The updated law was drafted in 2017, after the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism made a request to the Ministry of Home Affairs to allow casinos to operate officially as a service industry for foreigners in selected hotels. These include hotels on islands popular with tourists.
A new gambling law allowing casinos to operate was jointly drafted by the Ministry for Union Government Office and the Ministry of Home Affairs. The aim is to boost tourism as well as tax revenues. Currently, Myanmar and Thailand are the only two southeast countries that do not have casinos.
“We are left behind as most of our neighbours have casinos. If the casino operators don't come here, they will go to other countries," said U Aung Hlaing Win, Pyithu Hluttaw MP for Mingaladon constituency.
Although casinos are not officially permitted in Myanmar, some already operate in border areas such as Tha Htay Kyun (Boss Island) in Taninthayi, Myawaddy, Wa self-administered zone and Kokant self-administered zone.
“We can no longer ignore the illegal casinos operating at the border. We need to legalise casinos in the country and set rules and regulations to make operations systematic. The new industry will also help with tax revenues. We managed to draft the regulations and Hluttaw needs to approve it," said Dr Myat Nyarna Soe, secretary of the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw Joint Bill Committee.
Once enforced, casinos will be allowed to operate at hotels in Yangon and Mandalay, opening up opportunities for both local and foreign investors and other businesses. However, only foreigners will be allowed to gamble. Passport identifications will be required as well as tax payments.
While Myanmar citizens are allowed to do business and accept employment at the casinos, they will not be permitted to gamble, an offence punishable under the law. Casino owners who allow citizens to gamble will be fined or sentenced and their operations shut down. Local businesses can establish casinos by paying taxes to the government. Collecting taxes for casinos will be included in the Union Tax Law which is written every year.
“In the international community, such as in Singapore, the government targets foreigners and receives tax revenues from the casino as well as on each round of gambling. If casinos are permitted in Myanmar as soon as possible, the country's tax revenue will increase,” said Pyithu Hluttaw MP U Aung Hlaing Win.
As Myanmar cannot only depend on culture-based and economy-based tourism, some border regions have illegal casinos and if the government passes laws and rules and designates areas at the border at which gambling is permitted, the country will receive more revenue and jobs will be created, said Myanmar Tourism Business Association's Chair U Thet Lwin Toe.
Vietnam has casinos in Ha Long Bay and Hanoi and Myanmar should make similar changes to modernise and support tourism. “But we also need rules and regulations,” he said. Tourists from Thailand and China like casinos. Meanwhile, gambling destinations like Macao and Hong Kong have relaxed the visa requirements for tourists. If Myanmar has a similar procedure, border area tourism will increase.
“Now, there are illegal casinos at the border areas. Because they are illegal, there is nothing is left for the country and no security either. Crimes can happen. If they are regulated by laws, border tourism will increase," said U Thet Lwin Toe. It is still unclear if the new law is applicable in self-administered areas along the border though.
"For example, there are casinos in Kokang self-administered zone. They have no restrictions. I think their government gets taxes to some extent as it is being done after obtaining peace between ethnic armed groups and the leaders. As they are self-administered, union laws cannot apply to them. There are casinos in some areas controlled by ethnic armed groups. They are not permitted by us," U Thet Lwin Toe said.
There are some modifications in 2018 gambling law to be compatible with the times and the objective of the law is to allow foreigners to gamble. In the original law, there were no sections covering action to be taken against local people who gamble but that has since been amended, said U Aung Hlaing Win.
"Warrants which were previously in the hands of police and judges is now given to ward administration and authorities. Once a tip-off is received, they will have to make a search and gather evidence. If any locals are arrested, it will be followed by punishment. All involved in gambling will be arrested. Provisions are clearer and stricter," he said.
Daytime in Myawady city near the Thai border in Kayin State is crowded with trucks and travellers to Thailand, but after 6pm, its streets become less congested.
The darkness that descends on the city is broken only by the light provided by generators. Small shops start packing up their remaining stock. In the silent and cool night, the liveliest places in Myawady are casinos.
I reached the famous Three Nines Casino in Myawady in early February. At the gate, guards with weapons stopped the car. “Are you playing at the casino?” they asked. When a young guy who accompanied me nodded, they let the car pass. After a few minutes, we arrived at a brightly lit place that looked like a restaurant or hotel. Its parking lot had hundreds of cars.
There are many casinos, stores and restaurants in Myawady city on the Thaungyin river, which locals say are owned by Thai businessmen. When people enter the casinos, security guards conduct thorough body searches.
Business is good inside the main gambling hall. Under spotlights and cameras, young ladies are busy dealing cards. Most of the gamblers are well-dressed Thais. Games include kyar nagar, shan koe mi, jackpot and fish. Most customers pay in Thai baht. The pit bosses are Thai women.
Waitresses carry trays and serve gamblers drinks and food so they don’t have to leave the tables. For those who don’t want to find a place to eat and sleep in Myawady, casinos are a convenient place to kill time, said resident driver Ko Phyo Gyi. There are many restaurants near the casinos and the food is free for heavy gamblers.
“Hey, youk pha (which means ‘brother-in-law’, but colloquially means ‘dude’ or ‘bro’), bet on the red,” Ko Naing, 30, who sold his bicycle shop to come to play at Tiger Dragon casino, told me. He looked like he had passed many sleepless nights.
He had played for three straight days when I met him and had no more cash, but he was still giving advice to others. While he was talking, a bell was rung by a supervisor and bets were paid back in 1000-, 100- and 20-baht notes.
Ko Naing showed me the lucky draw slips he had been given as a heavy gambler. “I will go back after the lucky numbers are drawn. At about midnight, the owner herself will come out to draw the numbers. Prizes include motorcycles, beds, pillows and other goods,” he said.
The casino has a three-digit lottery, which it draws every morning and every night. The second largest room, on the right side of the main gambling hall, has a ring for the tiger and dragon game.
One casino employee takes out his phone and opens an app called “M Club”. Another staff member then hands him a piece of paper with the words “Myawady Online” on it. A username, password, and rules are printed on the paper, which allows users to play casino games online.
The paper includes a 1000-baht (K43,000) credit to begin playing. An internet or phone connection is required to play the game. Preparations are being made so that the games at Three Nines Casino in Myawady can be played online, but it is still a work in progress.
Crime in Myawady has increased, so locals demonstrated in January to close the casinos and gambling dens in the city. Residents say there have been many murders, thefts, robberies, burglaries, swindles, and pickpockets because of the gambling. “It has been about two years since we were able to hang our longyis outside at night,” the wife of driver Ko Phyo Gyi said.
Gambling places have increased since 2010 and, at the beginning of 2016, casinos became very popular, said township chairman U Tun Nay Aung of the Union Solidarity and Development Party. “They can be controlled if there is local development and law enforcement,” he said.
Myawady township Police Captain Min Ko said there are no more gambling places in downtown Myawady and police have taken action in 18 gambling cases. “If they continue, they will be arrested. It is not allowed in the city anymore,” said Major Naing Maung Zaw of the border guards.
Although there are casinos outside of Myawady where people can play with foreign currency, they are now closed during the annual school matriculation exams. “I don’t know what will happen after the exams. If gambling destroys people’s lives, it will no longer be allowed,” Major Naing Maung Zaw said.
There are altogether 10 casinos, including one at almost every checkpoint under the control of the Myawady border guards, said U Thant Zin Maung, state Hluttaw MP for Myawady. “There are many casinos along the river located at the gates controlled by the border guards,” he said.
Although locals in Myawady want casinos eliminated, the central government wants to allow casinos in the border area in order to earn money to pay off foreign debts and will give permission to foreigner-only casinos on islands that tourists visit, U Ohn Maung, the minister of Hotels and Tourism, told the Pyithu Hluttaw in February.
Casinos are making a fortune in Macao and Singapore, so Myanmar, which has a foreign debt of about US$10 billion, should allow casinos, U Aung Hlaing Win, Pyithu Hluttaw MP for Mingaladon township in Yangon, said recently. There are about 70 gambling dens in Myawady town, and although police and border guards have promised to eliminate them, business is still bustling at the casinos on the banks of the Thaungyin.
When we arrive at the Border Guard Force checkpoint, security guards look us up and down, then ask if we are coming to the casino. It’s 8pm. We nod and are allowed in. The 24-hour 999 casino is located on the bank of Kayin State’s Thaung Yin river that separates Myanmar and Thailand, dividing Myawaddy town from Tak province.
Thais come in droves, avoiding gambling laws in their own country. The owner himself is a Thai tycoon. Only Thai baht is accepted, though Myanmar kyat can be exchanged. In the compound are rows of cars, restaurants, convenience stores and lounges. Inside the main gaming area, well-dressed gamblers focus intently as they try their luck.
Food and drink flow freely, while CCTV cameras keep an eye out for scammers. A blacklist pinned to the wall shows the names of pickpockets, phone thieves and mere freeloaders. 999 is not taxed or regulated. You don’t even need even need an ID to get in. All you need is money. The venue is more crowded at night and a ferry brings people over the river from Thailand. Like any casino in the world, there seems to be a lot of losing and little winning. I decided to try my luck.
At about 9pm I drank a complimentary orange juice and entered a game in which players guess what animal will appear on a card, either a tiger or a dragon. It costs 20 baht (a little less than $1) to play, which I did twice. I lost both times.
The freewheeling nature of the casino may not last long. Thant Zin Aung, an MP in Kayin State, confirmed reports of violence around the place. He wants to get rid of casinos like this one, but although he has submitted a proposal to the state parliament, no action has been taken yet.
If he can’t get rid of them, he suggests at least taxing them. Colonel Saw Chit Thu from the Border Guard Force agreed, saying taxes should be levied to help with state coffers. “I want casino business to be official in Myawaddy to generate state revenue,” he said, adding an official permit system could be introduced too.
But there’s a wrinkle. The casino in Myawaddy is a joint-business between the BGF and the Thai owner. “We own the land and building that this casino resort is on, and the Thai businessperson put in the equipment and other facilities,” he said.
Right now there is a plan to set up a hotel near the casino. A source familiar with the matter said the authorities will only allow the casinos if hotels are built. Casinos of this sort are not limited to Kayin State. In Kachin and Shan states they exist too, with Chinese players making up the bulk of clientele.
|BGF are former members of ethnic insurgent group (on ceasefire agreements with the Burma Army)|
now reorganized into Border Guard Force's battalions as per above organization scheme.