Myanmar border town is an attraction and trap for Chinese gamblers

By Huang Jingjing Source:Global Times Published: 2016/12/19 19:08:39

Many casinos have emerged in Myanmar, Russia, Laos, Vietnam and North Korea to profit from Chinese tourists

"All you need to take is your identity card and cash or bank card," casino brokers tell customers

Myanmar casinos offer pick-up services as far away as in Yunnan's capital Kunming

In Kokang a gram of heroin sells at one twentieth of its price in China

An underground casino is busted in Xi'an, Northwest China's Shaanxi Province. Photo: CFP

An underground casino is busted in Xi'an, Northwest China's Shaanxi Province. Photo: CFP



Wishing to make some easy money, Dabing (pseudonym) headed to Laukkai, the capital of the Kokang region of Myanmar's northern Shan state and home to dozens of large and small casinos, in June last year.

When he arrived at the city, just a few miles from the Chinese border, free luxury hotel accommodation and VIP services were handed over to the high roller. But within a few days, his heaven turned to hell after he lost the 3 million yuan ($432,000) he brought with him along with the 200,000 yuan he borrowed from local loan sharks.

Before leaving the city in a hurry, he contemplated suicide. "Many Chinese were lured to gamble there, borrow money after losing and then are tortured or even beaten to death unless they manage to pay it back with bank transfers from relatives and friends," the 28-year-old recalled to the Global Times. "To travel [there] is to be doomed."

With its residents speaking Chinese and using RMB, the legality of gambling and lax enforcement of drug and prostitution laws, Kokang, bordering Southwest China's Yunnan Province, has become a hot destination for Chinese tourists looking for fun that is illegal at home.

Easy trespass



As China and its citizens have gotten wealthier, many casinos have emerged in neighboring countries, including Myanmar, Russia, Laos, Vietnam and North Korea.

Despite frequent conflicts between ethnic armed groups and government forces, and Chinese government crackdowns, notorious casinos are still open in Kokang border towns. A new round of clashes continued in the past three weeks in northern Shan state, forcing about 14,000 locals to flee across the border to China, the Xinhua News Agency reported.

But it seems that this hasn't put an end to the casinos' business. A female receptionist for a casino called New Beautiful Sea in Laukkai told the Global Times reporter posing as a customer that "There is no need to worry about safety."

"The war happens in the north and is still far away. In addition, the casinos are protected," the woman said, speaking on a cell-phone with a number registered in Lincang, Yunnan. She explained the Chinese mobile phone numbers still work in Laukkai and there are no roaming charges.

While asked if Chinese guests need to take their passports, she replied "all you need to take is your identity card and cash or bank card."

She explained how to get to the casino: first go to Nansan town in Lincang's Zhenkang county, then pay about 100 yuan to a motorcyclist who can drive you across the border along discreet paths.

Sun, an source on the Kokang situation living in Nansan told the Global Times that there are many motorcyclists in Nansan taking people across the border, which is only 8 kilometers away from Laukkai. "Smuggling is common here, the boundary is long, but the frontier soldiers are limited, the wire fence can easily be broken," Sun said.

"The casinos on the other side also offer pick-up services as far away as in [Yunnan capital] Kunming," he added.

The clashes in February last year in Laukkai and neighboring areas between Myanmar government forces and military groups have frightened away some gamblers and forced many casinos to close, but they are reviving, Sun said.

On November 17, a grand ceremony was held in Laukkai's Dongcheng district to celebrate the trial opening of a large commercial compound including a hotel, a health club and a nightclub, attended by several senior military and government officials, according to kokangnet.com, a local news portal.

Sun said it marked the opening of a new large casino in Laukkai. "Nearly every hotel has gambling tables," he said.

Quoting local police projections, the Myanmar Times reported in December last year that there are about 50 casino "clusters" and up to 7,500 gambling tables in Laukkai.

Along the border, other Myanmar towns such as Mongla and Muse also have casinos catering to Chinese demand, Sun said. 

The online betting platform of Myanmar's Yongchang casino provides an interactive experience for gamblers in China.

The online betting platform of Myanmar's Yongchang casino provides an interactive experience for gamblers in China.





Drugs prevail



Chen Jie, a resident of Laukkai, told the Global Times that gambling is the main industry in the city.

"There's no light or heavy industry here. The government mainly depends on taxes and dividends from gambling," said Chen, who directs the Kokang Youth Culture and Education Foundation.

Many locals also gamble away their savings from planting sugar cane, corn and raising birds, he said.

The attraction of these casinos is the low threshold for a wager as well as cheap and easy access to various drugs. A gram of heroin sells for 50 yuan in Kokang, one twentieth the price of that in the China, Sun explained.

Many Chinese gamblers linger in Kokang after falling to drug addiction. Xiaodongbei hadn't eaten for two days, but after receiving 10 yuan from a gambler for giving him drinks and messages, he purchased two hits of a synthetic drug called xiaoma, according to a July report by News Probe, an investigative program by qq.com.

He has asked his mother to send money to him 28 times after arriving in Laukkai in 2008, explaining this away by making up stories about his business collapsing, car accidents, and having a girlfriend. Each time he received money, it went to the casinos or the dealers.

In 2002, Kokang government banned poppy growing. In 2005, it started to crack down on all kinds of drugs. But drug-making and sales continue. The gambling and drug businesses are always intertwined, and some local government and military officials are also involved, Sun said.

Guo Xiao (pseudonym), a Chinese reporter who has investigated gambling in Kokang, told the Global Times that he went to a hotel based in a farm in a mountainous region away from Laukkai, finding that in addition to gambling tables, there was a drug factory in the basement.

"Kokang is now almost under control of the government forces. But the government turns a blind eye to the drug sales and gambling there, as it relies on the local power brokers to maintain order and administer the zone," Guo said.

Dabing returned without hesitating after losing all his money. But many others stay, some forever. News Probe found that some Chinese became beggars or went insane there. Unknown corpses are also occasionally found during armed conflicts or dumped by loan sharks in ditches or weeds.

Nevertheless, many Chinese are still attracted to these border towns, including fugitive murderers, corrupt officials, wealthy bosses and mainlanders who want to make a fast fortune.

There is no exact data on border crossings to Kokang, but according to a recent report by thepaper.cn, tens of thousands of Chinese go across the border in Yunnan each day to Boten, Laos at peak times, attracted by its visa waiver program and casinos.

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Crackdown in China



China has launched several crackdowns on cross-border gambling in the past decade. In 2007, the Ministry of Public Security disclosed to the People's Daily that the number of casinos in border areas dropped to 28 from 149 after a two-year crackdown launched by police in Yunnan, Guangxi and Heilongjiang.

But the casinos revived as soon as the crackdown relaxed. In 2009, there were several reports in Zhejiang and Shanxi of dozens of citizens being persuaded to go to Myanmar to travel or work and then being lured to casinos, kidnapped or extorted for money.

In one campaign, police in Jinhua, Zhejiang rescued 46 victims illegally detained in casinos in Laos and Myanmar, arresting 12 suspects accused of organizing the crime.

These casinos also run online gambling sites where Chinese can bet through live broadcasts. Searching for "Yongchang Yule," a major casino in Laukkai, on Sina Weibo returns 182 results, with many accounts registered in Yunnan, some in Guangdong, Liaoning and Qinghai. The users promote the casino and provide contacts and instructions on online gambling.

In 2011, Chinese police sent delegates to join their Myanmar counterparts to crack down on gambling and cut the casinos' access to Internet networks, electricity and bank services.

However, Sun said these measures usually only last a few months. "At the beginning of this year, Yunnan cut internet services to the bordering town Mongla, but restored them four months later. The residents rumored that the cut was in retaliation for overdue payments," he said.

Besides, the casinos can continue their business by leasing satellites and generating their own power.

Chen Jie believes the situation will change only with local development. "The root of the evil is poor education and backward civil quality," Chen told the Global Times. After February 2015, the Kokang government started to offer free education to kids, but now it stopped due to a shortage of money, he lamented.

His foundation has been raising donations to support local education but outsiders are skeptical about where the funds will end up.

But he is confident the free education will be restarted soon. "The government is now raising money for education," he said.

Dabing doesn't think the Chinese government should take the blame for the persistence of cross-border gambling. "It's hard to prevent. The gamblers will try every means to go," he said. Whenever Dabing meets someone who shows an interest in gambling in Myanmar, he tries to persuade them not to go, telling them "Go if you want to die."


Newspaper headline: Sin city


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