It’s primary active ingredient is methamphetamine with a hint of caffeine. The typical Yaba users are working males aged 16–40 years old, and its use is widespread amongst both female and male prostitutes in Thailand and Cambodia.
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.”
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.
In 2006, Yaba consumption became fashionable for the well-to-do in Bangladesh. A series of highly publicized drug raids in 2007 by authorities implicated some well-known business people.
Although the extent of Yaba abuse in Bangladesh and India is not precisely known, 1.2 million tablets were confiscated by authorities in 2007 according a rehabilitation centre in Chang Mai. t is also believed those who use it on a regular basis are frequently involved in the distribution of the drug, either directly or indirectly. It is commonly known in Bangladesh as Pill, BABA, Gari, Guti, Bori, among other street names.
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.
Bangladesh is indeed a fertile market for a drug like Yaba. 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, 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.”
Yaba tablets were sold at gas stations and commonly used by Thai truckers to stay awake. After many horrific long-distance bus accidents, they were outlawed by the Thai government in 1970. The deposed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s campaign from 2003 onwards to eliminate drug-trafficking has further helped to curtail widespread use, in particular, use of the drug by bus drivers is not as widespread as it was in the 1980s. As a result of the ganja ban, Bangladeshis replaced marijuana with heroin and, latterly, yaba.
And there you have it! Yaba! Ever heard of it?