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Q&A: Use and Abuse of Alcohol in Sri Lanka

FILE - A Sri Lankan man drinks toddy, the sap of coconut palm, in a improvised neighborhood bar in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

FILE - A Sri Lankan man drinks toddy, the sap of coconut palm, in a improvised neighborhood bar in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

People drink alcohol for many different reasons, and its consumption and often abuse crosses socio-economic boundaries. In some areas, alcohol consumption can mark specific delineations of society. The subject becomes very interesting in Sri Lanka, where the apparent high level of illegal alcohol consumption relates to distinctions in religion, family structure, and economic status. Michele Ruth Gamburd has spent much time studying local society in the small village of Naeaegama, about 80 kilometers south of the capital Colombo. She is Professor and Chair of Anthropology at Portland State University in the northwestern U.S. state of Oregon. She told VOA’s Jim Stevenson her findings in the book Breaking the Ashes.

GAMBURD: Breaking the ashes refers to what housewives do when they get up in the morning. They get the hearth going again. They break up the ashes from last night’s fire and they get the wood in for this morning’s fire so they can brew up a cup of tea. But the “ashes in the fire” that drinkers talk about is the warmth they get from a shot of liquor.

STEVENSON: Buddhism is obviously the main religion there and there are prohibitions against the consumption of mind-altering substances, but the young men in the area are drinking more and more.

GAMBURD: In the village and in much of Sri Lanka I think, the distribution of drinkers is very gendered. Women often do not drink at all, whereas men do drink, can drink and sometimes must drink in particular social contexts. I think both men and women would consider themselves Buddhists. But when I asked why women do not drink, often Buddhism was raised as a reason, whereas when I asked what men do drink or do not drink, other reasons were raised instead.

STEVENSON: Did you notice a large underground economy for liquor?

GAMBURD: Absolutely. And this is I think a place where ethnographic qualitative research can illuminate what is going on and make sense of some of the statistics that people read about alcohol use in Sri Lanka and elsewhere. Estimates vary about the percentage of liquor consumed in Sri Lanka that is licit and illicit, and those percentages vary up to 90 percent being illicit. In the village where I did my research, my informant suggested it was probably most of the liquor that was consumed was locally distilled and not manufactured and taxed in legal ways.

STEVENSON: The local police obviously must be aware of it, but there must be an interesting dynamic going on there if the percentages remain so high.

GAMBURD: The reason that illicit liquor is profitable is because it is cheaper than licit liquor. This legal liquor is taxed so much that it becomes almost unaffordable for working class people. What we have then is a sort of a distinction in social groups arising from who can afford what type of liquor, and then a criminalization of anybody who is poor, or most men who are poor. But at the same time, that is what everybody locally drinks. So there is a duality going on here that everybody drinks it but it is illegal. And the local police I think understand that dynamic. Are they being compassionate, or are they being bribed, or are they being realistic? It is a hard call to make. The larger issues really are questions of heath. Illicit distillate can sometimes be poisonous; people can go blind or die if they drink it.

STEVENSON: How do Sri Lankans look at the problem of alcohol abuse?

GAMBURD: I think it is good to make a distinction between normal social drinking and problem drinking. And local people do make that distinction just as we do in the west. Mostly, people [in Sri Lanka] do not hold with the disease concept of alcohol. They recognize that drinking alcohol can be addictive. They do not see liquor addiction as a mental illness so much as just really bad choices that people make consistently and they hold them responsible for that.
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    Jim Stevenson

    For over 35 years, Jim Stevenson has been sharing stories with the world on the radio and internet. From both the field and the studio, Jim enjoys telling about specific events and uncovering the interesting periphery every story possesses. His broadcast career has been balanced between music, news, and sports, always blending the serious with the lighter side.