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'Oplosan' deaths threaten to rekindle Indonesia's alcohol debate

Moonshine risks stir social division ahead of elections

Officers at a Jakarta police station prepare evidence during an April 11 news conference on the arrest of suspects linked to the production and sale of bootleg alcohol.   © Reuters

JAKARTA -- When news broke in early April about an increase in deaths from drinking bootleg alcohol in Indonesia, it was initially dismissed as unimportant. The problem had been ongoing for years, with those who could not afford legal alcohol often turning to moonshine, known locally as "oplosan."

But the full scale of the problem has become clear since the start of the year. More than 100 people have died and dozens more have ended up critically ill in hospital. With pictures emerging of grieving family members, it has quickly became a topic everyone is talking about.

With regional elections scheduled for later this year and national and presidential votes in 2019, the long-standing debate over whether alcoholic beverages should be banned in the country is again likely to spark social division.

"This year is phenomenal," said Sugianto Tandra, a researcher at the Centre for Indonesian Policy Studies. The Jakarta-based think tank has been keeping track of deaths from homemade liquor since 2008. The annual average over the past 10 years has been 84 deaths, but the toll just four months into 2018 has already surpassed that. In some cases, the toxic concoction was found to be a mix of ginseng, cough medicine and mosquito repellent.

"[The oplosan] smelled more of alcohol, and it stung," Faisal, who survived drinking the toxic brew, told local media. "My body felt like it was burning when I drank it."

The reason for the sudden rise in deaths is unclear. Some media outlets have put it down to a bad batch. Others suggest the problem might always have been so widespread, but was simply underreported. Whatever the cause, there is no doubt now of the prevalence of alcohol consumption in the country.

Indonesia is a Muslim-majority nation but not a Muslim state, and alcohol is not prohibited. Restaurants and bars offer alcoholic drinks, and wine, whiskey and beer is readily available in big shopping malls.

The problem for oplosan consumers, who are often on the lowest rungs of the social ladder, is that approved alcoholic beverages are unaffordable. Taxes on imported alcohol can be as high as 150%, hugely inflating the price. More importantly, in 2015 the government banned the sale of legal alcohol in the small shops where most Indonesians buy their groceries. Sales of alcoholic drinks in 2015 dropped 22.6% from the previous year to 120.2 million liters, according to data from research company Euromonitor.

The combination of high taxes and the ban on sales has created a significant black market for bootleg liquor among Indonesia's poor.

According to the World Health Organization, Indonesians consumed an average of 0.1 liters of recorded, or legally produced, pure alcohol per capita on average between 2008 and 2010. However, unrecorded alcohol consumption was five times higher at 0.5 liters per person.

"Given the low per capita consumption [of alcohol] in the country -- our country is among the lowest -- our policies are all directed at trying to reduce consumption of recorded alcohol," said Sugianto of CIPS. "The unrecorded alcohol consumption is never discussed. Why is there no policy there? If policymakers want more regulations, even prohibition of consumption of recorded alcohol, that is misdirected."

But Sugianto believes that in light of the oplosan problems, the debate over a complete ban on alcohol will return as the country heads toward general and presidential elections next year. Islamic sentiment against alcohol is bound to be factored in when politicians make their appeals to voters.

Indonesia's Islamists have traditionally pressed for such bans, pointing to health concerns rather than an ideological ones. Legislation that would criminalize the production, distribution and consumption of alcoholic drinks has been in parliament since 2015, and is endorsed by three Muslim parties, the National Development Party, the Prosperous Justice Party and the National Mandate Party. The proposed bill -- which is awaiting more deliberation -- would put anyone caught drinking alcohol in prison for two years, while those making or selling it would be put away for 10.

Until now, such legislation has proven unpopular among moderate Muslims. Many viewed it as an affront to cultural diversity. The Jakarta branch of Nahdlatul Ulama, the largest Muslim organization in the country, in 2017 opposed a ban in the capital, saying such prohibition would lead to more deaths from bootleg alcohol.

Whether Indonesia can keep a level head on the issue come the elections is uncertain.

"It seems to be the case now that even mainstream political parties who have previously had no interest in having a position on issues like alcohol, or LGBT rights, now feel that even being silent on it might be dangerous for them politically," said Douglas Ramage, managing director at the consultancy Bower Group Asia.

He said the 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial elections, when then-governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, popularly known as Ahok, was ousted and later imprisoned amid claims he had insulted the Koran and was anti-Islamic, will have a "long-term, lasting impact" on Indonesian politics. The winner, Anies Baswedan, is seen to have courted Islamic votes by appealing to this part of the population throughout the campaign.

"The 2017 Jakarta election shows that political campaigns based on racial and religious sentiment can be overwhelmingly successful."

The incumbent governor Baswedan is continuing to cater to his support base. The Jakarta government is supposedly trying to sell shares it owns in Delta Djakarta, an alcoholic beverage manufacturer, despite the fact that the dividends contribute to the province's coffers.

The current government is well aware of the backlash it could face should the oplosan problem bubble on. Failure to contain the problem may lead to the opposition labeling the government as pro-alcohol and not Muslim enough. This has led to an order from National Police Deputy Chief Syafruddin for regional police chiefs to be sacked if the problem does not end in their jurisdictions by the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in mid-May.

Right after the order was given, the police arrested a man alleged to be behind the tainted alcohol supply. But since the arrest, another three people have died from drinking oplosan in Majenang, Central Java.

The factions that put forward the alcohol ban "cannot stop talking about it," said one political observer who asked not to be named. "The thing with these parties is that they don't have any particular narrative that they can sell to the public that makes them look good," the person added, saying such politicians are in a "honeymoon phase," having found that focusing on issues of ethnic religious, racial or social division can be effective. "They found a new weapon. Why would they drop this issue?"

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