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

Philippines, Muslim Rebels Try to Salvage Peace Pact

Peace process faces major setback after botched military operation to find terrorists results in bloody gunbattle between government forces, Moro Islamic Liberation Front fighters More

Republicans Expect Long, Expensive Presidential Battle

Political strategist says eventual winner will be one who can put together strongest coalition of various conservative groups that make up Republican Party More

Video New Wheelchair Is Easier to Use, Increases Mobility

Engineers have come up with a lever-operated design that makes use of easily accessible bicycle technology More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Liberia's Almost Last Ebola Patient Grateful but Still Grievingi
X
Benno Muchler
March 26, 2015 3:41 PM
Beatrice Yardolo was to make history as Liberia’s last Ebola patient. Liberians recently started counting down 42 days, the period that has to go by without a single new infection until the World Health Organization can declare a country Ebola-free. That countdown stopped on March 20 when there was another new case of Ebola, making Yardolo’s story a reminder that Ebola is far from over. Benno Muchler reports from Monrovia.
Video

Video Liberia's Almost Last Ebola Patient Grateful but Still Grieving

Beatrice Yardolo was to make history as Liberia’s last Ebola patient. Liberians recently started counting down 42 days, the period that has to go by without a single new infection until the World Health Organization can declare a country Ebola-free. That countdown stopped on March 20 when there was another new case of Ebola, making Yardolo’s story a reminder that Ebola is far from over. Benno Muchler reports from Monrovia.
Video

Video Cambodian Land Grabs Threaten Traditional Communities

Indigenous communities in Cambodia's Ratanakiri province say the government’s economic land concession policy is taking away their land and traditional way of life, making many fear that their identity will soon be lost. Local authorities, though, have denied this is the case. VOA's Say Mony went to investigate and filed this report, narrated by Colin Lovett.
Video

Video US, South Korea Conduct Joint Military Exercises

The Eighth U.S. Army Division and the Eighth Republic of Korea Mechanized Infantry Division put on a well orchestrated show of force for the media this week during their joint military training exercises in South Korea. VOA’s Seoul correspondent Brian Padden was there and reports the soldiers were well disciplined both in conducting a complex live fire exercise and in staying on message with the press.
Video

Video Space Program Status Disappoints 'Last Man on the Moon'

One of the films that drew big crowds last week at the annual South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, tells the story of the last human being to stand on the moon, U.S. astronaut Eugene Cernan. It has been 42 years since Cernan returned from the moon and he laments that no one else has gone there since. VOA’s Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Young Filmmakers Shine Spotlight on Giving Back

A group of student filmmakers from across the United States joined President Barack Obama at the White House this month for the second annual White House Student Film Festival. Fifteen short films were officially selected from more than 1,500 entries by students aged 6 through 18. The filmmakers and their families then joined the president and a group of celebrities for a screening of their films. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.
Video

Video VOA Exclusive: Interview with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, during his first visit as president to Washington, gave a one-on-one interview with VOA Afghan Service reporter Said Suleiman Ashna, about his request for a change in U.S. troop levels, the threat from the Islamic State, and repairing relations with the United States and Pakistan. The interview was held at Blair House, late Sunday, in Pashto.
Video

Video California Science Center Tells Story of Dead Sea Scrolls

The ancient manuscripts were uncovered in the mid-20th century, and they are still yielding clues about life and religious beliefs in ancient Israel. As VOA's Mike O'Sullivan reports, an exhibit in Los Angeles shows how modern science is bringing the history of these ancient documents to life.
Video

Video Angelina Jolie Takes Another Bold Step

Hollywood actress and filmmaker Angelina Jolie has revealed she had her ovaries and fallopian tubes removed to lower her odds of getting cancer. Doctors say the huge publicity over her decision will help raise awareness about the importance of cancer screening. VOA’s George Putic has more

All About America

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More