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

    Former US Envoys Urge Obama to Delay Troop Cuts in Afghanistan

    Keeping troop levels up during conflict with both Taliban and Islamic State is necessary to support Kabul government, they say

    First Lady to Visit Africa to Promote Girls' Education

    Michele Obama will be joined by daughters and actresses Meryl Streep and Freida Pinto

    Video NYSE Analyst: Brexit Will Continue to Place Pressure on Markets

    Despite orderly pricing and execution strategy at the New York Stock Exchange, analyst explains added pressure on world financial markets is likely

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Brexit Vote Plunges Global Markets Into Uncharted Territoryi
    X
    June 24, 2016 9:38 PM
    British voters plunged global markets into unknown territory after they voted Thursday to leave the European Union. The results of the Brexit vote, the term coined to describe the referendum, caught many off guard. Analysts say the resulting volatility could last for weeks, perhaps longer. Mil Arcega reports.
    Video

    Video Brexit Vote Plunges Global Markets Into Uncharted Territory

    British voters plunged global markets into unknown territory after they voted Thursday to leave the European Union. The results of the Brexit vote, the term coined to describe the referendum, caught many off guard. Analysts say the resulting volatility could last for weeks, perhaps longer. Mil Arcega reports.
    Video

    Video Orlando Shooting Changes Debate on Gun Control

    It’s been nearly two weeks since the largest mass shooting ever in the United States. Despite public calls for tighter gun control laws, Congress is at an impasse. Democratic lawmakers resorted to a 1960s civil rights tactic to portray their frustration. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti explains how the Orlando, Florida shooting is changing the debate.
    Video

    Video Tunisian Fishing Town Searches for Jobs, Local Development Solutions

    As the European Union tries to come to grips with its migrant crisis, some newcomers are leaving voluntarily. But those returning to their home countries face an uncertain future.  Five years after Tunisia's revolution, the tiny North African country is struggling with unrest, soaring unemployment and plummeting growth. From the southern Tunisian fishing town of Zarzis, Lisa Bryant takes a look for VOA at a search for local solutions.
    Video

    Video 'American Troops' in Russia Despite Tensions

    Historic battle re-enactment is a niche hobby with a fair number of adherents in Russia where past military victories are played-up by the Kremlin as a show of national strength. But, one group of World War II re-enactors in Moscow has the rare distinction of choosing to play western ally troops. VOA's Daniel Schearf explains.
    Video

    Video Experts: Very Few Killed in US Gun Violence Are Victims of Mass Shootings

    The deadly shooting at a Florida nightclub has reignited the debate in the U.S. over gun control. Although Congress doesn't provide government health agencies funds to study gun violence, public health experts say private research has helped them learn some things about the issue. VOA's Carol Pearson reports.
    Video

    Video Trump Unleashes Broadside Against Clinton to Try to Ease GOP Doubts

    Recent public opinion polls show Republican Donald Trump slipping behind Democrat Hillary Clinton in the presidential election matchup for November. Trump trails her both in fundraising and campaign organization, but he's intensifying his attacks on the former secretary of state. VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone reports.
    Video

    Video Muslim American Mayor Calls for Tolerance

    Syrian-born Mohamed Khairullah describes himself as "an American mayor who happens to be Muslim." As the three-term mayor of Prospect Park, New Jersey, he believes his town of 6,000 is an example of how ethnicity and religious beliefs should not determine a community's leadership. Ramon Taylor has this report from Prospect Park.
    Video

    Video Internal Rifts Over Syria Policy Could Be Headache for Next US President

    With the Obama administration showing little outward enthusiasm for adopting a more robust Syria policy, there is a strong likelihood that the internal discontent expressed by State Department employees will roll over to the next administration. VOA State Department correspondent Pam Dockins reports.
    Video

    Video Senegal to Park Colorful ‘Cars Rapide’ Permanently

    Brightly painted cars rapide are a hallmark of Dakar, offering residents a cheap way to get around the capital city since 1976. But the privately owned minibuses are scheduled to be parked for good in late 2018, as Ricci Shryock reports for VOA.
    Video

    Video Florida Gets $1 Million in Emergency Government Funding for Orlando

    The U.S. government has granted $1 million in emergency funding to the state of Florida to cover the costs linked to the June 12 massacre in Orlando. U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced the grant Tuesday in Orlando, where she met with survivors of the shooting attack that killed 49 people. Zlatica Hoke reports.
    Video

    Video How to Print Impossible Shapes with Metal

    3-D printing with metals is rapidly becoming more advanced. As printers become more affordable, the industry is partnering with universities to refine processes for manufacturing previously impossible things. A new 3-D printing lab aims to bring the new technology closer to everyday use. VOA's George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Big Somali Community in Minnesota Observes Muslim Religious Feast

    Ramadan is widely observed in the north central US state of Minnesota, which a large Muslim community calls home. VOA Somali service reporter Mohmud Masadde files this report from Minneapolis, the state's biggest city.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora