Myanmar State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi ordered all state and regional chief ministers on Tuesday to avoid misusing their power after some shut down betel nut vendors following a request for them to help reduce citizens’ highly addictive habit of chewing and spitting out the tree seeds, a government spokesman said.
It is customary for both men and women in the Southeast Asian nation to chew betel nuts—the astringent kernels of the seeds of the betel palm—in small parcels of tobacco and slaked lime as a stimulant much like westerners consume caffeine or smoke cigarettes. But the rust-colored juice that the nut produces when chewed stains teeth and can cause cancer.
Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s de facto national leader, asked the chief ministers a few days ago to take action to make people cut down on their habit of chewing the nuts and spitting out the dark juice in public places.
But after some local administrators ordered betel nut vendors to stop operating, Aung San Suu Kyi’s office issued further instructions to clarify her previous request, said Zaw Htay, spokesman of the President’s Office.
“She doesn’t like it that some authorities have misused their power, because she didn’t instruct them to shut down the betel nut shops,” he said.
“The original instruction was to reduce the betel nut chewing habit, not to shut down the shops,” he said. “She said to find alternative ways for vendors’ to make a living other than by selling betel nuts.
“But it became a misuse of power and affected ordinary people,” Zaw Htay said. “Aung San Suu Kyi is unhappy about this, and that’s why she has released this second set of instructions.”
The guidance also noted that democratic countries, such as Myanmar, do not enforce orders through threats or authorities’ abuse of power, he said.
Aung San Suu Kyi also told the state and regional chief ministers to give special consideration to the rule of law and seek advice from legal experts, he said.
On May 27, Myanmar’s National League for Democracy government issued a new policy to enforce an existing ban on chewing, spitting or selling betel nuts in or near government offices, schools and hospitals, the online journal The Irrawaddy reported.
But the announcement did not provide any details as to how authorities would enforce the ban or how far from public buildings betel-nut users must stand, the article said.
The government also said it would begin an educational campaign to inform citizens about the health risks of chewing betel nuts and the stains it makes on streets and buses when users spit out the juice, it said.
“Many people across the country chew betel nuts, which are one of Myanmar’s customs,” the government’s statement said, according to The Irrawaddy. “This harms the appearance of government offices, schools, hospitals and towns, and also causes mouth, throat and tongue cancers.”
Critics of the move argue that the government should focus on eliminating illicit drugs, alcohol abuse and gambling from cities because they pose greater threats to public health, especially for young people, according to The Irrawaddy. They also contend that the country’s ubiquitous betel nut sellers will lose their livelihoods.
Reported by Zarni Htun for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.