The Irrawaddy

Chin State’s Unsuccessful Campaign to Ban Liquor

A notice at Thantlang Baptist Church prohibiting liquor, cigarettes and betel nut in the church. / Me Tint

For eight years, prohibition was in effect in Chin State’s Thantlang Township. Today, it is water under the bridge.

Liquor is once again legal in the town and there is no longer a need for villagers to travel to nearby Hakha to imbibe.

After a vigorous but unsuccessful eight-year campaign to ban liquor, campaigners abandoned their efforts in 2015, according to campaigner and pastor of the Thantlang Township Baptist Church Lawng Benk.

Following an increase in the number of bars, local ethnic Chin people had asked the government in 2006 to ban the sale of liquor to prevent the demoralization of the younger generation as well as to reduce crime.

Chin State is one of the least developed areas in Burma, and struggles with a lack of educational institutions and general infrastructure.

A monument commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the founding of Thantlang Township. / Me Tint

Although alcohol is legal throughout Burma, the government did not sell or renew licenses in Thantlang Township in 2006 and 2007 following the request made by locals.

In 2008, Christian churches and community elders contributed money—at least 2 million kyats annually—to buy the annual allotment of licenses in order to prevent distribution.

In 2010, the Baptist Church announced that it would expel those who distributed liquor, bootleggers, and their families from the church, and that it would not cover funeral services for concerned parties.

Campaigners also carried out programs to raise awareness among the youth regarding the health risks of drinking.

Farming is a major source of livelihood for locals, and many have said liquor helps them fight weariness and harsh weather. Despite campaigners’ efforts, liquor was brought in from bordering townships and sold illegally.

Pastors tried unsuccessfully to control the black market by stopping cars and motorbikes that came into town and destroying any liquor they found.

“Pastors checked town entrances at night, but the more people we caught, the more who carried it in,” said Lawng Benk.

There was eventually a standoff between locals and pastors. Pastors filed complaints against smugglers in court, but they were met with nominal fines, which did not mitigate the smuggling.

Police and soldiers sold liquor illegally, Lawng Benk said, and pastors took to impersonating buyers in order to find unsanctioned sellers.

‘Thantlang’ means renowned hillside town in the ethnic Chin language. / Me Tint

As campaigners were unable to arrest the sellers and fines had little effect, more than 2,000 Chin locals staged a protest, calling on the government to impose an official ban and introduce necessary regulations and punishments. More than 1,300 locals signed a petition to this effect.

“But nothing happened,” said Lawng Benk.

At the same time, some Thantlang locals asked the state government to allow bars in line with nationwide laws and regulations.

The Chin State government, perhaps prompted by the steady smuggling and high price of liquor on the black market for locals, allowed bars to reopen.

Campaigners eventually gave up on their efforts.

“It was like the more we prohibited liquor, the worse the situation became,” said Lawng Benk.

Currently, there are three licensed bars in Thantlang Township, which has a population of some 50,000 people.