Muslim-majority Indonesia cracks down on alcohol sales

JAKARTA (AFP) - Indonesia on Thursday banned small retailers from selling beer, despite an outcry from the booze industry and in tourism hotspots over the Muslim-majority country's latest offensive against drinking.

The ban restricts the sale of beer and pre-mixed drinks - such as spirits with soft drinks - to large supermarkets only, outlawing sales in the country's 16,000 minimarts and 55,000 other small shops. Hotels, restaurants and bars are unaffected.

There had been particular anxiety about how the ban might affect tourism on the Hindu-majority resort island of Bali.

However, Trade Minister Rachmat Gobel - who was shouted at during an ill-tempered meeting with community leaders in Bali last weekend - has now pledged to ease the restrictions on the island to ensure street vendors can still sell beer at the beach.

But others have not been so lucky.

Convenience stores in the capital Jakarta began pulling booze from their shelves weeks ago in anticipation, replacing chilled beers and bourbon and cokes with signs apologising to customers for the inconvenience.

Very few small retailers can stock unmixed spirits and wine, meaning the regulation has been viewed as an an attempt to completely ban alcohol sales at such outlets.

German traveller Daniel Kowalski told AFP he tried to buy a beer from a convenience store on Jakarta's backpacker strip only to learn they no longer stocked alcohol.

"I think tourists will not appreciate it. Everybody likes to have a beer," he said. "Some people may actually say 'well I can't have a beer, I'd rather go to Thailand'." The national ban is the latest sign that conservative forces in the country of 250 million people are pushing back against growing alcohol consumption, and comes the same week that Islamic parties in the world's most populous Muslim-majority nation proposed a total ban on drinking.

The trade ministry has justified the ban on sales at small retailers on health and moral grounds, as concerns grow that underage drinking is being fuelled by wide availability in local neighbourhoods.

Lawmaker Fahira Idris, the founder of the National Anti-Alcohol Movement and a leading proponent of the measure, likened alcohol to a "machine killing our youth".

"Our volunteers often see minors buying alcohol with ease in minimarkets," she told AFP.

But major brewers have voiced their unhappiness.

Multinational giant Diageo, which distributes well-known brands such as Guinness in Indonesia, called the ban "regrettable". A spokeswoman for Heineken, a popular brand in Indonesia, said the ban would hurt at the local level.

The Indonesian Brewers Association, which represents the country's major beer distributors, said enforcing the ban amounted to prohibition in smaller towns where big supermarkets are scarce.

And health advocates warn it could drive more drinkers to blackmarket spirits, high-potency concoctions sold illegally on the street that kill an untold number of drinkers every year.

"To limit the market, and to limit where you can purchase the controlled alcohol, it's just a nightmare," said Australian Lhani Davies, whose 19-year-old son Liam died from methanol poisoning after being served homebrewed spirits at a bar in Indonesia.

The regulation may also mean little to ordinary Indonesians, who are among the lowest consumers of alcohol per capita in Southeast Asia. More than 90 per cent of the population describe themselves as Muslim, and drinking is against Islamic law.

However, alcohol is widely available in bigger cities and tourist areas, and industry data shows beer sales have been growing annually by roughly five per cent.

The proposal to ban all alcohol sales has been put forward by two Islamic parties in a parliamentary bill, although previous such attempts have failed and have been viewed as an attempt to pander to conservative voters.