A war that might not go anywhere
It has become a ritual now.
Before the night begins, the news desk asks for the count for the day and then goes about the news treatment.
We are talking about the body counts -- the deaths in “gunfights” in the current anti-drug war. After all, we are now witnessing the bloodiest anti-crime drive with death tolls already surpassing that of the Operation Clean Heart (57 deaths) or even the anti-militant drive after the Gulshan attack (80 deaths).
As the figures pile on, the cracks also widen. There appears a lot of things to ask about and a lot of explanations to seek.
First, we can ask: If the law enforcers had such an elaborate list of drug dealers and their godfathers, why did they not intervene earlier? As far as we know the earliest list of some 554 drug dealers was drawn up in 2012. That is six years back. Why did we sit on it? The drug trade spiralled from that same year as figures of yaba seizure show an increase by a whopping 20 times.
Thereafter, at least three more lists were made, all drawn up years ago. One list inflated the number of drug criminals to 1,200 in 2014.
So what kept the law enforcers from taking actions? Why did we not bust the drug cartels at that time but let the things spiral into such a complex and difficult situation?
We have seen the police list which is a praiseworthy job they have done detailing the criminals and their political connections which obviously point to ruling party men. The list also details which policemen are involved in the yaba chain.
Several newspapers wrote about “yaba villages” in Teknaf where the drug lords had turned multi-millionaires overnight. Newspapers published pictures of their palatial residences. Why, after having so much of intelligence, we all sat and let things blow to this gargantuan proportion?
Now that the action has begun, why it has not been a coordinated drive. Raids have not been carried out simultaneously on multiple locations, giving time to the drug dealers to be alert and escape. As news reports have pointed out, the police had conducted raids with fanfare instead of secretive lightning moves thus allowing the criminals to slip out of the dens. Has it been a deliberate move to let the top guns escape the dragnet?
The more relevant question is: Will this drive stamp out the yaba menace as the ministers claim? Most likely not. Because so far only the small fries, the sellers who come from very poor background and find selling yaba as an easy way to make some earning are caught and eliminated.
The big names are all spared although several agencies have sent the home ministry several lists of the big shots that ostensibly contain names of ruling party leaders and even of two parliamentarians.
When the godfathers are spared, elimination of low-level operatives will not make any dent in the trade because new sellers will appear on the scene if the supply continues. Certainly the current raids are not aimed at those godfathers and drug lords who control the business because they do not live in slums and Bihari camps.
A simile can be found in Thailand's war on yaba initiated by former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra in 2003 which saw the killing of 2,500 in three months after the drug went out of control much to the like in Bangladesh.
But the targets were small fish like low-level dealers and hill tribe villagers. Rarely did the lists contain drug lords themselves but every death in the war is counted as a step toward success.
Although the Thai war on drug was supported by 97.4 percent of the population, the end result was frustrating: yaba has resurfaced in Thailand.
“Thailand's experience shows that the real culprits at the top of the drug pyramid often escape extralegal approaches to eradicating drug problems with impunity; after thousands of deaths, Colombia and Mexico discovered the same truth decades ago,” writes a research-based non-profit Australian media outlet The Conversation.
But the most important question is: What can we learn from similar drives against yaba in countries like Thailand and the Philippines? Already international media have been likening Bangladesh's anti-drug crackdown to that of Rodrigo Duterte's action in the Philippines started in June 2016 that saw the killing of 7,000 people in one year alone. His fight, supposed to end in March 2017, has now become an unending affair until the end of his presidential term in 2022.
The risks of such operations are that the law enforcers go rogue and become reckless in who they implicate in the drug crimes and who they kill. Already allegations are coming about killing the wrong people and seeking protection money with threat of “gunfight”.
In the Philippines, Duterte had to disengage the police from the drive after similar accusations especially following the death of a top South Korean businessman. Duterte was forced to tell his cops, "You are corrupt to the core."
The Guardian had probably summed up Duterte's drug war the best way with the headline “The Philippines can't fight its meth [yaba] battle until it wins the war on corruption.”
The same probably holds true for Bangladesh today.