YANGON – Myanmar lottery chief Thein Naing sits in an office that could be the set of a colonial era movie – veneered walls trapping Yangon’s musty, late-afternoon summer air – a furnace cooled by a whirring ceiling fan. Outside in the steamy, whitewashed corridor, brown paper-wrapped boxes of lottery tickets are stacked, awaiting distribution to vendors across the Myanmar commercial capital.
Despite the creaky trappings, Thein Naing has big plans to modernise the Aung Bar Lay, the Burmese name for the monthly state-run draw that sells around 30 million tickets priced at 200 kyats (20 U.S. cents) each, and contributes $2 million a month in revenue to state coffers, once prize money is doled-out
“We want to have an electronic, or online lottery, as the ticket lottery is very limited,” says Thein Naing, discussing an early-days proposal to piggy-back the lottery onto some of Myanmar’s communications sector reforms.
Newly-arrived foreign mobile network providers are due to start selling SIM cards and airtime by late 2014, with mentions of a jump straight to 4G, meaning that more of Myanmar’s people should be able to get online. Currently less than 10 per cent of Myanmar’s estimated 50-60 million population have mobile phones or are internet users, while only around one-quarter of the country’s population has electricity, and most of the latter are in urban areas.
Taking a gamble on these numbers changing for the better in the coming years, and launching an online lottery, is a better bet even now, it seems, than sticking with the current system.
Tickets are printed in Magwe in central Myanmar, and then distributed mostly by road, sometimes through rugged terrain, across a country the size of England and France combined . “We have to carry the ticket from central Myanmar and distribute the whole country,” says Thein Naing, shaking his head. “It takes too much time, and there’s thousands of administration problems.”
Myanmar is soliciting foreign investment in its transport infrastructure – with construction companies pitching for work on projects as varied as Yangon’s postcard relic circular railway to a massive new international airport outside the commercial capital, to new highways linking potential tourist draws in the south to Thailand’s massive tourist market.
Some of those projects, most of which have a five, or seven, or even ten-year timetable once started, have been slow to get going, however, with the Myanmar Government seeking cash backing from the likes of the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank.
Myanmar could, therefore, have a modern telecommunications system – with network and internet coverage to match southeast Asian neighbours – before it gets the roads and railways it needs to make driving around the country a less windy and time-consuming affair – another reason Thein Naing suggests pushing for the online lottery.
Myanmar’s culture, too, is another reason the lottery boss feels that an online version of the Aung Bar Lay is needed. While around 90 percent of the population is thought to be Buddhist, many Burmese dabble in astrology and numerology – consulting fortune-tellers on how to gamble and sometimes framing their flutters on perceived lucky numbers.
“The people like number nine, or number seven, or number four,” Thein Naing says. “We have to manage that those numbers have to be included in the tickets because people not buy, sometimes, they don’t like the number two or zero. But it is an extra problem for managing printing,” he explains.
And while Myanmar has had an official lottery since 1938, when the country was ruled by great Britain and known as Burma, gambling remains illegal. Some estimates suggest, however, that around 70 percent of Myanmar’s adult population plays illegal games based on Thailand’s lottery and stock exchange, or place illicit bets on English football.
“There is thousands of the illegal gambling, it is very different to control,” laments Thein Naing, who concedes that an even an online Aung Bar Lay could struggle to swing customers away from the allure of unlicenced wagers.
With so much potential revenue lost to illegal, yet impossible to curb gambling, the possibility of legalised gambling in Myanmar was floated in the Myanmar Tourism Master Plan, which was published in 2013 and which envisions allowing casinos as part of an overall plan to attract around 7 million tourists a year by 2020.
Tourism Minister Htay Aung cautions, however, that there is no guarantee that gambling or casinos will be made legal in Myanmar.
“There have been discussions between the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Attorney-General’s Office on how to proceed,” he tells AGBrief.
“But any change to the gaming laws will have to be approved by the houses of parliament, and that could take some time,” the minister adds.
Thein Naing says that there is a new law being drafted for his hoped-for electronic lottery, but that too could be slow to reach the statute books
“Our law is a little bit down the list,” said Thein Naing, palms bouncing by his waist to demonstrate the perceived insignificance of the proposed Myanmar Lottery Laws – relative to other legislative reforms due to come up in Myanmar’s parliament. “Minimum is six months,” he says, referring to when he sees the draft being discussed in the legislature in capital Naypyitaw.