Burmese ‘yaba’ finds new Asian market

One of Burma’s most lucrative, albeit illegal, exports has found a blossoming market in Bangladesh, with trade in the methamphetamine pill known commonly as ‘yaba’ on the increase.

The two countries share a border between Bangladesh’s southern tip and Burma’s western Arakan state. Local business people in Teknaf on the Bangladeshi side of the border estimate that the influx in the stimulants has increased from consignments of several hundred to packages of thousands.

The trade has evolved from use of cross-border couriers to being hidden among legal commodities in the hundreds of ships that make the short journey across the Naf river dividing Teknaf and Burma’s Maungdaw. A single yaba pill, also known as Amphetamine-Type Stimulants (ATS), is said to be worth 100 taka ($US1.40) in Maungdaw, but when it comes off the boat in Teknaf the price doubles.

From here it is loaded onto trucks or other transport and taken to the affluent narcotics market in Dhaka, where again the price of a single unit can more than double in price. Symptomatic of the increasing occurrence of yaba was a seizure by Bangladeshi police on 19 May of some 40,000 pills in a minibus leaving Teknaf.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that several factors have contributed to the increased trade. Bangladesh is effectively a dry state owing to the primary religion of the country, Islam. This has meant that as the aspirational upper and middle class youth in the capital look to experiment with intoxicants, less detectable substances such as ATS are chosen ahead of alcohol, which is hard to procure.

Business people in Teknaf also suggest that Bangladeshi import taxes on legal goods such as timber that come from Burma has pushed traders to seek ways to improve or even gain profit margins through contraband, such as liquor and ATS.

The pills are still said to be beyond the reach of all but the wealthiest of consumers in Dhaka, but as is often the case, the victims are those caught in the middle. Locals reported that a truck driver was asked by smugglers to carry a consignment of yaba from the regional centre, Cox’s Bazaar, to the capital, Dhaka; on refusal he was threatened but left unencumbered. On arrival at his destination, however, he was met by associates of the smugglers, who murdered him in reprisal for refusing the offer.

Another reason for the rise in methamphetamine is given by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), who in a report last year noted that “new significant sources of diversion were identified, such as Bangladesh.”

The report noted in December last year that “there also appears to be a shift in the pattern of trafficking routes within Myanmar [Burma] itself”, with seizures in Bangladesh suggesting a westward flow to South Asia. “There have also been reports of seizures of high-purity methamphetamine pills from Myanmar, in countries which have not been traditional markets for these pills such as Bangladesh,” it continued.

The diversion theory is echoed in a Jane’s Intelligence Review report that suggests tensions between the Burmese government and ethnic armies have forced an increase of sales, which they suspect is why the UNODC has reported an annual three-fold increase in seizures in the East Asia-Pacific region.

According to Thai Office of Narcotic Control Bureau (ONCB) sources quoted by Jane’s, this has even resulted in drugs being distributed to dealers on credit, inevitably leading to greater growth potential and a serious organised element to the business. Such a “diversion” of tactics to increase sales would also help to account for the search for new markets, either in Bangladesh or via Bangladesh.

The UNODC also notes that Bangladesh’s quota of the legally available precursor chemical pseudoephedrine has tripled, and that “Bangladesh may also become a target for diversion of pseudoephedrine into neighbouring Myanmar’s illicit methamphetamine manufacture if pressure upon Myanmar’s precursor supply continues.” Burma’s usual source of precursor chemicals is China, but this source is said to be becoming less reliable as authorities there clamp down.

Jane’s recent analysis concludes that the United Wa State Army (UWSA) in eastern Burma is still the country’s largest producers of ATS and heroin. Analyst Bertil Lintner alleges that UWSA uniforms were seen in Maungdaw last year. Locals however suggest that on both sides of the border exists collusion by the authorities.

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