Relatives of a man who died after consuming tainted homemade alcohol cry outside of a hospital in Cicalengka, Bandung Regency, West Java, Indonesia on April 9. Photo: Antara Foto/Raisan Al Farisi / via Reuters

For all the religious fervor that goes with it, Muslim-majority Indonesia is learning the hard way that limiting or banning sales of alcoholic beverages is having tragic consequences across a country where the scale of drinking is already among the lowest in Asia.

Over the past fortnight, at least 82 people have died in West Java and Greater Jakarta from consuming oplosan, a Javanese term for the bootleg liquor that is being made in increasing quantities as the central and regional governments raise prices and tighten controls.

Apart from a heavy toll in Jakarta itself, half of the deaths were reported in and around the hill city of Bandung, south of the capital, and further to the southwest in religiously-conservative Sukabumi regency, the breeding ground of the Darul Islam rebellion in the 1950s.

Over the past six days, one small 19-bed hospital in Cicalengka, west of Bandung, has been overwhelmed with 93 patients suffering from shortness of breath, headaches, nausea and blurred vision – classic symptoms of methanol poisoning.

Apart from mixing methanol and undiluted ethyl alcohol with energy drinks, a deadly mixture in itself, bootleg makers often use headache pills, battery fluids and even insect repellent in bottles labeled with so-called vodka brands like Mansion House.

The last serious mass outbreak of oplosan poisoning was in February 2016 when 17 people, most of them university students, died in various locations around Jogjakarta in Central Java over a two-day period.

487 deaths between 2013 and 2016

According to Rofi Uddarojat, a policy researcher at the privately-funded Centre for Indonesian Policy Studies (CIPS), 487 people died from drinking methanol-laced hooch between 2013 and 2016, a massive increase over the 2008-2012 period.

One of the main reasons for the increased consumption of oplosan appears to be the 150 religiously-inspired regulations introduced by local governments across the country over the past two decades, which regulate legal alcoholic beverages.

Research shows that 331 of those who died or fell sick between 2013 and 2016 were in 11 districts with prohibition, while 192 were in 12 districts with partial prohibition and 106 in seven jurisdictions free of restrictions.

A new tax on alcohol in 2010 seems to have played a role too. Oplosan sells for Rp20,000 (US$1.50) a liter, the same price as a 330 milliliter can of beer which can now only be purchased in supermarkets and registered liquor outlets.

Part of the blame may also rest with a 2015 regulation banning the sale of beverages containing 1-5% alcohol from the country’s 55,000 convenience stores, which have become a social gathering place for urban youth.

In his 2016 study covering six cities across Java and Sumatra, Uddarojat concludes that current efforts by Islamic parties to introduce nation-wide prohibition would inadvertently lead to a rise in black market operations and actually increase the number of deaths.

Police prepare evidence during a press conference regarding the arrests of suspects linked to the production and sale of illegal bootleg alcohol which claimed the lives of more than 80 people this week in Jakarta and nearby West Java province, at a police station in Jakarta on April 11, 2018. Photo: Reuters/Willy Kurniawan

Little public drunkenness

Critics also point to the harm it would do to Indonesia’s image as a tolerant, secular state where there is little public drunkenness among the citizenry and where creeping Islamic conservatism continues to erode personal freedoms.

Back in 2015, the Trade Ministry had to exempt Bali from the convenience store rule after a chorus of complaints from vendors, whose livelihoods rely on tourists buying beer at the beach and in villages where there are no supermarkets.

Beer-drinking Chinese and Australians alone accounted for nearly half of the 3.4 million foreign visitors to the popular resort island last year. The official number of Middle Eastern tourists, who may or may not drink alcohol, barely topped 19,000.

Indonesian beer sales have doubled in the past 10 years because of the increasing number of tourists and a growing middle class in a 266-million population expanding by 2-3 million a year. It is still miniscule, however, compared with neighboring countries.

Lowest alcohol consumption in region: WHO

According to the latest recorded World Health Organization (WHO) figures, Indonesians consume only 0.6 liters of alcohol per capita a year, the lowest in the region after Laos (7.3), Thailand (7.1), Vietnam (6.6), Cambodia (5.5) and the Philippines (5.4).

President Joko Widodo’s government and parliamentary holdouts remain deadlocked trying to reconcile between the Trade Ministry’s Alcohol Regulation Bill and the Alcohol Prohibition Bill, sponsored by three political parties, two of them Islamist.

As their titles imply, one draft statute seeks to add another layer of regulation to an already heavily-regulated industry, while the other wants a total ban, prescribing five years’ jail for anyone producing, distributing or being under the influence of alcohol.

Only 30% of committee members reviewing the legislation are reportedly in favor of prohibition at a time when the Government has quadrupled its tourism promotion budget in an effort to boost the industry’s foreign exchange earnings to a targeted $12 billion.

Currying favor with religious leaders

Senior politicians don’t think it will ever come to a total ban, which would put Indonesia on a par with Brunei. But it is causing alarm all the same because similarly restrictive practices have been supported in the past by mainstream parties trying to curry favor with religious leaders.

It may be no coincidence that West Java leads the country with 62 such by-laws, which among other things invariably implement total or partial prohibition. Next are South Kalimantan (37), East Java (30), Lampung (17) and East Java (16).

As with the misleadingly-titled 2008 Anti-Pornography Law, the bill’s two main proponents, the Sharia-based United Development (PPP) and Justice and Prosperity (PKS) parties, insist their main concern is the health of the citizenry.

But if that is the case, they have done little to campaign against cigarette smoking, which claims the lives of 400,000 Indonesians each year in a country where a virtual absence of health education means 67% of the male population are smokers.