Myanmar: Paradox of alcohol restriction and lack of awareness

In the absence of effective state action against the sale and consumption of dangerous bootleg alcohol in Myanmar, civil society and NGOs should play an active role, says John Smith Thang.

An alcohol shop in Myanmar - Philip Heijmans/Al Jazeera

An alcohol shop in Myanmar – Philip Heijmans/Al Jazeera

According to an Irrawaddy magazine report, on average Burmese presently drink less than four litres of alcohol per year—that’s only about 10 small bottles—of local brand beer, which for many people on low pay, is still a luxury drink.

In neighbouring Thailand, annual per capita beer consumption is 25 litres and in Vietnam it is 30 liters (The Irrawaddy, Thursday, 7 March 2013).

A WHO Global Status Report on Alcohol 2004, recorded Myanmar adults’ per capita alcohol consumption as 0.35 litres of pure alcohol in 2001. In reality, alcohol consumption might be higher. Traditionally,most Myanmar women do not consume alcohol; a majority of drinkers are men, with 30 per cent o f those between the age of 18 and 39 consuming alcohol.

Officially, those aged 18 years and below are legally not allowed to buy or sell alcohol in Myanmar. But it was found that the illegal sale, purchase and consumption of alcohol was high among those below 18.

Similarly, a survey of a cross section of households in a community in Daw Pone township in 2004 showed that 825 households out of 5106 subjects were alcohol dependent. This was 23 per 1000 population, or 7 per cent of males over 18 years as per ICD 10 criteria [The World Health Organizationᄃ's International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problemsᄃ (ICD-10)].

Another study in 2004 of a rural area (Pardagyi village) Kyauktan showed the same prevalence of alcohol dependence of 23 per 1000 population. This was also seen mostly in the 20-40 years age group (World Health Organisation Country Office, Myanmar).

In Myanmar, there are official restrictions on alcohol consumption in different public areas, such as in health care establishments, educational buildings, government offices, and workplaces, where it is legally forbidden (World Health Organisation Country Office, Myanmar). However, many government officers are found to consume alcohol in public areas.

Alcohol price

The average price of locally produced, commonly consumed spirits was 730 kyats. And other special or different local or traditional alcoholic beverages e.g. Khaung Yay, Htan Yay, and Dani Yay (40 per cent alcohol content) was priced 1000 Ks (World Health Organisation Country Office, Myanmar). But there is no standard price in the countryside; depending on location, the price may vary.

Licence to sell alcohol

Licences are required (partially state-controlled) for the production and retail sale of alcohol. The off-licence sale of beer, wine and spirits, the hours of sale, the retail places and the density of outlets are restricted (World Health Organisation Country Office, Myanmar).

But unlicensed sales are spread across the country, especially in the countryside. Recently, in Arakan state, Sittwe police arrested unlicensed alcohol sellers, and seized 12 bottles of High Club Whisky, 24 bottles of Yangon Rum, 48 bottles of Top Brandy, 48 bottles of Adaman Beer and 48 bottles of Double Strand Beer (Chin News).

In Thantlang township, in Chin state, the local community anti-alcohol team seized 70 bottles of rum from a 41-year-old assistant headmaster of a local school at the Laipawnglung checkpoint. The school had opened under the management of a Buddhist religious organisation, supported by the government.

Corruption

Public officers and soldiers are believed to be actively involved in the illegal sale of alcohol. In Chin state, soldiers are believed to be selling alcohol illegally in spite of a government order not to be involved in such illegal activities. Corruption is a big problem in the Myanmar government.

On 6 September 2013, police in Thantlang town were reportedly caught selling ‘banned’ overproof (OP) alcohol from within their station compound. According to Chin News, a deputy inspector sold three bottles on two separate occasions to local Chins who pretended to be alcohol-drinkers.

With the three bottles bought from the police station, the committee reported to Inspector (name withheld) asking him to immediately probe into the matter. “He [police Inspector] said anyone from outside the police station was not allowed to conduct any investigation. A police officer in charge of the station and other policemen did the search…” (Chin News).

On 18 September 2013, over 100 bottles of OP (overproof) alcohol, which is banned by communities, was seized from soldiers from the BurmaArmy based in Hakha, Chin State. (Chin News).

The soldier (name withheld) and his friend (name withheld) bootlegged the ‘banned’ alcohol from Hakha and were caught red-handed in Lungler village, Thantlang Township last July. They said the alcohol was not theirs but belonged to (name withheld) of Tactical Operations Commands of Burma Army based on Mount Rung of Hakha. When asked about their smuggling of ‘banned’ items, they said (name withheld) told them that OP alcohol could be freely sold in villages, but not in towns (Chin News).

The worst incident was the death of a city police chief in Sittwe caused by drinking alcohol B.E (alcohol name in Myanmar), a locally made alcohol called ‘Ayet phyu’. (Myanma Alin newspaper, 21 July 2013). Apart from corruption, authorities and public workers themselves lack education and awareness of the dangers of alcoholism

Consumption of unsafe alcohol

Overproof alcohol: In Myanmar people carelessly consume alcohol not manufactured for public consumption. Overproof alcohol, not for human consumption, is being sold illegally to drinkers.

Overproof alcohol contains 80 per cent pure alcohol, whereas normal alcohol for human consumption contains only 40 per cent pure alcohol. Overproof alcohol is very strong and can cause death. It is not manufactured for normal human consumption (though there is widespread drinking of overproof alcohol). The confusion with local traditional alcohol has been used by freebooters to profit from the illegal sale of overproof alcohol.

“Ayet si” alcohol is another type of alcohol not manufactured for consumption and similar to overproof alcohol. Since people are ignorant and have little knowledge, theyare unaware that “Ayet si” is unclean alcohol that can affect health and is extremely life-threatening. “Ayet si” is produced for disinfecting against virus and insect contamination or used for machine and other industrial purposes.

On 26 July 2013 in Pauktaw village, Arakan state, 10 people drank “Ayet si” and four of them died on the spot. People are not aware that “Ayet si”is unclean alcohol, brought from Sittwe city and mixed with water.

B E alcohol (locally made is “Ayet phyu” alcohol) is for human consumption produced in the factory. But even this usually fails safety and quality standards.

On 21 June 2013, four people were reported dead by police in Paan Pin Chaung block, in Seik Kyi Kha Naung Town, Yangon city, after drinking B.E alcohol or locally made “Ayet phyu” alcohol. This was mentioned on the police Facebook. The victims experienced stomach pains and vomiting before they died. According to a police survey, the four died after drinking one litre of B E alcohol mixed with three litres of water.

B.E alcohol /”Ayet phyu” is widely drunk across the country as it is very cheap to buy. But it is frequently of low quality and fails safety standards, being illegally and easily produced everywhere in Myanmar, and can cause death, sometimes.

Lack of law enforcement

No action has been taken against the assistant headmaster of the local government school in Thantlang township who illegally sold alcohol. Paradoxically, the court fined a local farmer 50,000 kyats for carrying two cases of beer on a bicycle; he had been arrested on the same day (Chin News).

Some people try to misuse the law to justify alcohol drinking. For example, an officer of the Thantlang township police force was quoted as saying that different laws should be applied to a Burman and a Chin when dealing with legal issues at court in Chin State (Chin News). This argument concerned the illegal sale and consumption of alcohol,

Myanmar’s legal system is therefore flawed, and ineffective in eliminating the illegal sale of fake and harmful alcohol. As a result, those illicit sellers avoid facing legal action.

As Myanmar legal expert Thant Min said “Among the current criminal infringement cases…(fake goods) faking essential goods can affect human safety and health” (A summary reference in English of a Burmese author).

The quality of all the goods sold with false or counterfeit marks is generally poor and inferior. This may cause safety and health problems to the consumers. Freebooters selling fake goods risk the lives and safety of others. “Light penalties and sentences for those who commit such offences encourages them to do it again” (Thant Min, p282) (a reference in English from a Burmese author).

Economically, “free-riding causes businessmen to be unethical, ruins the rule of law that controls and drives free and fair competition in the market, and develops a corrupt society. Therefore, the reluctance to control free-riding causes poor countries to be trapped in a recurring cycle of poverty” (Thant Min, p28).

The other thing the Myanmar government hesitates to do is to upgrade the legal system in the face of a complex political situation. The ruling regime has difficulty in shedding its dictatorship role and the military’s involvement in government.

Worse, it has no interest in promoting civilian and ethnic rights. Even the country’s current constitution is flawed. The Myanmar people and the international community have strongly pressured the quasi-military government, but Myanmar’s legal system is still far from the standards required under international law.

Causes of alcohol consumption

In the Mandalay Mental Hospital, alcohol-related disorders were found to be 27.8 per cent in 2004 (World Health Organisation Country Office, Myanmar). The worst affected patients had expired from drinking unsafe alcohol and from drunken violence. Myanmar has a drinking culture, which often results in drunken violence.

On 23 September 2013, at 7.00pm, in Sagaing Division, Inn village, a 34-year-old man waged violence on his wife and children, causing the death of his two-year-old daughterand the hospitalisation of his 19-year-old wife and five-year-old daughter (Rangon Times, 24 September 2013).

On 22 May 2013, at 5.00pm, in Rezua, Matupi Township, Chin state, a public works department worker beat his wife to death. It was said the couple had an alcohol drinking habit and frequently fought. He was arrested by Rezua Police in accordance with Myanmar law (Matupi Times, 24 June 2013). Another such case due to alcohol drinking happened in the same village this year.

The people are ignorant and uneducated on the ill effects of alcohol on them, causing them to lose self-control and consciousness, resulting in negative effects on society.

Advocating alcohol awareness

There is a serious lack of education and awareness among alcohol users in Myanmar. In the Hakha and Thantlang townships of Chin state, churches have formed anti-alcohol committees and prohibited the drinking of alcohol such as overproof alcohol. A church-based committee seized 1500 bottles of OP alcohol priced at about 1,600,000 kyats (Chin news). Again, a public event took place in Hakha, where more than 2,000 bottles of overproof rum were emptied in protest against the selling and drinking of overproof alcohol (Chin News).

In Hakha town, Chin State, in the Lungtat Chiahrawn newspaper, a three-week alcohol campaign, led by Evan Mang Kam Evan Khuppi, found 23 illegal alcohol dealers on 26 September 2013 (Chin news). Similarly in Thantlang town, U San Htun Aung assisted the local anti-alcohol team at Laipawnglung checkpoint in searching people entering Thantlang town for alcoholic drinks (Chin News).

In Thantlang, two men were fined 300,000 kyats for bootlegging under a judgment by a Lungler community-based committee entrusted with the task of tackling alcohol-related issues (Chin News).

Only church-based groups are actively campaigning against the illegal sale and consumption of alcohol and raising awareness of its ill effects. In the absence of state action against this blight, civil society and NGOs should play an active role in Myanmar.

The effort also needs the strong support and involvement of international NGOs in Myanmar, to provide awareness-raising training and financial support for the campaign.

John Smith Thang is a PhD candidate at Chungang University in Seoul.

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