Page last updated at 00:41 GMT, Monday, 15 December 2008

Indonesia drinkers face alcohol shortage

By Lucy Williamson
BBC News, Jakarta

Customers at a Bali bar
Some Bali bars notify customers they cannot serve some drinks

They call it "the Bitching Session". Once a week, in the hushed cocktail lounge of Jakarta's Dharmawangsa Hotel, Miranti and her girlfriends gather.

They come for a proper gossip, and several glasses of the hotel's legendary chocolate martini.

We can bitch about work, boys, whatever we feel like, Miranti explained. But it is always at the Dharmawangsa because of that delicious chocolate martini.

Miranti is part of a growing class in Indonesia. She is 34, single, an architect.

Like her friends, she knows how to run a business, deal with jet-lag, and how to mix a margarita.

What she does not know is that she is at the heart of a battle being fought here in Jakarta - over alcohol.

Mostly, it is a battle that has been fought out of sight. But now the wounds are appearing.

On the shiny tables of the capital's five star hotels, little cards have appeared next to the silver dishes of peanuts, delicately warning guests of an embarrassing lack of alcohol.

Menus at some of the best-known cocktail bars on the tourist island of Bali have shrunk to a single page. And the country's top Japanese restaurants are reported to have run out of sake.

Indonesia is facing a nationwide alcohol shortage.

As the bar manager of one international hotel put it: "We'll be dry by the weekend."

'Crisis manager'

At first glance, the reason is an anti-corruption drive. A few months ago, the government decided to clamp down on the huge black market in alcohol, and to stop companies bribing their way through customs.

That left the country's sole legal importer trying to meet a demand that is more than four times the size of its legal quotas.

And the company's chief executive, Ketut Arnaya, is taking the offensive.

I haven't seen many people staggering out of a bar or restaurant, blind drunk, or throwing up on the street - we don't drink to get drunk

On the wall of his office, next to a vast painting of galloping horses and several golf trophies, hangs a certificate.

Ketut Arnaya, it says, is the best CEO in the country at "crisis management".

He flicks through a proposal, thick with data, that he handed to the government last month, asking them to increase the quotas on alcohol, and also to cut its import taxes.

A bottle of spirits carries taxes of up to 400% its original price - almost twice as much, Ketut says, as anywhere else in the region.

The government stands to make a lot of money from relaxing the rules on alcohol. And to lose it, if it does not.

Controversial customers

The head of Bali's tourist board says his members are getting increasingly worried as the Christmas high season approaches.

But the head of fiscal policy at the finance ministry was wary. The government was considering letting more legal alcohol into the country he said, but it was worried about the consequences of doing so.

And part of that worry is down to the simple fact of who is drinking the wine and the cocktails served up here.

Foreign tourists in Bali, yes. Foreign businessmen in Jakarta too. But as a manager at one five star hotel explained, that is not the whole story.

Bottles of spirits - file photo
Some of these spirits may soon be difficult to find in Indonesia

"I have a wine bar here," he told me, "in which I would say 80% are Indonesians. These are the people who are ready to spend good money on alcohol and wines - the local Indonesians."

In a largely Muslim country, that is controversial. One reason, he said, why he believes the government has not accepted it yet, and also why they are unwilling to increase the quotas.

Government officials admit they want to discourage consumption; that they are worried about Indonesians drinking more; that it needs strict regulation.

Miranti - Indonesian and Muslim - disagrees.

"I think it depends on the person themselves," she told me, "because I haven't seen many people staggering out of a bar or restaurant, blind drunk, or throwing up on the street. We don't drink to get drunk."

"But then," she admitted, "I don't know about the younger generation, because when we were younger we were only allowed a very limited stipend."

Was it money that stopped you getting drunk before? I asked her. "Oh totally," she said, "totally."

Indonesia is always treading a fine line on these sorts of issues.

In a non-Muslim state that is home to the world's largest population of Muslims, the answers are never clear.

This debate pits the country's economic need against some of its most deeply held social values.

It is a debate that is likely to grow - at least while there are still a few bottles in the country's cellars to fuel the discussion.

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