Days Not Numbered for Burma’s Lottery, Chief Says

By Simon Roughneen 4 September 2013

RANGOON — When Burma’s former Ministry of Finance and Revenue was rehatted earlier this year, minus the revenue label, it didn’t make much difference to Thein Naing, the head of the state lottery.

The lottery remains under the Finance Ministry, the tickets are still printed in Magwe—the same place where Burma’s passports and kyat notes are run off the presses—and once a month, the lottery, called Aung Bar Lay in Burmese, sells around 30 million tickets priced at 200 kyats (US 20 cents) each.

Forty percent of the takings go to the government, with the rest given as prize money, Thein Naing says, a fan whirring overhead in his downtown Rangoon office to beat back the late afternoon monsoon season clamminess. In other words, the lottery is worth about US$6 million each month, of which about $2 million goes to government coffers.

To attract more Burmese to play the state lottery, the winnings were increased in 2012, with the top prize raised to 150 million kyats, or around $150,000.

But despite the greater spoils, the lottery faces a struggle against Burma’s massive off-the-books gambling sector.

Playing the lottery is a once-every-four-weeks game. The rest of the time, millions of Burmese break the law by betting on European football and gambling on the numbers coming up in Bangkok’s stock exchange and Thailand’s own lottery.

Those games are known popularly as “two digit” and “three digit,” respectively, and Thein Naing acknowledges their popularity, describing gambling as “very common.” It’s an interest that likely pre-dates the introduction of an official lottery back in 1938, when Burma was under British rule. That came 39 years after the British banned gambling in Burma.

One estimate—from a Burmese involved in the illegal gambling business and referenced in a 2005 US Embassy cable from Rangoon—estimated that around 70 percent of the adult population in Burma gambles.

“Businesspeople and others with whom we spoke see such gambling as a serious social and economic issue. They say that poor people will spend their last kyats trying to ‘hit’ the numbers, while middle-class participants often neglect their families and businesses to focus on picking the right numbers,” the cable read.

With such widespread interest in gambling, does the head of the state lottery think that the government should take a second look at prohibition—to try curbing a vast black market and tap a potential revenue source? Or does he agree with the prohibitionist line that gambling is addictive and ruinous, and should be stamped out?

He doesn’t say no or yes to any of the above, but adds that for one, Burma’s lawmakers are too busy these days with more pressing reforms to think about addressing the gambling ban. Compared with some of the other issues up for deliberation in Burma’s Parliament, “gambling laws are a very small matter,” he says.

The lottery chief cites Burma’s dilapidated communications infrastructure as another de facto hurdle to overcome, if the status of gambling in the country is to change. “For example, the Internet is not widespread here; other countries have online gambling, but here we cannot.” That said, there is an app, for those Burmese with Android smartphones, to check whether their numbers come up.

There’s a proposal—in the country’s tourism master plan released in June during the World Economic Forum in Naypyidaw—to hold a discussion about allowing casinos in resorts to draw tourists keen to roll some dice, part of the government’s hopes to attract around 7 million visitors a year by 2020. But that’s as far as it’s gone—a proposal in a policy paper about holding a discussion.

For now, Thein Naing is keen to promote the official lottery, which has a wider national reach than some of the country’s more pressing needs, such as clean running water and electricity, the latter of which reaches only a quarter of the population.

Those statistics mean that in all likelihood, more Burmese play the state lottery (let alone the more popular illegal wagers on the Thai stock exchange and European football) than are connected to the country’s power grid. “We sell [tickets] all over the country,” Thein Naing says. “And it’s not just for Myanmar citizens, foreigners can buy too.”