RANGOON – The previous Union Solidarity Development Party-led government officially oversaw 34 “game centers” opening in Rangoon for the recreation of the city’s residents.
However, many game centers are in fact home to organized gambling—illegal in Burma under the Gambling Act. Overlooked by the Rangoon government, what were established as places for locals to relax and blow off steam have now become havens for unlawful gambling.
In 2013, Yangon City Development Committee (YCDC) gave the green light for game centers—also known as amusement arcades—to provide entertainment in the form of video games, arcade games, small rides, dance machines, and shooting galleries.
Well-known Rangoon establishments include Aladdin Recreation Centre, Alibaba Amusement Center, Robot Game Center, and Fantasy World.
At Rangoon Parliament’s session on Tuesday two National League for Democracy (NLD) lawmakers asked Rangoon government ministers whether the YCDC would address unlawful gambling at the city’s game centers.
Member of Parliament U Nay Phone Latt said that at a game center in AKK Shopping Mall in his constituency both adults and students were losing a lot of money gambling on a fish catching group video game, known as the “Shark Game” locally.
“Game centers have moved beyond their specified purpose and into gambling, which harms social life,” he said.
“Will [the Rangoon government] remove such illegal game centers in line with national laws or not?” he questioned.
Another NLD lawmaker U Yan Shin said that many students in his Mayangone Township 1 constituency were gambling at game centers when they should be at school, making them fail exams. He also said that young men were stealing to fund gambling habits.
Security and Border Affairs Minister for Rangoon Division Col. Tin Aung Tun replied that they have arrested gambling business owners and gamblers since 2013 for failing to follow the rules and regulations of the YCDC.
Unregistered and Corrupt
The 1899 Gambling Act of Burma forbids “advancing or furnishing money for the purpose of gaming” and “using the instruments of gaming for the profit or gain of the person owning”.
A person partaking in gambling can be punished with at least six months in prison if found guilty. A business owner allowing gambling can receive one year in prison and have their business license revoked.
Rangoon police made 48 gambling arrests in 2013-2014, 136 gambling arrests in 2015 and 135 gambling arrests in the first nine months of 2016, including both owners and participants of gambling. It is not known how many game centers were involved in these arrests.
According to Col. Tin Aung Tun, there are 43 YCDC-licensed game centers in Rangoon Division. The minister admitted that among these are the game centers accused of malpractice by U Nay Phone Latt, but said that according to official reports there is nothing unlawful about them.
Col. Tin Aung Tun encouraged lawmakers to contact the relevant police officials to take immediate action if they believed game centers were acting illegally in their constituencies. He said he had informed the police chiefs of Rangoon’s 44 townships not to have any links with gambling or to take bribes from such illicit businesses.
U Yan Shin asked if Col. Tin Aung Tun planned to crack down on illegal game centers but the minister replied that no such plan was in place.
During a recess from Parliament, U Nay Phone Latt told The Irrawaddy that although he had concrete evidence that he had presented to parliament, he was contradicted by police reports.
He said “I think that [game centers] are being informed of impending inspections by corrupt government informants.”
U Nay Phone Latt also said that the actual number of game centers is higher than Col. Tin Aung Tun declared. He said that even in his constituency there are dozens of unregistered game centers.
The Irrawaddy spoke with staff at a game center on Anawrahta Road, Pazundaung Township. At the time we visited, about eight men and women were playing the “Shark Game”, placing 1000 and 5,000 kyats bank notes on the game machine as wagers.
An employee of the game center, Ko Latt, has been working at the game center as a mechanic since 2013. He said that they have an official game center permit from YCDC.
Ko Latt revealed, however, that with the help of corrupt government officials they run as a gambling center despite the appearance of the property with cartoons outside.
“Almost all game centers run the same way as we do, except for four or five famous ones,” he said.
He said that in order to avoid inspection or trouble from the authorities they pay bribes to police and local authorities of between 10,000 to 100,000 kyats every month. Game center owners are informed of any government inspections and “hide out” for a while.
When The Irrawaddy asked Ko Latt whether the establishment fully understood the Gambling Act of Burma, he answered yes but could not answer why the business was registered as a game center but ran as a gambling business.
One gambler at the game center, who asked not to be named, said that if gambling terms are agreed by both parties there is no problem and that the government should make gambling legal.
He said that someone spending ten thousand kyats at a gambling table was not a big problem. He said the government should be more concerned with money laundering, drugs, and tax evasion in the city.
In Parliament Tuesday, Col. Tin Aung Tun promised the NLD lawmakers that if they discovered game centers acting illegally they would take action against the owners whether they have a YCDC business permit or not.
He added that after April 2017, the YCDC would carefully check new applications and reconsider whether existing permits should be extended or halted. He claimed that Rangoon Chief Minister Phyo Min Thein would personally supervise the license approval process.
“Call me immediately if officials fail to arrest [unlawful game center owners], I will deal with it directly,” the minister told legislators.