Despite nine months of military rule and being declared illegal, the notorious casinos of Laukkai are still thriving in the conflict-torn region on the border with China.
In their crisp uniforms, the hundreds of young men and women who work as croupiers have become a well-recognised symbol of the town.
Police officers of the Kokang Self-administered Zone, their uniforms similar to the regular Myanmar police force, stand guard outside the casinos, backing up their private security services.
Police say they have trouble getting exact data but they believe there are about 50 casino “clusters” in the town, suggesting there could be up to 7500 gambling tables. All are operating without official licences. Most of the gamblers are Chinese citizens who cross the nearby border with a one-week pass. Chinese yuan is the currency they gamble with.
“A cluster of casinos is composed of at least four or five casino halls. Each hall has about 30 gambling tables. Hundreds of staff work at each cluster,” said a Laukkai resident who previously worked as a security guard.
The outbreak of war in February between the Tatmadaw and the ethnic Chinese forces of the Myanmar Nationalities Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) led to fighting in the streets, martial law and a tough curfew. The casinos were initially forced to close but gradually reopened, somehow mostly untouched by the fighting, and military rule was lifted last week.
Local people believe the casinos are owned by Chinese and local Kokang but cannot or do not want to name them.
The area was effectively run as a fiefdom for decades by Pheung Kya-Shin, the octogenarian leader of the MNDAA, in collusion with the military when the town built its reputation and a lot of its wealth on drugs, gambling and sugar cane.
The MNDAA was established in 1989 after Pheung Kya-Shin broke away from the Communist Party of Burma. The ethnic Chinese leader was ousted from power in 2009 and sought to make a comeback in February after rebuilding his forces, allegedly with help from inside China, according to the Tatmadaw. Heavy fighting drove his insurgents back to the border.
The Kokang region is still known as a self-administered zone, one of six semi-autonomous areas under Myanmar’s 2008 constitution. Most of its properties lie outside the government’s land registration system and officials cite this as a reason for their difficulties in controlling the casinos, which do not pay taxes.
Even the military administration that ruled the Kokang region while it was under martial law from February 17 to November 17 did not collect any taxes from the casinos, according to its leader, Brigadier General Zaw Zaw Naing.
Laukkai authorities said they had ordered hoteliers not to open the casinos. But they say it is impossible to enforce court orders because the casinos do not have the official land ownership documents that are cited by the court.
Officials say there are five hotels in Laukkai but none have licences.
“Hotel licences are needed to become an official casino. Five hotels in the township are trying to get licences from the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism [office] in Lashio. There are no other small gambling businesses in town. All have been caught by the administration,’’ said U Kyaw Swe, head of the General Administration Department for Laukkai district.
Since the casinos are not licensed, the government gets no tax revenues, said U Kyaw Swe. However the process is moving ahead as the Lashio authorities have issued land registration documents for five hotels.
Legal or not, the casinos are a major source of employment for young people who earn K1 million (US$770) a month there – many times more than the national minimum wage.
“If there were no casinos in Laukkai, the whole town would stop,” said one local.
“My wife works at a casino. It is easy to make money but the casino workers don’t want to do it, only they can’t find any other jobs. Job opportunities for young people are rare here,” said Ko Ahlone, a taxi driver.
“The locals can’t gamble there,” said the owner of a food store beside a casino. “Most of the gamblers are Chinese. But our business increased thanks to the casinos.”
Inside one of the thick-walled, windowless halls, a gambler is seen losing 20,000 yuan (US$3200) within a few minutes. His notes are quickly added to a pile of 100-yuan notes almost filling a 60-centimetre (2-foot) box.
Locals outside are not keen to talk about the gambling Laukkai thrives on. “We stay away from the casinos. If you don’t have any powerful back-up, it is good to stay away and not talk about them,” said one resident who did not want to be named.
Source: Myanmar Times