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The Rohingya, Drugs, and Narratives of Difference

The lives of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh are being put at risk due to unsubstantiated claims about their involvement with drugs.

The Rohingya people, an ethnic group from the Rakhine state of Myanmar, have been subject to a brutal military crackdown since 2016 which has left an estimated 43,000 missing, presumed dead. Since the beginning of this crisis, it is estimated that over 600,000 men, women, and children have fled over the border into Bangladesh in order to escape the same fate.

Since this crisis began, news stories have begun emerging in Bangladesh which assert that these refugees are responsible for the smuggling of the methamphetamine-derivative yaba into the country, despite a dearth of supporting evidence.

Yaba use has soared in popularity in Bangladesh over recent years, according to experts.

“Today 80 percent of drug users in Bangladesh are on Yaba. In 2002, very few people were affected by Yaba, maybe 100. But now, around 60,000 people are using Yaba in Cox’s Bazar [a town near the Myanmar border] on a daily basis. Film stars, doctors, teachers, house-wives, students are all taking Yaba pills,” according to Didarul Alam Rashed, the director of a chain of drug treatment centres.

Some within the country are purporting this trend is linked to the increasing number of Rohingya refugees living along the border. Quoting anonymous Bangladeshi officials, several news outlets –local publications, as well as Reuters and the Diplomat – have reported that yaba is being produced in Myanmar and then smuggled into Bangladesh by Rohingya refugees.

Reading between the lines of many news reports, the intended narrative is clear; the Rohingya are responsible. Other factors – increased demand, lower prices, changes in availability of other drugs, and various socio-economic issues – are secondary, if deemed to be relevant at all.

Narratives are essential tools in shaping our reality; they tell us where to look and what to think. The blaming of the Rohingya for the influx of yaba is eerily reminiscent of the narratives concerning “Marijuana mania” in the US in the 1920s, which blamed Mexican immigrants for an apparent rise in cannabis use. These narratives conflate a minority group’s identity with the use or supply of drugs, beginning a process of fearmongering and “othering” that can result in inhumane and repressive policies towards the group in question.

According to sociologists, “othering” is the process by which the difference between “us” and “them” is constructed. Historically, it is common for public fears about drugs to be manipulated to engender a sense of difference upon which discriminatory policies are justified. Following the Mexican revolution, the US government fuelled fears about “Marihuana mania” and the threat that “killer weed” posed to “American values” before publicising the narrative that cannabis was being smuggled into the country by Mexican migrants. This revived the migrant/criminal trope for the 20th century and indeed drug-historians argue that the Spanish word “marijuana” was used rather than “cannabis” to make the drug sound more Mexican, thereby fusing “drugs” and “Mexican-ness” in the minds of the American public. This led to the enacting of innumerable repressive policies that devastated innocent lives, a legacy that survives to this day. Similar othering has taken place elsewhere in the name of drugs, including the treatment of Chinese migrants in Victorian Britain with the narrative of them spreading opium use.

Therefore, although nascent, the emerging discourse concerning the Rohingya and drugs could fuel a destructive process of othering in Bangladesh.

These stories will help define the relations between the Rohingya and the rest of the world if no strong counter-narrative exists. If the Rohingya become tacitly associated with yaba then it is not hard to imagine policies akin to those faced by similarly “othered” minority groups becoming reality. Already, police presence is increasing along the border, and many Rohingya have been arrested or killed in supposed “shoot outs” with the Bangladeshi security forces. Disturbing stories have begun to emerge of abuses of power and Rohingya refugees being framed of offences by locals.

Therefore, due to the publication of many unverified claims, a vital haven for these refugees is at risk of becoming another place in which they are an unwanted “other”. Stories of difference have already cost these people their homes, their land, and their lives. It is time to change the narrative.

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