Confronting Kilinochchi’s alcohol problem | Daily News

Confronting Kilinochchi’s alcohol problem

In the former LTTE stronghold Kilinochchi, war-affected women heads of households struggle to rear their families in a toxic environment of drug and alcohol abuse.

“Somebody is selling illicit liquor in our neighbourhood,” says 46-year-old Vijayratna Padmavati. Her village, Dharmapuram, is about 17km from Kilinochchi town. It isn’t very crowded: spread out over dusty fields and the former homes of LTTE soldiers, a place where everybody knows everybody, and though Padmavati could probably point out from which of the houses illicit liquor is flowing, instead she refers to them obliquely, and says that she can hear her neighbour’s doorbell ringing at odd hours.

After the war ended and the land had been de-mined, in the early summer of 2010, Padmavati and her family returned to a cavity where their home once stood. Three months later, her husband had ‘a fit’ and died, she said. On her own, Padmavati raised a son and a daughter, now 25 and 15 years old. “They are good children, they don’t use drugs,” said Padmavati. “We have seen people who use drugs on the roadsides. We don’t talk to them.”

Padmavati is part of the same Chinmaya Mission women’s group as 58-year-old Paramananda Yogerana, who is familiar with the problem of alcohol abuse. “I know a lot of families where husbands drink, and then they take away the jewellery, the little that the woman has, and sell it for moonshine, which is prepared in the neighbourhood,” Yogerana says. “Then the family is in a difficult situation. They have no food to eat, nothing.”

Yogerana says that she and the other women had little recourse to this behaviour. “When we go to the police station and complain about the men abusing women, the police will take an entry, and keep the men for two days,” she says. “The men will then pay money, and the police will release them again. And they come and do the same thing.”

This illegal alcohol or moonshine is a homemade brew made from fermented palmyrah flowers, coconut, or sugarcane. In the Northern Province, it can be sold for about one-fifth the price of the lowest-grade legal liquor.

The spread of moonshine in Kilinochchi has had a troubling effect on the local society since the war ended. “After the war, children have become addicted to liquor,” said Suganthi Oktha, a lawyer who works with an NGO giving legal advice on cases involving child abuse. She has increasingly seen alcohol addiction in younger children, with the highest prevalence in young adults between the ages of 18 and 25. “It’s worse on weekends. They don’t stay at home. During the week, they go for tuition.”

Concerned parents and grandparents like Yogerana view drug abuse as one of the many threats to their children in society. If her granddaughters were to get caught using drugs, “the whole family would be ruined,” said Yogerana, who fears for when they grow up, saying, “God knows what they will do.”

The Chinmaya Mission in Kilinochchi (CORD) is one NGO that offers occasional awareness programmes and hosts speakers to inform children about the dangers of abusing alcohol and drugs. But Oktha thinks that the solution lies in proper law enforcement. “NGOs have awareness programmes, but unless the production of moonshine is stopped, they can’t control it.”

Police enforcement is minimal, said several sources, who requested anonymity. Sources from NGOs, schools, and private citizens claim that the local police accept bribes and allow illegal distilleries to function. One person who made this assertion worked previously as a teacher, and witnessed his student become addicted to marijuana. He said that 50 percent of the area surrounding his old school was used for growing marijuana illegally, and he believed that the police were aware of it.

Kilinochchi police declined to comment on these issues, and referred the Daily News instead to its administrative head, in Colombo. Police Media Spokesman and Director of the Police Discipline Division, SP Ruwan Gunasekara said that bribery is rare within the police force. “About one or two police officers are arrested by the Bribery Commission in a year,” he said, “Such officers have to face action under the Bribery Act. We indict such officers, and then start a disciplinary inquiry. If they are convicted, we dismiss them from the service.”

SP Gunasekara also noted that the police do not keep complete statistics on illicit alcohol, saying, “We have figures for drug dealing, but we haven’t figures for selling moonshine.”

He also said that the police control moonshine along the parameters laid out under the Excise Ordinance, written in 1913. It states that whoever manufactures or sells toddy or moonshine, “shall be guilty of an offence, and be liable on conviction to imprisonment…for a term which may extend to six months, or to a fine which may extend to one thousand rupees.”

Oktha says that the law governing alcohol production and consumption is not enough, “even though it looks good on paper.” She and other lawyers have written numerous letters to various government departments, describing how women are particularly affected by the problem of moonshine. “But so far, there is no motion against it.”

“When we came in 2010,” said Amritha Mahenthiran, Executive Director of the Chinmaya Mission (CORD), “school principals were very concerned about the influence of drugs, liquor and alcohol, which were never there before.” She was told from principals and school teachers that some children were forced to sell moonshine for their parents, and started drinking themselves. Mahenthiran is also acutely aware of the happenings at CORD’s women’s group that both Padmavati and Yogerana are a part of. She said that five women committed suicide after their husbands developed alcohol problems: “The men would consume liquor and they wouldn’t go for work, while the women have to find money for their husband’s liquor addiction, as well as to run the family.”

The Alcohol and Drug Information Centre (ADIC) does not carry data on illicit alcohol in Kilinochchi either, but said that police raids often depict the amount of trade going on in a particular area.

An ADIC official based in the Northern Province, Dinesh Kumar Pubudu, said, “According to my observations, now the illegal drugs, including alcohol, are coming down, especially in Kilinochchi. The problem is that implementation of the law is very poor. Three months ago, they held a development meeting at the Kilinochchi District Secretariat, where politicians suggested that if we want to control moonshine, they should implement legal alcohol.”

But Pubudu and the ADIC strongly disagree with this sentiment. “Excise offices have the necessary authority, they have the power to control the problem,” Pubudu said.

In 2013, the Institute of Policy Studies estimated that 65 percent of the total alcohol market in Sri Lanka was illicit, with 30 per cent of that consisting of hard liquor.

Officials from the Kilinochchi District Secretariat declined to comment for this article, but in 2014, they spoke to the Inter Press Services, a not-for-profit cooperative of global journalists, about elevated alcohol abuse in Dharmapuram and Kilinochchi. At that time, district officials said they received regular reports of domestic violence as a result of alcohol consumption.

Professor Janaka de Silva, Director of the Postgraduate Institute of Medicine at the University of Colombo, offered another startling statistic: “About 60 percent of cirrhosis (a serious liver disease) in Sri Lanka is alcohol-related.” Globally, about one-third of cirrhosis cases are caused by alcohol and two-thirds by hepatitis.

Kilinochchi’s moonshine problem is compounded by its status as a former war zone. Once the administrative capital of the LTTE, Kilinochchi was decimated in the recent war. For years, the Army supported Kilinochchi, providing villages with vital infrastructure such as water. But transitional governance has left communities facing pervasive uncertainty and economic hardship, as families continue to rebuild their lives after the war.

Padmavati described her own struggles resettling in Dharmapuram in 2010. After her husband died, she started a business selling livestock. She spoke to the Daily News in front of her chicken shed, which she said she bought for Rs. 100,000 over a period of several years, with the help of NGOs.

She had found some stability working as a poultry seller until 2014, when all 200 of her chicks caught a disease and died. Padmavati says she had made the mistake of letting her chickens out to graze in December, during the rainy season. “That really brought my life down,” she said.

Others, like Yogerana, have parental anxiety over their children’s future in a place still transitioning from war. “They get friendly with unknown people, they get a mobile phone, and they get into trouble. Girls get pregnant and throw their unwanted babies onto railway lines and into bushes. Kilinochchi Hospital is full of illegitimate children,” she said.

So, while she can, Yogerana insists on raising her granddaughters in a ‘good’ way: “They don’t go anywhere. They are confined to the house because of all of these issues.”


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