Myanmar’s gambling mad fans gear up for the World Cup

Football gamblers watching opening day of 2013-14 English football season in Tamwe, Rangoon (Photo: Simon Roughneen)
Football gamblers watching opening day of 2013-14 English football season in Tamwe, Rangoon (Photo: Simon Roughneen) – app/digital magazine available here (subscription required)

YANGON – Gambling is illegal in Myanmar, but that doesn’t stop millions of Burmese from playing the odds. Number-based games are popular, such as placing wagers on the daily ups and downs of the Stock Exchange of Thailand – but most of the money seems to go on football betting.

Min Maung, a small-time bookie operating from his parents’ house in northern Yangon, says he makes around 70 per cent of his average monthly income of US$200 during the European football season. And every four years, there’s the bonus of a World Cup, the global footballing pinnacle where 32 countries compete to be world champion – and extending the football season by a few extra weeks.

Football betting is prohibited, and of course Min Maung is not this bookie’s real name. Gambling is but one sector of a massive off-the-books economy in Myanmar that sees US$8billion and US$5.7 billion, respectively, in jade and logging earnings leave the country illicitly every year. Officials in Myanmar’s military-dominated government also downplay the amount of the country’s vast oil and gas revenues, allegedly to facilitate stashing funds in private banks in Singapore.

Even now, in reforming Myanmar, accurate statistics are hard to come by for parts of the above-board economy, so gauging the overall size of the country’s gambling habit is difficult.

A 2005 diplomatic cable from the U.S. embassy in Yangon, released by Wikileaks, suggested that around 70 per cent of adult Burmese gamble. Estimates have put the value of the country’s gambling economy at between US$5 million to US$10 million per day. By way of comparison, the country’s sole legal gaming outlet, the state lottery, contributes around US$2million per month to government revenues.

Betting on the World Cup is not like betting on the English or other high-profile European leagues, says Min Maung. There, as in Myanmar, money talks, and Europe’s top clubs are dense with star names from around the world. Some clubs – Barcelona, Chelsea, Manchester City, Real Madrid, to name a few – can have up to two dozen international footballers on their rosters.

But when obscure countries – in football terms – such as Algeria or Ecuador or Iran compete at the World Cup, the average punter here isn’t sure how to bet. He or she doesn’t know the players or the teams, so it becomes guesswork compared with the more familiar club league seasons.

But that will not deter betting come June 12, when the World Cup starts. If the formbook is somewhat obscure, some gamblers can opt for more esoteric guidance: consulting soothsayers and fortune-tellers, much as Myanmar’s former ruler General Ne Win was said to do.

Team colours and player numbers could come into it. State lottery director Thein Naing, in a recent interview at the lottery headquarters in Yangon, said gamblers prefer lucky numbers such as 9 or 7 – shunning tickets featuring 2 or 0.

“It means maybe we do not sell as many tickets as we could,” Thein Naing said.

Thein Naing has high hopes for the lottery, preparing online and app versions in advance of a hoped-for nationwide telecommunications overhaul – the onset of which should be felt later in 2014 when Norway’s Telenor and Qatar’s Ooreedoo launch their much-anticipated mobile phone networks.

Although only around 10 per cent of the population is estimated to have a cellphone, an increasing proportion of Myanmar’s football gambling is now carried out via text messages sent from gamblers to bookies. These bets can run to several during a match – such as quick-fire wagers on whether a just-awarded penalty kick will be scored or who will score the next goal.

“It used to be much more difficult a few years ago, when only the wealthy owned a mobile,” Min Maung said. “But with new phones that people can afford, it will mean more betting.”

Something to look forward to, ahead of the next World Cup in 2018.

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