Cold War. Bearing in mind that heroin in Bangladesh has always been of Afghan origin, it certainly raises the question why the sudden influx occurred at precisely the time that pro-American forces in Afghanistan were producing heroin to fund the anti-Soviet insurgency.
Heroin is still very cheap and prevalent in Bangladesh. Tarun estimates that a small packet or hit retails for around 60 cents — around 10 times less than the cost of a good yaba pill, despite the fact that yaba is easier to produce. But heroin is considered “a low-class drug; it’s not a drug of the gentleman,” Tarun explains. “Yaba is white-collar, so those who take yaba are higher-class, because it’s expensive.”
The predominance of yaba is also tied to the ascent of modern Asia. Much like the growth of cocaine use in the West in the 1980s, yaba fits with the accelerated times. According to Tarun, business executives and directors will take a break and bust out some pink pills and tinfoil for a quick mid-afternoon meth binge and then “work beyond their schedule.”
While the Bangladeshi government is “not very sensitive” to the issue, Tarun says, that is beginning to change. In August, the country witnessed perhaps its most sensational crime involving the drug. A teenager named Oishee had become accustomed to going out and doing yaba with her friends. Her policeman father became aware that something was up, so he grounded her. So frustrated was Oishee with her punishment that she drugged both her parents — and once they were sound asleep, she stabbed them to death.
Tarun says that he has seen a marked increase in psychiatric problems in the people at his rehab center since the start of the yaba boom, with as many as 64 percent of yaba users being afflicted, compared to only 10 percent of heroin users.
It is clear from across the region, then, that not only have governments failed to stem the flow of yaba, but that they have often also prepared the ground by criminalizing more benign substances. And in a pattern familiar from our own War on Drugs, while interdiction rates have reached record highs, the growth of yaba’s popularity shows no signs of slowing. Tarique cites people he knows who “are frequently going to Burma and coming back to Bangladesh — from them we know the Burmese authorities are not taking the appropriate steps.” Likewise for the authorities in his own nation: “For some unknown reason, they are not taking the appropriate action.”