Pubdate: Sat, 03 Sep 2016
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2016 The New York Times Company
Author: Joe Cochrane


JAKARTA, Indonesia - I.B. Agung Partha foresees an apocalypse, as he 
put it, on the Indonesian resort island of Bali.

The threat is not a plague of locusts, nor one of Bali's dormant 
volcanos springing to life. It is in Jakarta, the Indonesian capital 
several hundred miles away, where Parliament is debating legislation 
that would ban beer, wine and spirits across the thousands of islands 
that make up this country.

For Bali, whose beaches, lush landscapes and cultural attractions 
drew four million visitors last year, the effect would be something 
like the end of the world, said Mr. Partha, the chairman of the Bali 
Tourism Board.

"Hotels have bars, restaurants have bars, and they serve alcohol - 
this is just part of tourism," he said. "This bill is just no good."

Alcohol bans have been proposed before in Indonesia, by the same 
Islamic political parties that are pushing the current bill. Their 
scripture-based arguments gained little traction in Indonesia's 
multifaith society, which is mostly Muslim but has a secular government.

But this time, those parties have taken a new line: that alcohol 
should be banned for health reasons, not religious reasons. And a 
passive response to the legislation by Indonesia's dominant secular 
parties, which could have quashed it months ago, has some worried 
that it could become law.

"For me, it's all about pluralism and human rights," said Rudolf 
Dethu, a leader of two groups opposing the legislation, one of which 
organizes social events to promote the culinary aspects of beer.

"It's not just about alcohol - there's something bigger behind this," 
Mr. Dethu said. "First it's drinking, and then rules on who you can 
date and what time you can go out at night, and it's not in the 
Indonesian culture to say no to authority."

There have long been fears about creeping Islamization in Indonesia, 
which is the world's most-populous Muslim-majority nation but has 
influential Christian, Hindu and Buddhist minorities. (The vast 
majority of Bali's residents are Hindu.)

Political Islam has made gains here since Indonesia began moving 
toward democracy in 1998, after the ouster of its long-ruling 
authoritarian president, Suharto. In the past decade, autonomous 
regional governments have passed hundreds of local bylaws inspired by 
Islamic law, many of which enforce morality codes. The country's 
Constitutional Court is currently hearing a petition by an Islamist 
group demanding that gay sex be outlawed, and that an existing 
adultery law be expanded to include sex between unmarried persons.

The bill before Parliament would ban the production, distribution, 
sale, consumption and possession of alcoholic beverages among 
Indonesians and foreign tourists alike. Violators could face up to 10 
years in prison.

Critics of the Islamic parties backing the bill - which have the 
support of hard-line Muslim groups that have sometimes engaged in 
violent intimidation - say their concern for drinkers' health is a 
cover for pushing Indonesia toward becoming an Islamic state under Shariah law.

Mohammad Arwani Thomafi, a lawmaker from the Islam-based United 
Development Party and chairman of a special legislative committee 
debating the bill, said that his party was merely acting out of 
concern for public health.

"Prohibition should be a legal requirement to protect the public," he 
said, citing "dozens" of deaths across Indonesia each year directly 
linked to drinking.

But while that statistic is accurate, none of those deaths were 
connected with alcohol sold legally in stores, bars and restaurants - 
mostly to relatively affluent Indonesians and to foreigners. Rather, 
they were caused by illegally brewed spirits, an underground industry 
involving hundreds or perhaps thousands of producers, to which the 
Indonesian police have largely turned a blind eye.

The Center for Indonesian Policy Studies in Jakarta, citing local 
media reports, said there had been 453 deaths and 373 injuries from 
drinking alcohol since 2012. All were from illegally distilled 
alcohol, locally known as "oplosan," which can contain a variety of 
substances including methanol, medicinal alcohol, fruit extract and 
toxic substances such as mosquito repellent.

And 83 percent of those deaths occurred in autonomous districts with 
Shariah-inspired bans or restrictions on the sale of alcohol, said 
the center's executive director, Rainer Heufers.

Such regulations "do not increase public morality and health," Mr. 
Heufers said. "Instead, they push the consumption from legally 
produced and traded alcohol to illegally produced and traded alcohol, 
which leads to more deaths and injuries."

President Joko Widodo's governing coalition, which plays a key role 
in drafting legislation and holds a majority in Parliament, is 
against the ban. His government has proposed increased regulation 
instead, including mandatory licensing for stores that sell alcohol 
and identification checks for buyers.

But Indonesian parties have a history of breaking with their own 
coalitions on contentious legislation. (Two of the Islamic-based 
parties backing the bill are members of the governing coalition.) 
That has some opponents of the bill fearing that it could become law, 
given that previous attempts to ban alcohol have never gotten this 
far. The commission debating the legislation includes six large 
secular-nationalist parties, most of them also in the coalition, that 
could easily have stopped it but have not done so.

"It's difficult for parliamentarians to be against it, because they 
could easily be viewed as un-Islamic," Mr. Heufers said.

Alcohol has been consumed in Indonesia for centuries, and it is an 
integral part of cultural and religious ceremonies among some of the 
country's more than 300 ethnic groups. A survey of 1,600 people in 
eight Indonesian cities, conducted by another Jakarta-based research 
institute, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, found 
that most respondents did not regard drinking as a health crisis.

"The Indonesian public does not consider this alcohol issue an urgent 
matter, but some of our politicians do," said David Christian, a 
researcher with the group.

The bill's potential economic impact has been hotly debated. Last 
year, another study by the Center for Strategic and International 
Studies found that a total ban on alcohol would reduce Indonesia's 
gross domestic product by a mere 0.03 percent and eliminate 128,000 
jobs, just 0.1 percent of the country's official labor force, figures 
that some found surprisingly low.

Mr. Christian, the researcher, said that study only looked at the 
national economy, not at the presumably more severe effects a ban 
would have on places like Bali or Jakarta, which has hundreds of 
upscale hotels, restaurants, wine bars and pubs.

Prohibition would also trigger the implosion of the $600 million 
local alcoholic beverages industry, shutting down Indonesian 
companies that produce spirits, beer and cider (and closing three 
wineries in Bali). The largest of these companies is Multi Bintang 
Indonesia, which brews Bintang, the national beer, and is also the 
local brewer of Heineken and Guinness.

The company - which opened in 1931, when Indonesia was under Dutch 
rule - operates the first Heineken brewery opened outside of the 
Netherlands, had net sales of $220 million last year, and has a 
market capitalization of more than $1 billion. The company also 
invested $50 million during the past two years to upgrade and expand 
its operations, all of which could be lost, said Michael Chin, the 
company's president director.

"Obviously I am concerned, but it does not stop us from engaging the 
government and Parliament on a regular basis" about the proposed ban, 
Mr. Chin said. "There is no health crisis that is related to 
legitimate alcohol."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom