Local Militia Officer Behind Controversial Chinese Casino Hub on Thai-Myanmar Border Quits

By Htun Htun 11 January 2021

YANGON—Major Saw Maw Tho, also known as Saw Mote Thone, who was the second-highest-ranking officer in the Karen State Border Guard Force (BGF), which is implementing a new city project with alleged ties to Chinese mafia on the Myanmar-Thai border, resigned on Saturday, according to sources with Myanmar’s military and the BGF.

His departure comes amid tensions between the Myanmar military (or Tatmadaw) and the BGF, a military-aligned armed group formerly known as the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), over the controversial China-backed project in the border town of Myawaddy in Karen State. Maj. Saw Maw Tho was reportedly among a group of BGF leaders pressured by the Tatmadaw to resign, including Colonel Saw Chit Thu and Major Saw Tin Win.

According to sources, the BGF leaders were summoned twice by the Tatmadaw’s South Eastern Command based in Mawlamyine, Mon State and asked to resign “of their own volition”.

Maj. Saw Maw Tho’s exit notwithstanding, the BGF leaders said it was unacceptable for the Tatmadaw to use casinos as an excuse to pressure them into resigning. They also pointed to the existence of casino and gambling businesses in other border regions and said they were working toward the legalization of the casino business in Myawaddy.

The new city project, known as Shwe Kokko for its location in Shwe Kokko Myaing, a Moei River village on the Thai border, is reported to be a US$15-billion (19.45-trillion-kyat) collaboration between the Chit Lin Myaing Co. run by the BGF, and a Hong Kong-registered company, Yatai International Holding Group.

After the project came under the spotlight over a lack of transparency, suspected illicit activity and concerns about the social impact of casinos, among other things, the Union government launched an investigation into the development. The BGF also said it had suspended the project. In October, three Tatmadaw officers were dismissed for alleged negligence and corruption in connection with the Shwe Kokko project.

Since then, the Tatmadaw has put pressure on the BGF, and as of the second week of December had tightened security in the area, with a battalion being stationed in Shwe Kokko Myaing.

Reports have also emerged that the Tatmadaw told Col. Saw Chit Thu in 2019 to resign from the BGF if he wanted to engage in business. According to sources in the region, the Tatmadaw is also putting pressure on the BGF to axe its auxiliary forces.

The DKBA transformed into the BGF in 2010 as required under the 2008 Constitution, which made it mandatory for rebel groups to transform into BGFs in order to engage in peace talks with the government.

Work began on the Shwe Kokko project in 2017. Allegations soon emerged that Chinese criminal gangs are involved in the project and using it as a base for illicit activities including money laundering.

Chit Lin Myaing Co. has denied ties to the Chinese mafia and illegal online gambling activities, insisting that the BGF has total control over the project. Despite their claims, illegal online gambling activities are believed to have been based at the project until recently.

At a government press conference on Friday, President Office’s spokesman U Zaw Htay said the government had ordered the project suspended because its scale far exceeded the dimensions included in the proposal submitted to investment authorities.

The government is working to take over the management of the project, and is also formulating standard operating procedures for such projects to prevent similar issues from arising in the future, he said.

“Shwe Kokko is a little complicated and sensitive. There are legal and peace issues that need to be taken into account. There is regional development on one hand, and there is regional stability on the other. Certain things need to be handled by the government, and certain things need to be handled by the Tatmadaw,” U Zaw Htay said.

The recent moves by the government and military suggest that authorities have decided to target gambling centers including casinos near Myawaddy.

According to Thai news agencies, the Sky Complex casino near Myawaddy, which employs hundreds of Thais, has been closed, and some of those returning to Thailand have tested positive for the coronavirus.

Translated from Burmese by Thet Ko Ko

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