Economic Crisis and Unregulated Alcohol Collide

by Vetrichelvi Chandrakala, Global Press Journal, Washington, DC, May 25, 2022

Civil war veterans, also grappling with the country’s imploding economy, fight to break their dependency on dangerous, illegal liquor.

Economic Crisis and Unregulated Alcohol Collide

Fisherman Vijayakumar Velayutham lost his hand when soldiers shot at him and detonated explosives he was carrying during the Sri Lankan civil war. PHOTO: VETRICHELVI CHANDRAKALA, GPJ SRI LANKA

MANNAR, SRI LANKA — Vijayakumar Velayutham fought for more than a decade in the Sri Lankan civil war. He lost his hand; he was imprisoned, interrogated and tortured. When he eventually returned home to his wife and children, he tried hard to forget the horrors.

He started working as a fisherman at home in Mannar district, in the Northern Province, to support his family, but he struggled to adjust. The pain of his injury and wartime memories prevented him from sleeping. He began drinking.

“I was tired after coming back from work; I wasn’t able to sleep,” he says. “Old memories took over. My friends gave me some liquor to sleep peacefully. I kept drinking, and it became a habit.”

In 2018, he struggled to fund his growing dependency, so he switched to an illegal alcohol called Kasippu, made from fermented fruits, sugar and yeast. Illicit alcohol is cheaper and more accessible than legal alcohol. It’s unregulated and not subject to the same quality control standards as legal alcohol, so it often includes toxic ingredients like methanol, which can destroy the central nervous system and cause blindness.

Since the country’s civil war ended in 2009, the consumption and production of alcohol has risen, with more men drinking alcohol than women and 40% of all alcohol consumed being illicit. The growing number of men who have become dependent on alcohol, particularly illicit alcohol, in the aftermath of the conflict is putting a strain on an already limited number of rehabilitation programs. The situation threatens to worsen with a recent economic crisis that has caused weeks of protests and led to the prime minister’s resignation.

The 26-year civil war, fought between government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, who wanted to create an independent Tamil state in northern and eastern Sri Lanka, left many LTTE fighters imprisoned and injured. Some were tortured, according to Human Rights Watch, an international research and advocacy organization, and thousands were displaced.

Velayutham, an LTTE fighter, lost his right hand in 2007. He was carrying explosives when soldiers shot at him, leaving 240 pieces of shrapnel floating around his body.

“It is very painful when they come near my skin,” he says of the metal pieces in his body.

He was treated in a hospital under police custody for three months, then taken to the police’s Terrorism Investigation Division, where he was detained until 2011. He says he endured regular interrogations and torture; the memories still haunt him.

“Being injured and losing a hand was not even a problem for me, but the tortures that happened worried me,” Velayutham says. “They tortured on the injuries. They pricked me with needles. They pricked me with a screwdriver.”

Two girls were raped right in front of him, the father of four says before breaking down. “I am not able to forget the incidents that happened. So many years have passed, but when I close my eyes to sleep, the memories are awakened.”

Several years later, police found Kasippu in Velayutham’s home. He was arrested and given a community reform order, which required him to attend 100 hours of counseling. Mohamadhu Anas, a senior officer in the Social Reform Division of the Mannar District Magistrate’s Court, says fines don’t work and prison prevents offenders from supporting their families.

Father of four Vijayakumar Velayutham completed a court-ordered reform program after he was found with illicit alcohol. The program, he says, helped turn his life around, and he no longer drinks. PHOTO: VETRICHELVI CHANDRAKALA, GPJ SRI LANKA

“We don’t send them to prison. We prevent them from being sent to prison,” Anas says.

The reform program not only offers counseling and requires public service, but participants may also be eligible for further assistance.

“In 2021, we bought a crab net for 25,000 rupees for a selected person,” says Dilakshan Santhirakesan, a government official for the Manthai West district of Mannar, but he admits that government funding for such initiatives was inadequate. This year, the government allocated 50,000 Sri Lankan rupees ($140) to Manthai West district to assist those trying to build a life after rehab.

Dr. Sivathas Sivasubramaniam, a psychiatrist at Jaffna Teaching Hospital, says he has seen more cases of post-traumatic stress disorder since the Sri Lankan civil war ended. PHOTO: VETRICHELVI CHANDRAKALA, GPJ SRI LANKA

Despite the program, the number of arrests in Mannar for possession of illicit alcohol is rising, with 84 offenders in 2021 and more than half that figure in the first two months of 2022.

Dr. Sivathas Sivasubramaniam, a psychiatrist at Jaffna Teaching Hospital and consultant psychiatrist at the Ministry of Health who has worked in mental health for 20 years, says he has seen more cases of post-traumatic stress disorder since the civil war ended. He says that while he is seeing positive results from reform programs, he has concerns about the effect Sri Lanka’s economic crisis will have on these programs, as the country faces unsustainable debt and a highly uncertain economic outlook.

“Plans that depend on money will all be affected, but projects that operate on a voluntary basis can carry on without being affected,” Sivasubramaniam says. “Yet, as the economic crisis continues, people are more likely to be mentally ill or depressed. … That will affect the volunteer activities as a whole. If the number of victims increases, the number of volunteers decreases. This is a frightening situation.”

Dr. Sivathas Sivasubramaniam, at the podium, and Mohamadhu Anas, right, a senior officer in the Social Reform Division of the Mannar District Magistrate’s Court, lead a workshop on drug and alcohol abuse. PHOTO: VETRICHELVI CHANDRAKALA, GPJ SRI LANKA

Sivasubramaniam, who leads rehabilitation classes and raises awareness about the dangers of alcohol, says more people need to be involved in the effort: “According to my experience working with a community that has been experiencing the effects of war for the past 20 years, efforts are less effective when people do not work together as a long-term purposeful community.”

The reform program helped Velayutham turn his life around. He focuses on activities that provide for his family and keep him from temptation, such as fishing and gardening. He no longer drinks alcohol.

Vetrichelvi Chandrakala

Vetrichelvi Chandrakala is a Global Press Journal reporter based in Mannar, Sri Lanka.


Lohith Kumar, GPJ, translated this article from Tamil.


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