More than 70 people were killed and thousands arrested recently in Bangladesh in what many analysts have started to label as a “Philippines-style” anti-narcotics crackdown.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who has recently launched her bid for re-election as the leader of the ruling Awami League (AL) party, said that, following the government’s successful containment of Islamic militants, it now wants to protect the country from the menace of illegal drugs, particularly amphetamine-type stimulants (called “shabu” in the Philippines and “yaba” in Bangladesh and Thailand).
The striking resemblance of Bangladesh’s antidrugs campaign to Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s drug war betrays its desired outcome: to sow terror and consolidate political power, not to eradicate drugs.
As in the Philippines, the campaign in Bangladesh is premised on shaky evidence, with the Bangladeshi government making a baseless claim that 7 million of its citizens are addicted to yaba. Alleged drug suspects killed during police operations were also found with small packets of drugs, sometimes weapons. Echoing the script of the Philippine National Police, the Bangladeshi Home Ministry said its operatives had no choice but to kill, because the suspects resisted arrest and fought back.
The AL government is clearly copying Duterte’s playbook. The only difference is that, while Duterte’s war on drugs has plunged Philippine democracy into a crisis, Bangladesh was already descending into authoritarianism prior to the drug war, with the AL government accused of persecuting the political opposition and human-rights defenders.
Duterte has been successful in using the drug war as a political tool to sow fear and division, discredit democratic institutions and the free press, and push back on pressure from the international community, while maintaining popular support. With Bangladesh heading to the polls late this year, this makes its so-called “Philippine-style” war on drugs an attractive strategy for Hasina and the AL.
If the real intention of the government is to address Bangladesh’s drug problem, it should break away from Duterte’s brutal “war on drugs” approach and look instead into effective public health-oriented models that are being implemented in some nearby countries.
Malaysia, a predominantly Islamic country, has demonstrated political will in implementing government-financed harm reduction programmes that look at drugs more as a health issue and less as a subject of punitive law enforcement. It is also moving into voluntary drug treatment, where nonviolent drug offenders are not detained and forced to undergo treatment or rehabilitation.
Thailand, which suffered from the Thaksin-era war on drugs that killed and incarcerated thousands of suspected drug offenders, has been implementing harm-reduction services that have been successful in reducing drug-related health risks, such as HIV and hepatitis B and C.
Key government officials are also continuously advocating for a change in Thailand’s harsh drug policy to introduce a more pragmatic and health-oriented approach.
It would do Bangladesh well to listen to the director of Thailand’s narcotics control board, who said that Thailand “tried the Philippines way, and it failed”.
Inside and outside Southeast Asia, there are ongoing harm-reduction interventions that prove that effective drug programmes don’t require killing or detaining people who use drugs. While the existing programmes in countries such as Malaysia and Thailand are by no means perfect, they show the way toward a more effective and humane approach to the drug problem.
That Bangladesh is imitating Duterte’s drug war should be a cause for national shame in the Philippines, a nation that once took pride in inspiring a wave of democratisation globally after it ousted the Marcos regime through a bloodless “people power revolution”.
Both Bangladesh and the Philippines should also be a cautionary tale on how democracy needs to be more inclusive – to embrace even the most stigmatised groups – to deny leaders a populist tool to set up authoritarian regimes.
JONAS BAGAS is a Filipino HIV and LGBT rights advocate working for Apcaso, a Bangkok-based regional network of NGOs engaging on health and human rights in Asia and the Pacific