Government Polls the Public on Betel Nut

By San Yamin Aung 10 June 2016

RANGOON — The President’s Office opened an online poll on Wednesday night to collect the public’s thoughts on reducing betel nut chewing and spitting in government offices and public places.

On May 27, the Burmese government launched a new anti-betel policy, which includes educational programs about the diseases resulting from betel nut chewing, and the enforcement of an ban on chewing, spitting or selling betel nut in or near government offices, schools and hospitals.

This policy, seemingly more strident than that espoused by previous governments, would have to contend with what is a highly ingrained habit among men and women in Burma.

Critics have since contended that the government should instead prioritize ridding drugs, alcohol and gambling from urban spaces, since these are far more injurious to public health—for the youth in particular—and are leading contributors to criminality. Critics have also pointed to the welfare of Burma’s many betel quid sellers, who could be deprived of a livelihood.

At 4 p.m. on Thursday, 2,284 out of 4,804 (47.5 percent) stated that gambling, drugs and alcohol should be targeted in tandem with betel nut. The second largest percentage group agreed with the policy aims but disagreed with the implementation strategies. The next largest group totally agreed with the government’s plan. Only 120 disagreed with the plan outright.

“We conducted this poll because we wanted to know the public reaction’s to the policy, positive or not,” President Office’s spokesperson Zaw Htay told The Irrawaddy. He expected the poll would continue for five more days, but this has not been confirmed.

Zaw Htay said that individual government departments would also conduct non-online polls in select parts of the country, to check for variant reactions.

Under the previous military-backed government under President Thein Sein, an online poll was conducted only once, to gauge the public’s opinion on increasing civil servants’ salaries. The betel nut poll is the first to be conducted by the new democratically elected government.

Zaw Htay said that the polls’ results would be considered when state and divisional governments across Burma implement the policy.

“Though the government issued the policy, it needs to be acceptable to the public, so that they may follow it. We need a positive reaction to be able to successfully implement it,” he said.

“We are also working against drugs, illegal medicines and bad food hygiene. But for these, we don’t need to conduct a poll, since the public’s opinion is already clear,” President Office’s spokesperson said, responding to criticism that the government should be prioritizing the control of drugs and alcohol rather than targeting low-income betel nut sellers.

In most cities in Burma, drug and alcohol addiction is of great concern to the public. In recent years, police across the country have been seizing record quantities of illicit drugs. In February, police in Rangoon seized over 260,000 methamphetamine pills worth over 1.3 billion kyats (around US$ 1 million) that had been abandoned in Mingaladon Township.