Burma

Myanmar Military Probes Bribery Claims Against Officers Tied to Chinese-Backed Gambling Hub

By Htet Naing Zaw 9 October 2020

NAYPYITAW—The Myanmar military (or Tatmadaw) is investigating at least three senior officers for allegedly accepting bribes from the Karen Border Guard Force (BGF) to keep silent about illegal gambling activities at a controversial new city development near the Thai border in Karen State.

Known locally as “China Town”, and often referred to as the Shwe Kokko project, the planned new city in Myawaddy Township’s Shwe Kokko Village is reported to be a US$15-billion (19.45-trillion-kyat) collaboration between the BGF—a Myanmar military-backed armed group led by Colonel Saw Chit Thu and formerly known as the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA)—and a Hong Kong-registered company, Yatai International Holding Group (IHG).

The project has sparked criticism due to a lack of transparency, land confiscations, confusion over the scale of construction and the growing influx of Chinese money into the area, as well as suspected illicit activity and local concerns about the social impacts of casino businesses.

After probing reports on social media that three officers—a brigadier general with the 13th Military Operations Command; the command’s tactical commander; and the commander of Light Infantry Battalion 97—took bribes from the BGF, the military determined there was grounds to be suspicious and summoned the three to Naypyitaw for questioning.

“What I can say is they are being questioned on suspicion of accepting bribes from the BGF, and action will be taken in line with the law,” a Myanmar military source told The Irrawaddy.

The source added, however, that the alleged bribery relates to illegal casinos inside the project, not the new city project as a whole. Besides Myanmar military personnel, local authorities are also involved in the alleged illegal business, according to the military source.

The Irrawaddy is still investigating the details of the bribery allegations.

At a press conference on Sunday, Myanmar military spokesman Major General Zaw Min Tun said the Tatmadaw had no stake at all in the new city project. However, the Karen State Border Guard Force, like other border guard forces, is under the ultimate control of Myanmar military.

The project was approved on July 30, 2018. At the time, the Tatmadaw’s Southeastern Command, which covers Karen and Mon states, was headed by Major General Myo Moe Aung, a former commandant of the National Defense College. He was succeeded as Southeastern Command chief by Brigadier General Ko Ko Maung in March 2020.

In its March 2020 report “Gambling Away Our Lands,” the Karen Peace Support Network (KPSN) said there is considerable evidence that the city project is backed by the Myanmar military.

A project of such huge cost and scale could never have progressed this far without the formal approval of the Myanmar military, the report alleged. It added that top-level Myanmar army backing has enabled the project to flout all investment and immigration laws, allowing building to continue despite the project’s official suspension a year ago.

In May and June of 2019, Karen State authorities carried out investigations at the site, and at the 9th BGF anniversary ceremony on Aug. 20, 2019, BGF leader Col. Saw Chit Thu announced that the project was being temporarily suspended for breach of investment regulations. The only formal permit granted for the project by the Myanmar Investment Committee was for construction of 59 luxury villas on 22.5 acres (9.1 hectares) of land, and this had been far exceeded.

However, despite the announced suspension, locals report that full-scale construction is continuing, and thousands of Chinese workers remain on site.

The Chinese Embassy in Myanmar has denied that the project is part of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative, the Chinese government’s proposed vast international infrastructure network.

In June, the Myanmar government said it had formed a tribunal to investigate the project. The team has been unable to visit the site, however, due to COVID-19. The deputy minister for investment and foreign economic relations told the Union Parliament in July that action would be taken under the Myanmar Investment Law if the Chinese investors failed to comply with or violate laws and regulations.

The Chinese Embassy said in August it was aware of media reports describing locals’ concerns over the negative impacts of the project. It issued a statement referring to the Myanmar government’s special agency set up to investigate the project “in accordance with laws and regulations.” It added, “China expresses its support [for] this.”

At a recent press conference, Myanmar government spokesman U Zaw Htay said some other armed groups are also planning to implement projects with Chinese investment in Karen State, adding that it is difficult for the government to control these armed groups. He urged the groups to follow the existing laws of the country, and said the government is keeping the door open to peace talks.

Translated from Burmese by Thet Ko Ko

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