Indonesia’s Lethal Illegal Alcohol Problem

In recent years Indonesia has been struck by an epidemic of deaths related to illegal alcohol. Typically, these cases involved a number of people in a particular area dying from the consumption of miras oplosan (a home-made cocktail of alcoholic substances). The main ingredient of this home-made mixture is typically medical-grade methanol mixed with energy drinks. The alcohol content of this drink as often as high as 90%. Furthermore, not infrequently poisonous substances are thrown into the mix to make the brew more intoxicating. In recent weeks the consumption of illegal booze has caused a great tragedy at Garut and Sumedang, two small cities in West Java.

The Tragedy at Garut and Sumedang

On the 5th of December 2014 there was a mass poisoning at a pesta miras opolosan (home-made alcohol party) at Sumedang, a city about an hour away from Bandung in the province of West Java. 9 people died from alcohol poisoning and a further 106 people were hospitalized. The youngest of the victims was just 11 years old.

On the same day, 17 youths died from miras oplosan in Garut, another town in West Java which is only 59 kms away from Sumedang. These victims had bought the alcohol from a well-known vendor of home-made booze, located near the main bus terminal in Garut. It is widely suspected that the two mass poisonings may have involved booze from a common source, but there has been no confirmation of this as yet. Whatever the case may be, there were 26 deaths on a single day from illegal alcohol in West Java.

This follows a spate of alcohol-related deaths from miras opolosan. In January 2014, 17 people died from alcohol at Mojokerto, East Java. The year before 14 people had died in a similar incident in nearby Surabaya. 6 people died from methanol poisoning in Jakarta in October 2014 and there have been dozens of deaths in Bali, including a number of foreign tourists. Bob Carr, a former State Premier of the state of New South Wales in Australia, has cautioned Australian tourists to be very aware of the dangers posed by dangerous home-made alcohol in Bali.

De Facto Prohibition

There has been a concerted effort by Islamist parties to restrict the sale of alcohol in Indonesia in recent years. In 2013 the PPP party, a member of SBY’s Coalition, pushed a bill that would have made the sale of alcohol completely illegal throughout the country, with a minimum mandatory jail sentence of 2 years for consuming even beer. This bill gained a lot of support but was not passed. Still, hundreds of restrictions have been put in place at a regional level. For example, in May 2014 the mayor of Surabaya, Indonesia’s second biggest city, banned the sale of all alcohol, even beer, at mini-marts and supermarkets.

Most importantly of all, there is a 150% levy on imported spirits and wine, which is in addition to regional government levies. The high cost of importing ethanol, which is the basis of safe alcoholic drinks, has meant that home-made alcohol brewers typically resort to methanol, which can be lethal in very small doses. High taxes and levies make branded alcohol too expensive for ordinary people, so young people wanting to get drunk and forced to resort to shady operators who may are selling a potentially lethal product.

All of this has created a situation which amounts to de facto Prohibition, especially for poor people. Branded alcohol is hard to get and it is probably too expensive for most of Indonesia’s 100 million lower-class citizens. This means that the only affordable or available option may be dubious home-made products. All of this has echoes of 1920s America. One of the lesser-known facts about the Prohibition Era is that it caused many thousands of deaths of drinkers who had consumed poor-quality alcoholic beverages. In 1927, 700 people died from alcohol poisoning in New York alone. Indonesia is now repeating the tragic mistakes of Prohibition-era America, costing dozens of lives every year, all so a bunch of religious hardliners can prove their Islamist credentials and win more votes.

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