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Myanmar's not-so-underground casinos in line for legalization

Formally lifting ban would give officials a bargaining chip with rebels

Myanmar sees legal casinos as a ticket to higher tax revenue. (Photo by Yuichiro Takagi)

MYAWADDY, Myanmar -- Casinos are banned in Myanmar, but you would not know that by looking at the ones in the country's border areas. In the eastern town of Myawaddy, across a river from Thailand, the gaming houses light up the night like their counterparts in Macau or Las Vegas, though they are smaller. Little effort is made to conceal what goes on inside.

The ban might not be an issue much longer, in any case. The government is considering legalization as a way to attract more tourists from Thailand, China and elsewhere. This would bring in much-needed tax revenue and provide a bargaining chip for dealing with armed ethnic minority groups, some of which are apparently involved in the gambling trade. 

One casino in Myawaddy sits at the base of an unpaved slope. Players gather around roughly 40 tables, betting on one of two cards having a higher number. Visitors are not required to show their passports or other identification; they slip in after light security checks.

Myawaddy's casinos do not use chips but rather colorful Thai baht notes. The typical bet ranges from 100 baht to 300 baht ($3.20 to $9.60) per game. The odd celebration of a big win breaks the otherwise quiet atmosphere. 

Middle-class Thais account for a significant portion of the visitors, along with some Myanmar citizens who work in Thailand. Though it is illegal to make the 20-meter river crossing, free boats openly ferry people back and forth between Myawaddy and Thailand's Mae Sot.

Casinos in Myawaddy, on Myanmar's border with Thailand, operate out in the open.

Myawaddy is a key spot in the East-West Economic Corridor, an economic development zone stretching from Vietnam to Myanmar and Thailand. Casinos started appearing around two years ago, a local tour guide said, and now there are about 10.

Despite the ban, the authorities typically look the other way because many of the casinos are "joint ventures" between hitherto militant ethnic groups and wealthy Thais. In Myanmar's fragile power balance, a cease-fire is in effect between the groups and the government. Ex-rebels are now part of the Border Guard Force and do "additional" business through special ties with the security authorities.

Legalizing casinos could help to solve some problems. Profits from gambling would give local officials something to offer the armed groups. Plus, the government would be able to regulate the gaming industry.

Deliberations on legalization are well underway. During a parliamentary session in February, Ohn Maung, the hotels and tourism minister, said ministries are not averse to lifting the ban. 

Local governments are eager to seize the revenue opportunity. Officials from Kayin State, home to Myawaddy, have called for removing the ban. So have officials from Shan State, which has numerous casinos, and the Mandalay region, which is frequented by Chinese visitors.

But not everyone is happy about the prospect. About 300 demonstrators took to the streets of Myawaddy in January to oppose casino legalization, according to the Myanmar Times newspaper. Critics worry rampant gambling will undermine security, and question whether casinos would really lead to more tourism.

As the casino debate picks up, other big changes are afoot in Myawaddy, tied in with the East-West Economic Corridor and the growth of trade.

Road construction is underway in Myawaddy, a key point for trade with Thailand.

Since Myanmar's shift to civilian rule in 2011, looser regulations have brought an influx of goods from neighboring countries. Government data shows Myanmar's imports and exports through Myawaddy totaled $858 million in the period from last April to mid-March, a sixfold increase from five years earlier. 

Improved security is paving the way for commerce. The New Mon State Party, an armed ethnic group that controls areas around the East-West corridor, signed the nationwide cease-fire with the government and military in February.

A new border bridge to Mae Sot is expected to open next year, enabling the passage of larger trucks than those used to date. New immigration control, customs facilities and roads will accommodate increased flows of products -- and perhaps gamblers.

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