News / Asia

    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.

    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.

    You May Like

    Wife of IS Leader Charged in Death of US Hostage

    Suspect allegedly admitted to being responsible for American aid worker Kayla Mueller, who officials say was sexually abused and ‘owned’ by one IS member

    Year of the Monkey Could Prove Economic Balancing Act for China

    China is up against a tricky situation on the financial front, facing the need to fight capital flight while also stopping a further slide of foreign currency reserves

    Runners Attempt 26-mile South Pole Marathon in Sub-Zero Temperatures

    How alluring is running 26.2 miles at 10,000 feet when it’s minus 31 Celsius out?

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    'No Means No' Program Targets Sexual Violence in Kenyai
    X
    February 08, 2016 4:30 PM
    The organizers of an initiative to reduce and stop rape in the informal settlements around Kenya's capital say their program is having marked success. Girls are taking self-defense classes while the boys are learning how to protect the girls and respect them. Lenny Ruvaga reports from Nairobi.
    Video

    Video 'No Means No' Program Targets Sexual Violence in Kenya

    The organizers of an initiative to reduce and stop rape in the informal settlements around Kenya's capital say their program is having marked success. Girls are taking self-defense classes while the boys are learning how to protect the girls and respect them. Lenny Ruvaga reports from Nairobi.
    Video

    Video New Hampshire Voters Are Independent, Mindful of History

    Once every four years, the northeastern state of New Hampshire becomes the center of the U.S. political universe with its first-in-the-nation presidential primary. What's unusual about New Hampshire is how seriously the voters take their role and the responsibility of being among the first to weigh in on the candidates.
    Video

    Video Chocolate Lovers Get a Sweet History Lesson

    Observed in many countries around the world, Valentine’s Day is sometimes celebrated with chocolate festivals. But at a festival near Washington, the visitors experience a bit more than a sugar rush. They go on a sweet journey through history. VOA’s June Soh takes us to the festival.
    Video

    Video 'Smart' Bandages Could Heal Wounds More Quickly

    Simple bandages are usually seen as the first line of attack in healing small to moderate wounds and burns. But scientists say new synthetic materials with embedded microsensors could turn bandages into a much more valuable tool for emergency physicians. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Bhutanese Refugees in New Hampshire Closely Watching Primary Election

    They fled their country and lived in refugee camps in neighboring Nepal for decades before being resettled in the northeastern U.S. state of New Hampshire -- now the focus of the U.S. presidential contest. VOA correspondent Aru Pande spoke with members of the Bhutanese community, including new American citizens, about the campaign and the strong anti-immigrant rhetoric of some of the candidates.
    Video

    Video Researchers Use 3-D Printer to Produce Transplantable Body Parts

    Human organ transplants have become fairly common around the world in the past few decades. Researchers at various universities are coordinating their efforts to find solutions -- including teams at the University of Pennsylvania and Rice University in Houston that are experimenting with a 3-D printer -- to make blood vessels and other structures for implant. As VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Houston, they are also using these artificial body parts to seek ways of defeating cancerous tumors.
    Video

    Video Helping the Blind 'See' Great Art

    There are 285 million blind and visually impaired people in the world who are unable to enjoy visual art at a museum. One New York photographer is trying to fix this situation by making tangible copies of the world’s masterpieces. VOA correspondent Victoria Kupchinetsky was there as visually impaired people got a feel for great art. Joy Wagner narrates her report.
    Video

    Video Sanders, Clinton Battle for Young Democratic Vote

    Despite a narrow loss to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in last week's Iowa Democratic caucuses, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders secured more than 80 percent of the vote among those between the ages of 18 and 29. VOA correspondent Aru Pande talks to Democrats in New Hampshire about who they are leaning towards and why in this week's primary.
    Video

    Video German Artists to Memorialize Refugees With Life Jacket Exhibit

    Sold in every kind of shop in some Turkish port towns, life jackets have become a symbol of the refugee crisis that brought a million people to Europe in 2015.  On the shores of Lesbos, Greece, German artists collect discarded life jackets as they prepare an art installation they plan to display in Germany.  For VOA, Hamada Elrasam has this report from Lesbos, Greece.
    Video

    Video E-readers Help Ease Africa's Book Shortage

    Millions of people in Africa can't read, and there's a chronic shortage of books. A non-profit organization called Worldreader is trying to help change all that one e-reader at a time. VOA’s Deborah Block tells us about a girls' school in Nairobi, Kenya where Worldreader is making a difference.
    Video

    Video Genius Lets World Share Its Knowledge

    Inspired by crowdsourcing companies like Wikipedia, Genius allows anyone to edit anything on the web, using its web annotation tool
    Video

    Video In Philippines, Mixed Feelings About Greater US Military Presence

    In the Philippines, some who will be directly affected by a recent Supreme Court decision clearing the way for more United States troop visits are having mixed reactions.  The increased rotations come at a time when the Philippines is trying to build up its military in the face of growing maritime assertiveness from China.  From Bahile, Palawan on the coast of the South China Sea, Simone Orendain has this story.
    Video

    Video Microcephaly's Connection to Zika: Guilty Until Proven Innocent

    The Zika virus rarely causes problems for the people who get it, but it seems to be having a devastating impact on babies whose mothers are infected with Zika. VOA's Carol Pearson has more.
    Video

    Video Stunning Artworks Attract Record Crowds, Thanks to Social Media

    A new exhibit at the oldest art museum in America is shattering attendance records. Thousands of visitors are lining up to see nine giant works of art that have gotten a much-deserved shot of viral marketing. The 150-year-old Smithsonian American Art Museum has never had a response quite like this. VOA's Julie Taboh reports.