Traditional Chinese Medicine in Indonesia

by AFP/Victor Tjahjadi , Jan 21, 2007 | Destinations: Indonesia / Jakarta

In a pungently-scented shop in Indonesia's Chinatown, Yunus Irawan deftly grabs a pinch of dried centipedes and another of an odd-looking insect from his antique shelves.

He carefully weighs them on a mini hand-held scale.

"These are called sea cockroaches, and if mixed with the centipedes as a powder, are good to treat internal injuries," he explains.

With his small enterprise, Irawan is proof that despite a growing threat of their imported products being tainted, traditional Chinese doctors in Indonesia are carrying on their ancient practices as loyal locals seek cut-price medical treatment.

He himself is not a "shinshe" -- the local name for a doctor of traditional Chinese medicine -- but the 55-year-old shop owner is an expert in combining insects and herbs to cure an array of ailments.

Irawan's shop in Jakarta was set up in 1946 by his father and is today among around 30 stores founded by Chinese immigrants at the turn of the 20th century and still open today.

The stores have retained a stream of repeat customers for decades -- both ethnic Chinese and other Indonesians -- who eschew expensive private hospitals but do not want to brave public ones either, where services are notoriously poor.

Haji Sri Rusmi, 74, is buying pills made partially from Chinese worms for her nephew's son, who is suffering from typhoid.

"This medicine is better because it's traditionally-made... Modern drugs use chemical ingredients and may have side effects," she says.

Her nephew, Joko Pratomo, concurs.

"My son spent two weeks being treated at hospital but his health never recovered and the bills were very expensive," he says.

"This is the second batch of pills for him. He is now in better shape and this medicine costs less than modern typhoid drugs."

He pays Irawan 282,000 rupiah (31 dollars) for two weeks' worth of pills. His son's hospital bill ran to some five million rupiah.

The reputation of the Chinese stores, however, has been tainted in recent years by a slew of traditional drugs sold at these stores but which have been banned by health authorities here after being found to contain chemicals.

"We are concerned and have found proof that many traditional Chinese medicines are laced with these banned substances," says the country's drug and food control agency chief, Husniah Rubiana Akib.

"They are threatening the reputation of good and honest stores that sell these products," she tells AFP.

In 2001, some 19 Chinese-made traditional drugs were found to contain banned chemicals such as sodium borate and formaldehyde.

"The sale of these banned medicines is growing in Indonesia because it's a business that requires small capital but has profitable returns," Akib said, though her agency does not have available figures on seizures.

Akib says her agency has only about 1,300 trained investigators, including laboratory workers, to monitor the distribution of drugs right across the world's fourth most populous nation.

"We are intensifying supervision along with the customs agency but sometimes illegal Chinese medicines do get smuggled in inside suitcases or containers," she says.

The sale and distribution of illegally-imported drugs are punishable by up to five years imprisonment and a fine of two billion rupiah (around 218,000 dollars).

Darmawan Hiriadi, a well-known healer from Karti Djaja, a mass distribution store in old Chinatown, agrees illegal Chinese drug importers are "damaging the reputation of our profession and stores."

His group of shinshes, the Association of Traditional Healers Indonesia (INI), is licensed at the health ministry and forbids its members from using the banned substances.

"We only sell and use products that have been approved by the ministry. We tell our customers if our medicines are not improving their condition, then they should seek medical doctors," Hiriadi says.

As for Irawan, he just wants to make an honest living.

"I only want to continue my father's legacy. I do not want to taint it by selling banned drugs from China at my store," he says.

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