Chinese Casino City in Myanmar Recruiting Despite COVID-19 Crisis

By The Irrawaddy 19 July 2021

Amid Myanmar’s COVID-19 spike, the developer of the controversial China-backed Shwe Kokko new city project near the Thai border in Karen State has been recruiting staff, prompting fears over a rise in cross-border crime.

The Irrawaddy has been told Yatai International Holding Group (IHG), which is run by Chinese investors accused of running illegal casinos in Cambodia and the Philippines, has been recruiting a manager for a five-star hotel, human resources manager, an accountant and gardeners this month. The jobs have been advertised on Chinese-language sites.

Hong Kong-registered IHG has been quoted saying it is recruiting Thai and Chinese speakers for its Mae Sot office on the Thai side of the border. IHG jobs are also being posted on a private Facebook page and WeChat as operations reopen.

IHG’s job adverts said the conglomerate is involved in real estate development, urban infrastructure construction, large-scale project planning, spas, entertainment and technology research and development. The current project involves the construction, development and operation of the special economic zone in Myanmar, the company said.

Sometimes called “China Town”, the project is also being controlled by the Karen State Border Guard Force (BGF), an armed group backed by Myanmar’s military and led by Colonel Chit Thu which was formerly known as the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army.

The US$15-billion (25 trillion kyats) “Myanmar Yatai Shwe Kokko Special Economic Zone” is due to cover nearly 12,100 hectares, stretching 19km along the border.

The plans involve luxury housing, condominiums, hotels, shopping centers, golf courses, casinos, entertainment, tourism, culture and agriculture.

IHG’s business plan identifies casinos as the top source of revenue, projecting an income of US$11.4 billion (19 trillion kyats) within 10 years.

The project was suspended after the ousted National League for Democracy government formed a tribunal to investigate irregularities, an alleged lack of transparency, land confiscations, confusion over the scale of construction, an influx of Chinese money, suspected illicit activity and residents’ concerns about the social impacts of the casinos.

Following the February coup, activity at Shwe Koko appeared to revive, including hiring new staff and restarting gambling, according to a resident.

In early July, Myanmar’s regime locked down Shwe Kokko after it reported around 10 COVID-19 cases, including members of the BGF, security guards and other staff.

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