A project city on the Myanmar-Thailand border with likely significant online and land-based casino gambling interests appears to be booming, after the regional militia secured junta approval in exchange for frontline soldiers.
Frontier Myanmar, an independent online periodical, reported on Thursday (June 23) that construction of the southern border development known as Yatai International City is proceeding apace in Shwe Kokko village, after the Karen Border Guard Force (BGF), a splinter militia based nearby, secured protection from the ruling junta.
Protection for the city’s numerous casinos and likely mix of online gambling and online scam operations came in exchange for BGF soldiers, some allegedly forcibly recruited, who now man the front lines against the Karen National Union Army (KNUA), the military wing of the pro-independence Karen National Union.
China-facing gaming operations look to have a new lease of life thanks to the deal, which follows pre-coup government attempts to exert greater control over the project. On the battlefield, the deal now pits ethnic Karen soldiers in the KNUA and the pro-junta BGF against one another.
Possibly dating to January 2021, just ahead of the February 1 military coup, the junta-BGF deal at first promised to give the junta joint venture control over business operations in BGF territory, Frontier Myanmar said, citing BGF sources.
However, the junta’s “demands for a fundamental restructuring of the new city project and other BGF enterprises — with the possibility of partial Tatmadaw [junta military] ownership — also seem to have been watered down”, the report said.
“As the money rolls in again, official roles have been shuffled to give the appearance of a division between military and business matters within the BGF, although little appears to have meaningfully changed.”
The report suggests that Chinese government threats of retaliation against Chinese gamblers and employees of gaming and scam operations in the area may have had limited success in some parts of Myanmar.
Reports of human trafficking and the extortion and abuse of migrant workers in the area are growing, increasingly resembling the situation in Cambodia’s Sihanoukville, a city whose de facto colonisation by Chinese commercial, political and criminal interests is historically tied to the development of legal land-based casinos, illegal online gaming and scam operations.
Sihanoukville remains a haven for operators who capture and abuse migrant workers, with local police resources failing to meet the gravity of the problem as evidence emerges of official complicity.
Frontier Myanmar warned, however, that the degree of development of online gaming in Yatai International City remains unclear, based on interviews with workers visiting the Thai side of the border.
It was “difficult to tell whether the predicted boom in online gambling at Shwe Kokko [has] been substituted with an all-purpose scamming industry, or whether online gambling [is] developing in parallel, on a more secretive basis”, it said.
The latest developments point to possibly greater regional destabilisation as gambling-linked organised crime ties itself to military factionalism and wider violence, the periodical said.
“While a handful of BGF leaders and foreign investors may be enriching themselves, the area that hosts their money-making schemes is sliding deeper into chaos.
“The nature of the pact that underpins Shwe Kokko’s emergence as a criminal hub — in which Tatmadaw protection is exchanged for the BGF’s supply of soldiers as cannon fodder — demonstrates how the military’s determination to consolidate its coup is aiding organised crime and inflicting harm well beyond Myanmar’s borders.”
The report also confirmed that the nearby Myanmar city of Myawaddy has “at least 18 casinos” likely supported by ethnic Chinese investment under the control of the BGF.
Those casinos in part would belong to two similar project cities in the area, the Saixigang (“New Sihanoukville”) Industrial Zone and the Huanya International New City Project.
The former operation is linked to investment from “Broken Tooth” Wan Kuok-koi, the former Macau 14K triad leader who was jailed for more than a decade, and who then targeted the gaming industry in Southeast Asia and the South Pacific after his release in 2012.