Spate of deaths from bootleg liquor as Indonesia debates alcohol prohibition
May 24, 2016
It’s an excruciating way to die. First comes nausea, vomiting, dizziness and headaches (often mistaken for normal drunkenness), followed by loss of vision, brain damage and organ failure.
It’s not uncommon for Indonesians to meet this gruesome fate after drinking bootleg liquor, known as miras oplosan, which sells for as little as 15,000 rupiah (about $1.50) a litre.
Methanol in miras oplosan is poisonous to the central nervous system and can cause blindness, coma and death.
“Miras oplosan can be mixed with all kinds of things – sleeping pills, anxiety pills, insect repellent and methanol found in cleaning liquids or methylated spirits,” Anggaito Hadi Prabowo, the criminal squad police chief from Bantul-Yogyakarta, tells Fairfax Media. “Some will also add a fruit mixture to the alcohol to give it a certain taste.”
The latest deadly batch from Bantul, a regency of Yogyakarta, killed 12 people, who began dying within 24 hours of drinking the toxic brew on May 12.
It’s the second spate of deaths in Yogyakarta alone this year – a further 26 people, most of whom were university students, died in February.
Foreigners can also be at risk: Perth teenager Liam Davies died in 2013 after drinking a cocktail containing methanol at a Lombok bar, which he reportedly thought was imported vodka and lime.
The Australian government’s smartraveller website warns visitors to Indonesia to be aware of the risk of methanol-spiked drinks, especially in tourist spots such as Lombok and Bali.
Alcohol – and what to do about it – is a perennial debate in Indonesia, a Muslim-majority country in which most people abstain from drinking because it is generally forbidden in the Koran.
Branded wine and spirits are heavily taxed and prohibitively expensive. In April last year the sale of beer was banned from mini-markets across Indonesia.
But the House of Representatives is debating a controversial alcohol prohibition bill, initiated by two Islamic parties, that would go much further.
If passed in its current form (unlikely given opposition from breweries and the tourism industry), the bill would outlaw the production, distribution and sale of beverages with more than 1 per cent alcohol.
Separately, the troubled province of Papua and Surabaya, Indonesia’s second-largest city, are both proceeding with bylaws banning liquor.
However the Surabaya parliament acted under pressure from religious organisations, a source tells Fairfax Media. “Many Surabayan parliamentarians actually disagree with it, besides the draft bylaw did not have scientific papers to back the reasoning for banning alcoholic beverages.”
The push for stricter laws has intensified after the gang rape and murder of Yuyun, a 14-year-old from Bengkulu in Sumatra, at the hands of 14 young males reportedly high on tuak (palm wine).
“The Yuyun case is a lesson for all of us. Regional governments must restrict and ban the sales of alcoholic drinks in society,” Ari F. Syam, a lecturer at the faculty of medicine of the University of Indonesia, was quoted saying in Antara news.
But the Centre for Indonesian Policy Studies suggests the prohibition bill – if passed – could push alcohol underground and strengthen crime syndicates producing deadly homemade brews.
Researcher Rofi Uddarojat told Fairfax Media the centre’s research revealed oplosan deaths in 23 regencies or cities in Java despite local bylaws that partially or totally banned alcohol.
“Also interesting is that after the ban on the sale of alcohol in mini-markets in 2015, the Jakarta Police said there was a 58 per cent increase in the sale of illegal alcohol, which included oplosan and other homemade drinks,” he says.
“So in our opinion, if the government wants to protect the people, the regulation should be about banning illegal rather than legal alcohol.”