Myanmar Govt Takes Steps to Rein In Controversial China-Backed Gambling Hub in Karen State

By Nan Lwin 8 January 2021

YANGON—The Myanmar government has begun taking steps to tackle irregularities surrounding a controversial China-backed city development project near the Thai border in Karen State, vowing that it will not only solve the existing issues but also prevent similar problems from occurring in the future.

At a press briefing in Naypyitaw on Friday, government spokesman U Zaw Htay said the government in December issued instructions to relevant departments on actions to be taken regarding the Shwe Kokko New City project, which is run by the Karen State Border Guard Force (BGF)—a Myanmar military-backed armed group led by Colonel Chit Thu—and Chinese investors accused of operating illegal casino activities in Cambodia and the Philippines.

U Zaw Htay said the government had instructed the departments to carry out measures to ensure that development activities do not affect the stability of the project area. The government spokesman said the issues surrounding Shwe Kokko are complex and sensitive.

Known as “China Town”, the US$15-billion (19.92-trillion-kyat) project has been the subject of criticism for more than one year due to a lack of transparency, land confiscations, confusion over the scale of construction and the growing influx of Chinese money as well as suspected illicit activity and local concerns about the social impacts of casino businesses. The government launched a tribunal to investigate the project in June last year.

From August 2019 to October 2020, authorities from the Home Affairs Ministry and the army conducted inspections on the ground in the area five times and reported to the President’s Office, U Zaw Htay said.

The spokesman said the government had also drawn up standard operating procedures (SOPs) for all projects in Myanmar’s border areas to solve the existing irregularities in Shwe Kokko and to prevent similar problems from occurring in the future.

U Zaw Htay said that, based on the law, it had been decided that certain project should be taking action against or abolished, while some projects would be adjusted to bring them in line with existing rules and regulations.

However, he declined to provide details of the SOPs or what actions specifically the government planned to take.

He said that when it comes to carrying out the plan, the government will handle carefully it to minimize negative impacts, adding that the government had also instructed the Myanmar military to take action against those found to have engaged in bribery in relation to the Shwe Kokko project.

U Zaw Htay said the Myanmar military had already taken action against officials involved in such activities.

In October, the military (or Tatmadaw) reportedly investigated at least three senior officers for allegedly accepting bribes from the BGF to keep silent about illegal gambling activities at the Shwe Kokko project.

“Since it is [run by the] BGF, they are under the control of the Tatmadaw. So, we advised the Tatmadaw to take responsibility for it,” U Zaw Htay said.

He said the government is collaborating with the Tatmadaw to enforce the government’s administrative powers in the area.

Recently, studies have been conducted on the possibility of granting town status to Shwe Kokko. Many speculate that a civilian administrative structure will be put in place if it becomes a town.

The President’s Office said earlier it found that a total of 2,714 Chinese and 74 other foreign citizens were living in Shwe Kokko. It had deported a total of 888 Chinese and two foreign citizens as of Jan. 6.

U Zaw Htay said that when it comes to solving the issues surrounding Shwe Kokko, the government had to balance the need for development with preserving stability.

“It is working systematically. But I can’t give details. Some are already under way,” U Zaw Htay said.

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