Dhaka Courier

The War on Drugs has failed everywhere. Can it work here?

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Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has directed the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) to continue its drives against drug abusers and peddlers (collected)

The Philippines model of anti-drug war with extra-judicial killing at its core is popular in that country. People feel helpless against the onslaught of drugs overwhelming society and hence their Yes to such extreme measures. President Duterte in launching the campaign promised to clean up the country.

However, it has been criticized locally and internationally for the number of deaths resulting from police operations and alleged extra-judicial killings. Nevertheless, it’s supported by the majority of the local population.

In Bangladesh too, such an operation appears to be in place. The PM has personally declared that the war on drugs will be at equal footing as the war on terror.  She added that just as the anti-Jongi war was successful, the current war against drugs will also be.

The basic strategy of this war is to use ‘encounter’ killings as a tool to break up the network. It’s a very law enforcement in approach and operations. Already a dozen + have been killed including 9 last Saturday night alone.  Clearly the focus is on the street level peddlers.  However, for the moment major players are free though how long that will be is not sure. The Government has staked its prestige in this combing operations and can’t afford to fail after a promise from the top.

No two wars the same

For one, the Jongis / Violent Extremists are ideologically inspired and are ready to give their life to fulfill their political objectives. Their enemy is the State which means those who join the groups are extremely motivated and death has no or little meaning. Which is why, those who become VE are so very few in number.  Many security experts say that the total number of such extremists could be less than even a thousand in number some say it’s higher. In terms of containment this is tough but certainly more manageable in number than the addicts.

But the drug world is vast in many ways and built around greed and livelihood.  For one thing, the consumers alone are about 7 million going by general estimates and they are addict which mean they are physically committed to drugs. This commitment is no less powerful than ideology.  And that is an overwhelming number to start with.

This is not to mean that the current strategy of killing street level vendors will not impact but that a commercial sector with billions of taka involved can’t be shut down only by killing a few thousand peddlers.

The ecosystem of drugs

Instead of looking at it as a crime issue only, it’s better to look at it as an economic problem as well. This is because the scale of transactions is so heavy that it’s bigger than many legal sectors. The beneficiaries belong to every section of society including the all important police officials and political heavyweights. That means that any clampdown means hurting the interest of many people on whom the government also depends for political and law enforcement reasons. It’s therefore a much bigger war than perhaps the war on terror.

It’s not just that a section  of the rich are making money as kingpins  but a lot of middle and poor income people are also involved in the trade as reported everyday.  Hence dismantling this structure from supply to retail distribution is a huge task. When the consumer base is so big, the stakes are that high and the risks to continue the trade that much more worth it, the war is also that much difficult. Where is the plan for that?

A small concern

In February 2018, the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague announced a “preliminary examination” into killings linked to the Philippine government’s “war on drugs” since at least July 1, 2016.

Bangladeshi activists have already expressed concern saying that killing criminals without trial will not solve any problem. They have been saying so for years and nobody has paid any attention. There is very little chance that their words will be taken into account.

However, the scale of killing in this round is high and there is a chance that it may draw international attention which can be embarrassing particularly in a election year.  In fact that pushed Duterte to suspend his killing campaign. So perhaps some degree of reticence in action might serve everyone better.

But most importantly, Bangladeshi operations should learn a lesson from the Philippines. The anti-drug campaign becomes far more serious when one goes against the kingpins.  That is one of the reasons why Duterte had to stop the campaign. We have to wait and see what happens in BD.

Perhaps the most sobering thought also comes from where it all began. Even after all the killings, drug consumption continues there more or less intact. We can only know next year how successful Bangladesh war against drugs has been.

  • DhakaCourier
  • Vol 34
  • Issue 46

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