After Years of Isolation, Myanmar Will Legalize Casinos Next Month in Bid to Reinvent Itself as Tourist Hotspot

Posted on: April 1, 2019, 01:13h. 

Last updated on: April 2, 2019, 07:44h.

Myanmar will legalize casinos in May, as the southeast Asian country formerly known as Burma looks to become the hot new destination for Chinese tourism and investment, The Myanmar Times reports.

Aung San
Myanmar Chief Counsellor and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi has been criticized by the international community for her failure to denounce the persecution of the stateless Rohingya ethnic group. (Shinya Sawai)

The new law currently being approved by the country’s parliament will allow casinos to operate as a service industry for foreigners. While locals will be permitted to own casinos and work within the sector, gambling will be a criminal offense.

Myanmar is eager to boost tourism after years of isolation, and its government has seen the effect casinos — coupled with the growth of the Chinese economy — have add on the economies of its neighbors in the region, most notably Vietnam.

Tension and Persecution

For decades, Myanmar was ruled by a brutal military junta, but it began the transition into democracy in 2011, with mixed results. 2015 saw the country’s first free and open elections and installed former political prisoner and Nobel Peace prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi as State Counsellor, a position akin to Prime Minister.

But the international community has been disappointed by Aung San Suu Kyi’s failure to denounce the persecution of the stateless Rohingya Muslims, whose treatment has been described by the US and others as ethnic cleansing. Meanwhile, the military remains a dominant presence within Burmese politics.

Ethnic strife is the norm in many parts of Myanmar. The country has been engaged in one of the world’s longest-running civil wars with many of its multiple ethnic groups.

Lawless Borderlands

Nevertheless, the tourism embargo in place during the years of junta rule has lifted — and Chinese visitation is growing, thanks to strategic efforts by both countries to strengthen bilateral ties and encourage cross-border tourism.

Myanmar is currently the only country in southeast Asia, along with Thailand, that does not have legal casinos, although illegal gambling houses do exist in the country, many along the country’s vast border with China.

Some of these illegal casinos exist in special self-administered zones controlled by ethnic separatist movements, such as the Kokang — and it is unclear whether the new laws can be applied to these regions.

“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,” said Myanmar Tourism Business Association’s Chair U Thet Lwin Toe, of the illegal casinos.

“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,” he added.