RANGOON — On a TV above the blue neon-lit bar in Rangoon’s Tamwe Township, the hapless-looking Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger grimaced, sputtering an indiscernible obscenity, his hands resting forlornly on his hips.
As if mimicking the scowling Frenchman on the TV above, Aung Kyaw tutted and swore in Burmese as Aston Villa’s Antonio Luna bore down on the Arsenal goal, while manky street dogs, bored and yawning in the musty evening, sniffed around the booze-covered table in the unlikely chance that some scraps of food might be thrown their way.
It was the 85th minute of the opening-day English league clash between Arsenal and the unfancied Birmingham team on Saturday. Aung Kyaw had staked 30,000 kyat (about US$30) on some of the weekend’s matches, backing an Arsenal win as part of the outlay. But that looked like money poorly spent as the Spaniard Luna calmly rolled the ball off the foot of the goalpost and beyond the reach of the Arsenal goalkeeper, for what turned out to be an unassailable 3-1 lead.
“Better delete this message off my phone,” said the bespectacled 40-something-year-old, holding up the football betting odds sent to him by a bookmaker earlier that evening. Betting is illegal in Burma, and Aung Kyaw said he did not want to be caught by the police with the message on his phone.
“It’s better now than before, however,” he told The Irrawaddy, referring to the use of mobile phones—still the preserve of less than 10 percent of Burma’s population—for football betting. “Before cellphones, we had to use paper, and that was harder to manage for both collecting money and keeping hidden.”
Both bets and winnings are paid after the fact, with odds sent out by bookies and gambles placed in return, mostly over the phone, although Aung Kyaw says online gambling is a nascent—and illicit—phenomenon in a Burma, where most of the estimated 50-60 million population lacks Internet access.
Bo Win, Aung Kyaw’s heavyset, tattooed drinking buddy, chimed in from across the table—his epicene Mike Tyson-like voice seemed at odds with his man-about-town persona, after earlier nudging and laughing suggestively at the sight of young women sashaying home outside on the rain-sodden streets. ”Sometimes we win, mostly we lose,” he said with a laugh. “I don’t bet every week, only sometimes. But it’s the start of football season, so this week we bet.”
Gambling is a big part of Burmese culture nowadays, with nicknames translating to English as “two digit” and “three digit” for popular games based on Thailand’s stock exchange and lottery.
“One digit” is the third major form of gambling in Burma, referring to the European football seasons running from August to May but taking in international tournaments and off-season test-run matches as well. Of those, top-flight English football is by far the most popular and lucrative, with small-time bookie Min Maung telling The Irrawaddy that it makes up “around 70, 75 percent” of his total gambling work.
Whispering below the evening din at a teashop in North Dagon Township, in the north of Rangoon, the shy-looking 32-year-old said he makes about 200,000 kyat ($200) per month taking bets from what he says are eight to 10 trusted gamblers.
“I only work with people I believe,” he said, with his head lowered below a sign advertising the shop’s apparent specialty, seven different sorts of orchid tea—a pot of which he drained while he spoke.
With gambling illegal, there’s no recourse—within the law—for bookies who do not get their money, or for gamblers such as Aung Kyaw who take the chance that they might never see the money if they win.
“I won 300,000 kyat some time back, but the guy disappeared. What could I do? Tell the police?” Aung Kyaw said with a laugh.
Just as Min Maung only accepts bets from players he knows, Aung Kyaw now only gambles with bookies whom he know and trusts. “This one I’ve known for six or seven years,” he said, holding up his Samsung smartphone to flag up the same weekend football wager as a few moments earlier.
Min Maung is a small-time bookie, but like big-player counterpart Lin Nyo, he has to give a cut to the police to be allowed operate.
“I give 10,000 kyat a month—it is for security,” he said, adding that he tries to keep as low a profile as possible to avoid ending up hand-in-pocket in front of another cop looking for an easy backhander.
For Lin Nyo in Thingangyun Township, football gambling is much more lucrative. He told The Irrawaddy that he handles around 30 million kyat ($300,000) each weekend during the regular football season, between bets placed and winnings paid out.
A chunk of the money, however, goes to the police and local officials. “Donations, we call them,” he said, laughing. “I give around 300,000 kyat ($300) per month.”
Lin Nyo is also trying to cut down on the amount of money he has to pay the police and officials to look the other way. “On weekends I don’t stay home, I go elsewhere,” he said, without elaborating. Several big downtown Rangoon hotels, he added, are weekend work hubs for bookies such as himself who do not want to work at home over the weekend, when the big money is up for grabs.
The size of Burma’s gambling economy is unknown—reliable and up-to-date statistics are hard to come by, even in the country’s licit economy—but estimates in the past have put the value of the country’s gambling economy at between $5 million to $10 million per day. That’s big money in an economy of just US$53 billion total, where millions of people live below the poverty line.
Gambling has a long history in Burma. Author George Orwell, once a colonial police officer in the country, was famously prophetic in his “Animal Farm” and “1984,” allegories of the totalitarian and surveillance states he feared might emerge in the decades ahead. But he might as well have been talking about present-day Burma when he wrote much earlier in his career, in “An Incident in Rangoon,” that gambling was “a native taste of these people, as drunkenness is with us [British].”
Referring to the two and three digit lotteries, a 2005 US diplomatic cable from the Rangoon embassy said that, “Though it is impossible to know how many people participate in these lotteries, one estimate we’ve heard from an organizer is that 70 percent of the adult population plays regularly (perhaps upwards of 17.5 million people).”
The dispatch made no mention of football gambling, which is more a male preserve, but the hna lone and thon lone (two digit and three digit) games are played by men and women.
Gambling in Burma incorporates some of the more esoteric aspects of popular culture. Numerology—the perceived occult significance of numbers—is pervasive in Burma and feeds into how people gamble, sometimes via the counsel of a palmist or astrologer.
In her paper “Female Gambler, Media, and Modernity in Myanmar After 1997,” researcher Mi Mi Cho recounts that “one of the famous medium worshippers, who usually give digits, both three digits and two digits numbers, is a woman in the age of around thirty.
“People usually come and ask her about their economic situations, their difficulties and some students for their exam,” Mi Mi Cho wrote. “According to her, she is the spirit medium worshipper of the famous female sprit of Pyay, the green goddess ‘Ma May Sein.’”
But for some, such arcane methodologies are not that different to how odds are assessed in the West, and not just by small-time gamblers. Professor Reuven Brenner of Canada’s McGill University—who co-authored “A World of Chance: Betting on Religion, Games, Wall Street,” a respected book on the historic precursor role of gambling in mainstream business and finance— told The Irrawaddy that astrology has long been a crutch for Western finance professionals. “Even now you walk on Wall Street, you see storefronts with astrologers and palm readers,” he said.
But football betting in Burma seems to be is less Delphic than the two and three digit games—and Wall Street and Western finance ministries, for that matter. There’s team quality and form to consider, though gamblers sometimes have to see beyond their own partisan affiliations. Either way, the outcome is less down to chance than when gambling on the Thai lottery outcome, for example. “We bet on what teams we like or the teams we think might win,” said Bo Min.
Gambling and sports betting occupy a contentious place inside and, as in Burma’s case, outside legal systems around the world. Anti-gambling advocates say the practice spawns addiction and consequent related social and financial problems. Legalization proponents argue that prohibition creates a black economy, depriving the state of revenue from a pastime that people will engage in regardless of the law.
For Min Maung, who lives with and financially supports his parents, working as an illicit bookie is all he can do, he said, in an economy where youth unemployment has been described by opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi as a possible threat to social stability. “There are no other jobs for me,” he said. “I want to be a merchant but I have to help my parents, so I cannot save money.”
In “A World of Chance,” the authors compare the conclusions of the UK’s third Royal Commission on Gambling (1976-78) to those heard in the United States decades before, when lawmakers there were mulling whether to end the prohibition on alcohol. The British gambling study outlined that “the strategy of prohibition has been a notable folly” and “instead of suppressing betting among poorer people, the law produced resentment and attempts to corrupt the police, contempt for authority and a bookmaking trade operating outside the law, prey to protection rackets and gang violence.”
A May 2013 study, undertaken by Deloitte on behalf of the Association of British Bookmakers, said that the betting trade accounted for 2.3 billion £ ($3.6 billion) of the British economy and generated almost 40,000 jobs, but conceded, in the words of a separate 2010 survey, that “there is an unfavourable view of the effects of gambling on society.”
The same 2010 survey showed, however, that most of those asked were nonetheless against prohibition. But betting is against the law in Burma, a place where, according to Suu Kyi, there is no rule of law to begin with. And as the country’s Parliament handles a swathe of reforms—68 bills have passed since 2011—mulling over betting is not a priority for lawmakers, at least not yet.
“The mindset is that gambling is against the character of the Burmese people, so no-one seems ready to pronounce anything like changing the law,” Nyan Win, a spokesman for Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), told The Irrawaddy.
If that is the case, Burma’s politicians are out of touch with ordinary Burmese, it seems.
“It should be legal, like in other countries,” said Aung Kyaw, when asked for his views on Burma’s betting ban.
Bo Min, sipping from a can of Red Bull, nodded in agreement, before shaking his head at the TV above as a scuffed shot by Tomas Rosicky, Arsenal’s past-his-best Czech midfielder, slithered wanly across the green London turf, yards wide of the Aston Villa goal, taking along Bo Min’s and Aung Kyaw’s last hope of a weekend windfall.
Pseudonyms have been used for bookies and gamblers interviewed for this story.
Additional reporting by Sanay Lin.