Grieving parents warned to back off
After Liam Davies died from methanol poisoning, his parents launched an investigation into the liquor trade in Indonesia. The former Taranaki couple's findings are shocking and they have been told their safety is at risk. They talk to Leighton Keith about the need for change.
Don't poke a tiger with a stick.
It's a warning given to Tim and Lhani Davies by Indonesian locals.
The couple have been regular visitors there since the death of their 19-year-old son Liam in January 2013 and they are ruffling feathers.
What began as an investigation to determine why their son died has turned into a crusade to expose a bootleg liquor industry they say dominates the islands and involves using methanol - a toxic chemical added to cheap drinks to increase alcohol levels.
It was responsible for Liam's death.
They've also started the Lifesaving Initiative Against Methanol (L.I.A.M) Charitable Fund.
The fund's objectives are the education of Indonesians and tourists about the potential dangers of drinking bootleg spirits, to provide training for health workers on how to identify the symptoms of methanol poisoning and treat patients, hospitality industry training and to fund much needed equipment.
They say the problem stretches across Indonesia. The Jakarta Post reported last month that 18,000 people in Indonesia died from drinking adulterated liquor every year.
However getting action has proved difficult, in the Muslim-majority nation. The couple say exorbitant alcohol taxes and rampant corruption have spawned a healthy black market trade in counterfeit liquor.
They want the owner of Rudy's Bar on Gili Island, off the northwest tip of Lombok where Liam drank vodka and lime laced with methanol, prosecuted.
"It's negligence on his part, in New Zealand and Australia you would call it manslaughter. Through his negligence and not managing his bar our son died and he's directly responsible," Tim says.
"If we can hold someone to account then that sends a message to other bar owners that it's not acceptable to turn a blind eye to what is going on in your bar."
Tim says they were aware from day one of the potential dangers of what they were doing.
"We have been constantly aware of and cautioned about potential ramifications from those involved in this crime."
He says local expats and Indonesians in the hospitality industry are still very cautious about speaking out or making a stand for fear of retribution.
"What we are told is that corruption runs deep in Indonesia from local authorities all the way to Jakarta."
Bar owners were forced to either buy liquor from the sole alcohol distributor or import it themselves.
"Within this environment of corrupt local authorities such as police, government officials, organised crime can, and does, flourish."
He understands Turkish organised crime had moved on to the island and started a campaign of intimidation and extortion.
"We have been warned by many of the legitimate Gili Trawangan bar owners that we are not safe on the island, to the point where we don't go there anymore."
They say one bar owner, who had supported them, had his bar trashed, was dragged out of bed at knife point and had his boat sabotaged because he refused to deal with the group.
Tim claims more than 50 per cent of spirits sold are fake and tourists and locals were playing Russian Roulette when ordering a drink.
Counterfeiters went to extreme lengths to make their products appear legitimate by using fake caps, capping machines and forged excise duty stickers.
"This is the thing that people need to understand. It's not a drink spiking problem, it's not like that particular bar is spiking the alcohol.
"It's the counterfeiting of alcohol and if the bar owner is not prepared to pay a premium for proper spirits and they want to buy from a cheap supplier, they can't guarantee the quality of what they are getting."
It's not just binge drinkers putting themselves in danger. As little as one teaspoon of methanol can kill.
Tim says when they tried to trace the counterfeit spirits they were quickly warned off.
"People say to us, 'you are better to keep on the path of raising awareness and winning the hearts and minds of locals, expats and genuine officials. Don't poke the tiger with a stick or it will turn around and bite your head off'."
The couple had built a strong relationship with the Australian Consular and the Australian Federal Police.
"They too are aware of the sensitivities surrounding our activities in Indonesia and always ask that we maintain close communications and keep them fully informed of our activities and intentions. A few times the AFP have expressed concern about our travels especially when travelling to the islands."
The couple's staunch campaign has gained the attention of some of the industry heavyweights including the Methanol Institute, the International Federation of Spirits Producers and both the Australian and New Zealand governments now providing assistance.
Lhani says 12 months ago they didn't think they could get that power behind them.
Hank Williams, of Methanol Institute's bootleg alcohol prevention subcommittee based in Houston, Texas, says sources in Indonesia have indicated the production and sale of illegal spirits was a significant problem.
"Much of the alcohol available in tourist areas like Bali and Lombok is counterfeit, arak or branded alcohol that is either adulterated with methanol and other additives, different alcoholic spirits served in originally packaged bottles from licensed manufacturers, and/or illegal parallel imports," Williams says.
"Difficulties arise when even seemingly legitimate alcoholic spirits in properly packaged bottles are being replaced with adulterated alcohol and the bottles are re-sealed, unbeknownst to the consumer."
Despite the huge barriers the couple initially faced they have seen progress but say more still needs to be done.
Lhani says the general level of awareness of tourists about the risks of drinking spirits had increased significantly and feedback from bar owners was the drinking culture had changed - people were sticking to beer and cider and not buying spirits.
"There are still some barriers there to break down but we are getting there," Tim says.
The couple knows nothing they do is going to bring Liam back but they hope to prevent needless deaths in the future.
Lhani says she still thought about her son everyday.
"It's still very surreal to walk into your home and your son is not there, to wake up in the morning and think I haven't heard his motorbike, he's late for work.
"I wonder what my idle thoughts had been before Liam was killed. My mind is like a projector and flicks images through all the time at night, sleeping through the night is long gone."
Lhani says Mondays used to be family only nights but now a core group of Liam's friends had been coming around for dinner.
"We chew the fat, eat, drink, laugh and cry."
She says the family was determined not to let their ordeal pull them apart.
"We couldn't let Liam's murder, murder our family as well."
Tim says the family has just had to learn to live with what's happened. "It's just as hard today as it was a year ago."
Taranaki Daily News