Legalized gambling against the odds in Myanmar – Asia Gambling Brief


Tourism master plan proposes discussions on how legalized gambling could bring in much needed revenue but more pressing economic and political problems take precedence

YANGON – Even the head of Myanmar’s monthly state lottery concedes that gambling, otherwise illegal in the country, takes place on a massive scale.

“Myanmar people are interested in gambling, it is a human interest very common in the world,” Thein Naing says, speaking in an upstairs room of the lottery’s main office in downtown Yangon.

A hint of that allure can be seen in the state lottery sales. Called Aung Bar Lay in Burmese, the lottery sells around 30 million tickets, priced at 200 kyat each (20 cents) every month, even though millions of Burmese live on around the dollar a day mark.

That said, the money spent on the official lottery is probably a pale reflection of the amount that goes to black market gambling.

The official lottery dates back to 1938, the beginning of the last decade of British colonial rule. George Orwell, possibly the most famous Brit to work in imperial-run Burma, reckoned that the Burmese were as addicted to gambling as his own compatriots were to booze.

If Orwell was to visit Myanmar today, he might think he had downplayed the Burmese fondness for a flutter. Illegal sports betting is probably the single most lucrative form of gambling in the country, going by conversations with sports bettors and bookmakers in Yangon. The code name for wagers on European and particularly English club football is “one digit” and the two other popular games are known, unsurprisingly, as “two digit” and “three digit”.

A 2005 US Embassy cable featured an estimate – from a Burmese involved in the illegal gambling racket – that around 17 million people, or around a fifth of the population, play the “two digit” daily game whereby wagers are placed on numbers that come up on the Thai Stock Exchange.

“Three digit” is a twice-a-month spin-off from Thailand’s state lottery where Burmese gamblers try to second-guess part of the outcome. Astrologers, palmists and other seers are consulted by Burmese eager for spiritual or supernatural guidance before the daily or bimonthly bet.

Men and women all play the Thailand-focused games, while football betting, which is often done via quickly deleted SMSs – a precaution against police prying – is mostly a male bastion.

An estimated three million Burmese work in Thailand, economic migrants from the sclerotic, basket-case economy at home, with hundreds of thousands more in Malaysia and Singapore – which has a lucrative gambling economy.

But now, with reformed foreign investment laws among a swathe of economic reforms passed or in train, Myanmar is trying to lay the legislative bedrock to allow it try to play catch-up with wealthier neighbors.

Proponents of legalization have long argued that regulation kills the lucrative black market and brings in revenue. The latter is much needed in Myanmar’s case.

But it is not clear whether gambling will be allowed in Myanmar in the near future. The odds, pun intended, seem to be against.

A tourism “master plan”, which the Myanmar government drew up with the Asian Development Bank and Norwegian Government, proposes discussion on how gambling could be legalized and harnessed to resorts as a tourist draw. The same plan – and these blueprints are a dime a dozen in Myanmar these days – speculates that tourist numbers could be anywhere from 2.8 million a year to 7 million a year by 2020, and it’s just as hazy whether, and when, laws banning gambling come up for review.

Nyan Win, spokesman for the opposition National League for Democracy, whose iconic leader Aung San Suu Kyi hopes to become Myanmar’s president, said last month that he is not aware of any plans to discuss the issue in Myanmar’s parliament.

His party wants to amend the country’s constitution so Aung San Suu Kyi can become president – if her party wins in 2015 – and the looming wrangle over constitutional change is likely to overshadow other reform proposals in Myanmar between now and 2015.

Cognitive dissonance could also play a part in reluctance to legislate. Despite widespread evidence of how keen Burmese are to gamble, “the mindset is that gambling is against the character of the Burmese people, so no-one seems ready to pronounce anything like changing the law,” Nyan Win told The Irrawaddy, a Myanmar-based news magazine.

Myanmar’s new foreign investment laws proscribe investment that “can affect the traditional culture and customs of the national races within the Union” and “business which can affect the public health.”

Prohibitionists could easily argue that these clauses rule out gambling or casinos or sports betting. State lottery head Thein Naing, asked about the prospect of gambling being allowed in Myanmar, says that lawmakers have more pressing political and economic reforms to look at first.

For example, 14 ceasefires have been signed between the Myanmar government and some of the alphabet soup of ethnic militias that fought on-off wars with the state army for decades.

Turning these tentative deals into lasting peace – and enabling business and investment to thrive in these often-impoverished borderlands – is one of the multitude of pressing challenges facing the government.

In some of those border regions close to China and Thailand, where non state armies have forged fiefdoms funded by drugs – and, yes, gambling – the writ of the Myanmar state does not hold.

Bruce Wunna, a casino manager in the borderlands, says that there are hopes that Myanmar’s laws might change in future to allow casinos to operate – legally, that is. He says it will be unlikely that the Burmese will be permitted to gamble.

For now, however, it’s a case of see no evil, hear no evil. “If anyone from government visits, casinos close temporarily,” says Wunna. And even in areas where the government holds sway militias can cut deals to run gambling dens, with one group, the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, which is in fact government-aligned, holding up a police station last month after police raided some of their spots.

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