ENTERTAINMENT, PETS, GAMES, GAMBLING AND RECREATION IN MYANMAR

GOLF AND ENTERTAINMENT IN MYANMAR

The generals in the military regime love to play golf. They play on courses built when the British controlled the country and on a few new ones built by businessmen with connections to the generals. Many people doing business in Yangon have taken to practicing their golf swing at the cities three driving ranges. "All the generals play, so more and more businessmen are coming to learn," one man told the Los Angeles Times.

Brook Larimer wrote in Newsweek: “Every mourning at the City Golf Course n Rangoon, dozens of military officers in creased khakis and saddle shoes traips off the first tee, followed by platoons of young female caddies. The girls, who wear bright red lipstick and easy smiles, perform different jobs for their 35-cent fee: one hauls the clubs, another holds the parasol, one lines up the putts—and all applaud politely after each successful shot.”

Describing entertainment in Burma in the 1970s, Paul Theroux wrote in “The Great Railway Bazaar”: “ Halfway up the hill I stopped, had a Super Soda, and examined some statuary in wire cages, life-sized plaster figures, brightly painted and horrific as a Tiger Balm ointment tableau: a supine figure sticking his tongue out at a crow perched on his chest and tearing bright blue intestinal coils, yards of shiny hose, from a gaping hole in the man's belly; another satisfied man with a cutlass, squatting next to a disemboweled deer. I slipped a coin into a cast-iron machine, and three figures in a window were set into motion: a clockwork man swept a path with a wire broom, a clockwork saffron-robed monk shuffled on the path, and a clockwork devotee raised and lowered his clasped hands to the monk. [Source: Paul Theroux, The Atlantic, November 1, 1971]

Karaoke in Myanmar

Karaoke is very popular in Myanmar as it elsewhere in Asia. Karaoke is a Japanese invention. The word is a combination of the Japanese words for "empty" (kara) and "orchestra" (oke). Particularly popular in Asia and Asian neighborhoods all over the world, karaoke bars allow patrons to sing their favorite songs along with a synthesized instrumental version of the song with no voice track. Urban legend has it that karaoke means “tone-deaf.”

Karaoke singers sings into a microphone as the lyrics flash across a video screen, often while swimming squids or naked women are flashed in the background. The singer's voice is often distorted with a vibrato warble and sometimes a number appears on the video screen after the song is over. This "score" is usually based more on loudness than singing ability. In any case, even horrible singers are generally applauded for their effort.

Like other Asians, people in Myanmar enjoy singing. Karaokes are found in every town and on almost every city block; popular television shows often feature actors and athletes singing karaoke-style; and parties are often a succession of guests coming to a microphone and singing songs.

Karaoke Prostitution in Myanmar

Karaokes often serve as fronts for prostitution. Ko Jay wrote in The Irrawaddy in 2006, “On a typical night in downtown Rangoon, the Royal is crowded with men looking for more than a song and with young women whose talents anyway couldn’t be described as vocal. Min Min, 26, entertains men at the Royal, earning a basic wage of about 50,000 kyat (US $55) a month, nearly double her take-home pay when she worked at a Rangoon garment factory. For four years she headed the factory’s packing department, until the garment industry was thrown into disarray by America’s introduction of sanctions on imports from Burma. US sanctions resulted in the closure of many garment factories and young women like Min Min turned to the sex trade and the entertainment scene for alternative employment. [Source: Ko Jay, The Irrawaddy, April 27, 2006 <>]

“Min Min ingenuously thought a karaoke bar job would help her achieve her true ambition—“I wanted to be a famous singer.” But her male audience was always more interested in her physical attributes than in her voice. The hands she hoped would be applauding her performance were otherwise occupied. “It’s like working in a brothel,” she concedes. “Most customers caress me. If I refuse, they will find another girl.” But she’s tied to the job now, dependent on the money, much of which goes to support her family. <>

“The Royal charges between $5 and $8 an hour for the use of a karaoke room, so it’s no surprise to learn that most of its customers are well-heeled businessmen. “They don’t care,” says Ko Naing. “They only want to relax with beautiful girls.” <>

“Linn Linn, a 31-year-old widow with two children to support, has worked at several karaoke clubs, one of which, she says, was owned by a senior police officer and five businessmen. Club owners often invite government officials along for some “relaxation,” she claims. Linn Linn worked in a Rangoon brothel until a 2002 police crackdown on prostitution. Since then she has been employed by a string of karaoke bars, conceding that sex as well as songs are on the menu. <>

“About 50 karaoke girls were arrested in a second police crackdown, in 2003, on nightclubs suspected of doubling as brothels. Linn Linn escaped arrest, but she admits it might be only a matter of time before the next police raid puts her out of work. “What else can I do?” she says. “I have two children to support. Everything is so expensive now and the cost of living just rises and rises. I’ve no other way to make money other than continue in the karaoke trade.” <>

“Regime officials and members of Military Intelligence were deeply involved in the entertainment business until the shake-up that spelled MI’s end and the demise of intelligence chief Gen Khin Nyunt and his cronies. Some ceasefire groups were also involved in the business, Ko Naing claims. Add to them the growing number of greedy officials who also wanted some of the action and the karaoke scene becomes very murky indeed. <>

Aung San Suu Kyi at a Magic Show

Brook Larmer wrote in National Geographic: “The barefoot magician twirls a rope around a volunteer's neck, and the audience hushes in anticipation. Rows of gaping boys and girls stretch back to the entrance of the dilapidated building. Across the street outside, men lingering in an open-air tea shop crane to see. Myanmar is a country infused with magic, a place where animistic spirits, called nats, inhabit every banyan tree, where astrologers are called upon to guide key decisions. The magician knows, even if the children do not, that some of the men standing outside are not part of the invited audience but spies for the police's Special Branch. [Source: Brook Larmer, National Geographic, August 2011 )(]

“This, after all, is no ordinary magic show. Sitting in the front row, a ring of jasmine flowers in her hair, is the Lady herself, Aung San Suu Kyi. It is Children's Day at the NLD's Yangon headquarters, an event timed to coincide with the birthday of Suu Kyi's father, Burmese independence hero Gen. Aung San, who was assassinated in 1947. Images of father and daughter—strikingly similar, save for his military uniform—hang above the NLD's entrance, along side walls, and in laminated pins on the shirts of children in the audience. )(

“But now all eyes are on the magician slowly weaving the rope around the volunteer's legs, arms, and torso, and even through his clothes. A young girl shoots a glance at Suu Kyi, who winks back in reassurance. This man is not a real prisoner, her smile suggests, even if the party elders flanking her have each spent more than a decade in the junta's jails. The magician barks out an instruction, and with a sudden yank, the rope snaps away. The prisoner is set free. Cheers fill the room, and Suu Kyi, tossing her head back, lets out an unbridled laugh. )(

Children’s Games in Myanmar

Children often play chinlon , a hacky-sack-like game in which participants try to keep a woven bamboo ball in the air without using their hands. Children also play with sticks and cans and use water to draw hopscotch squares. [Source: Joel Swerdlow, National Geographic, July 1995]

Htote Si Toe (“border-crossing game”) is a traditional Burmese game played by young people of both sexes. It originated long ago in rural areas but has been enjoyed by both rural and urban children alike. A table has to be drawn on the ground marking in it borders such as top, middle, axis and diagonal. The players are divided into two teams, with the players of one team staying on, and moving along, the borders while those of the other team try to cross the lines without being caught or touched by the opposition players. The winning team is decided by whether it can successfully protect the borders or cross every line from start to finish then back to the starting point. The game involves much physical activity as one team of players has to block the border lines while the other team members have to run across them. Sharpness of eyesight, smart decisions and rapid movements as well as team spirit are crucial to the game. [Source: Myanmar.cm]

Kyak Hpa Khut (cock-style fighting) is a Myanmar traditional game that originated in rural areas and is mostly played by young children especially girls. The game resembles real cock-fighting, hence the name, and the players act like gamecocks themselves.Players have to stand and raise each foot alternately while chanting a verse in chorus. At the end of the verse, they squat on the ground, extending and retracting each foot alternately with the hands resting on the waist. When the match is in full swing, fans cheer or sing out verses to encourage their player sand discourage the others. The contestants continue to move until one of them tires and gives up. Like many Myanmar traditional games, this has crept into obsolescence among urban communities due to lifestyle changes and the influence of modern technology. ++

"Kyay thar" is a sort of rural base ball game played with a short cylindrical bat (which is about 3 inches in diameter at the most) and a wooden peg sharpened to a point at both ends that was the missile to be hit. One can either dig a small hole about the size of an apple—balancing one pointed tip of the peg on the edge of the hole—or find a brick on which to balance the peg with one end protruding beyond the edge of the brick. Then holding the cylindrical bat firmly in the palm, a player taps the point of the peg, which flies up, and then aims and hits the peg as far as he can. There is no pitcher, only you and your opponent. The distance covered by the projectile is measured out with the bat which is is only about a foot long. The one who can hit the peg the farthest is the winner. There is always the risk of the peg flying up to hit your face or if very unlucky, your eyes. Needless to say, adults have traditionally thoroughly disapproved of this game. But it was exciting and the implements required could be hewn out of any piece of wood lying around. [Source: Myanmar Travel Information ~]

Traditional Burmese Kites

One now rarely sees children flying kites in Yangon: what with the increasing high-rises and heavy motor traffic. It is prohibited in downtown areas because it has become highly dangerous for children. Even in the olden days there was some risk involved. The traditional Myanmar kite is a thing of beauty and cannot be bought ready made like the small square Indian kite. The Myanmar kind has to be made with what we call "his-sein" (oil-treated) colored paper that is rather opaque small, smooth flexible bamboo sticks and glue. If glue is not easily available then mashed sticky rice can be used. And of course yards and yards of string. [Source: Myanmar Travel Information ~]

The kite is like an isosceles triangle with a curved top. It may have a short forked tail or a long sweeping one with multi-colored squares strung along close together on a string. It is huge, about three feet long and a foot at its widest. It needs a lot of strong twine and skill to get it aloft. But once it gets high up in the sky it stays there swaying majestically among the clouds. It fascinates small children about four or five years old, and can keep them quiet while they watch its every movement. ~

The small square Indian kite is less expensive and meant for older and more adventurous kids who challenge each other to kite fights in the sky much like fighter planes in air battles. They try to cut away the other’s kite string and if one succeeds in doing so, there is a chase with much yelling and noise to retrieve it, finders being keepers. The string, wound on a large wooden reel, is rubbed with glass shards to give it a cutting edge. It can make quite a deep cut in the skin if one happens to slide the palm of the hand along it accidentally. When a kite has been severed, boys run headlong after it with long bamboo poles or cut tree branches to pull down the runaway kite if it should get caught in the branches of a tree or electrical or telephone wire. ~

It is indeed a competition fraught with danger as the boys run heedless of traffic and scramble up trees or wireless or electrical wire poles. It is a game played when the winds are strong round about March and April. It is a popular sport even for grown men especially in rural areas. It was a seasonal fad in the in big cities too and one used to see kite flyers on roofs of apartment houses. ~

Traditional Burmese Tops

One elderly Burmese woman wrote: “My favourite toy was always the top. The true Myanmar top is made entirely of wood right down to the single leg on which it spins. Here again there is the cheaper Indian variety available in any small shop with a single nail hammered in head first into the narrow tapering bottom of the pear shaped globe. to form the spinning leg. But the Myanmar top is a lovingly crafted piece, exhibiting the skill required in wood-carving and turnery. [Source: Myanmar Travel Information ~]

The wood of the leg and the pear shaped globe are all made from a single piece of wood, the whole top tapering ever so gracefully into a leg as in a human body. It is known as a "kalatt gyin". A "kalat" is a circular serving tray with a stem. The Myanmar top has been so named because between the globe and the leg is an indented rim with the edge curling up decoratively. The size of this top is usually about as large as a man’s fist but it varies with the age of the player. The wood of the tamarind tree is said to be the most suitable, but actually any hard wood will do. ~

In the old days it was said that the twine from fibres of the palmyra tree was the best. One winds the twine, beginning from the lower tip of the leg right up to the bulging mid portion of the top. At the end of the string is a small knot which one places between the ring finger and the pinky. While holding on firmly, one lets go and throws the top down with speed. The force unwinds the string and the top spins beautifully. My uncle had such a beautiful top but we were allowed only to touch it, not play with it. One of the games played in rural villages was to try and hit a spinning top with one’s own and crack the wood. A better game was to draw a small circle and try to aim one’s top so that not only would it land within the circle. but stay in it until its momentum was lost and the one whose top could spin the longest was the winner. ~

I regret to say that even when I was a child, Myanmar wooden tops had become a rarity. There were those with an iron nail hammered into the bottom for us to play with. Nevertheless. We had a lot of fun. There are two ways to spin a top. One way is to let loose the string—after winding it around the top from the leg up to the middle—by throwing it down from about shoulder level. That was for the boys. Girls were supposed to crouch down and push the hand holding the top forward and pulling it back at speed to unleash the string. This is actually harder. A skilled top spinner is one who can throw a top down and whip it up again to make it land on one’s open palm and let it spin there. ~

Myanmar Chess

Myanmar has its own traditional chess game. Since ancient times. the Myanmar people were very keen and fond of playing traditional chess. In fact. Myanma traditional chess in based on four warfare elements, which were described in old Myanmar military text and scriptures. Four military elements are: 1) Elephant division; 2) Cavalry division; 3) Chariot division; and 4) Infantry division These four warfare elements are represented by the elephant figure, horseman figure, chariot figure. and foot soldier figure. Ind addition there is the knight commander figure and king (warlord) figure—bringing the total to six types of figures. [Source: Myanmar Travel Information ~]

In Myanmar Chess ( Sit-Tu-Yin) there are 1) eight foot-soldiers figurines on each side; 2) two chariot figures on each side; 3) two elephant figures on each side; 4) two horseman figures on each side; 5) one commander (or) knight commander figure on each side; and finally 6) one king (Warlord) figure. Each side has 16 figures, with a total of 32 figures for both sides. These figures are made from hardwood, typically teak. Sometimes. these figures are carved out of the horns of water buffalo and adorned with white and black colors. Figures carved from ordinary wood are differentiated for two sides by painting them red and black.~

The pieces are typically about two three 3 inches in height. In ancient time all these figurines were carved very precisely. Infantry soldier figures are curved clearly and with helmets called “Mout-Toe” in Burmese. Cavalry figures depict a warrior riding a horse. The elephant figures are bigger than the horses. Chariot figure have carved wheels and a roof. The commander, or knight, is carved in a kneeling position with a sword. The king figure is carved sitting in the crossleg position, carrying a “Than-Lyett” (royal short knife), which only kings were allowed to carry. ~

Playing Myanmar Chess

The Myanmar chess board is eight squares in length and eight wide—the same as a conventional checkerboard. Altogethe there are 64 squares. Each side has 32 squares: 16 squares for the figures and 16 squares for moves. All the squares have the same color. Two straight lines are drawn from the opposite diagonal corners. These two straight lines cross at the center of the chessboard and are called the “Sit-kei-kyo.” After the commander has been captured an infantry soldier that come upon this straight line becomes a commander. Only infantry soldier can become a commander. Other pieces such as an elephant, cavalry or chariot cannot become a commander. [Source: Myanmar Travel Information ~]

The objective of the game is to attack and paralyze the opponent’s king. When the king is paralyzed the opposing player calls out “ kwei”— “checkmate”—and wins the match. Infantry soldiers can move only one step (or one square) straight forward. It cannot move backwards. Any opponent figure standing on the squares at the left or right sides angles can be captured. If it does not want to capture the opponent figure it can ignore it. Cavalry horse man can hop over other pieces their isn’t a path and can move left, right, front and backwards. Horseman cannot move to the square where there is another figure on his side, but can capture any opponent figure and stand on that square. Elephants move straight forward, or diagonally backwards or forwards only one square at a time. Elephants cannot move straight backwards or straight sideways. The chariot is most powerful piece in Myanmar chess. If there’s no piece blocking their way they move freely forward, backward, right or left. Commanders can move only two squares, either to the front angle or backwards angle. The King can move only one square in any direction. ~

The initial placing of the figures is termed “warfare preparation” and this plays a vital role in playing. It will also justify who wins and who loses. That is why only a skilled player can survive. The horseman is a powerful figure. It can eliminate other figures and is the only figure that can checkmate the king. The horseman figure can be moved about like a knight in regular chess. If you don’t have checkmate but you cannot move anymore you have “Kwet”—or still mate of the king. ~

In ancient times, people like to hide their strategic skills so a curtain was draw between the players when they places their pieces during the “warfare preparation.” The positions were revealed after the curtain was raised. In the old days, skilled players could often determine who was going to win or lose by glancing at the positions of the figures before the play. Some used to concede by just looking at the position without a single move. That is one of the peculiarities of Myanmar Sit-tu-yin. ~

The eight strategies of warfare preparation are: 1) Min Pone; 2) Myin Set; 3) Myin Shin; 5) Myin Cheik; 6) MyinHtat; 7) Atwin Sit Ke Pauk; 8) Sin Shin Myin Kwae. Good players are said to need: 1) idealism; 2) cautiousness; 3) concentration; 4) strong will; 5) skillfulness; 6) cleverness. The player with the red figurines makes the first move. He is referred to as the “attacker.” The player with the black pieces is said to be on the defensive regardless of the position or strategy he has laid down. In a typical game attacking by a “Myin-Pone”is defended by “Myin-Set”, which in turn is dealt with utilizing a Myin-Shin— a step-by-step defense and attack strategy. ~

Gambling in Myanmar

Gambling on soccer is popular in Myanmar. Many of the sports magazines devoted to soccer are financed by gamblers. Burmese-style craps is also popular.

Like bingo nights at churches, Buddhist temples in Myanmar sometimes raise money through gambling. In a popular game villagers place a bet on one of eight animals which includea a crab, a horse and a turtle. A wheel is spun and if their animal they bet on comes up they win.

In 2009 the Poverty News blog reported: Myanmar is having a growing problem with illegal gambling in the country. People who are earning only 1 to 3 US dollars a day are spending large portions of their money on the illegal numbers games. Many of the poor are lured into the gambling with dreams of big winnings and a way out of their lives in poverty. Prosecution of the gambling is difficult because most police in Myanmar can be bought off with a bribe, some receive a cut of the money if the winner is from their patrol.[Source: Poverty News blog, July 20, 2009 /\]

IRIN reports: “On the streets of Yangon, the former capital, the so-called "two digits" illegal lottery is so popular that development workers call it one of the most serious problems facing the children of poor families. It is especially popular among the poorest, who can least afford to lose their daily wages. Agents willing to take bets are everywhere—in cities, market towns and rural areas across Myanmar. But there is no social safety net, nothing to stop a family from going under when the betting losses add up. "They bet because they think they'll get a big win, and then their troubles will be over," said a Burmese community worker, who runs self-help groups for poor women living in temporary shelters around Yangon. ''When they've lost everything they must give up their house, take their children out of school and send them to work. Often they will end up begging.'' /\

The Mandalay Bay is $400 million aquatic-themed casino in Las Vegas.

Informal Betting in Myanmar and Thai Stock Market Numbers Game

In October 2012, The Economist reported: “For the past five decades, the best predictor of a return on investment in Myanmar has been the number of stars on the shoulder of the investor or his friends. For the rankless and unconnected there was stagnation—or worse. Even today, with reforms sweeping the country, any opportunity to improve one’s lot seems as addictive as the amphetamine sold in the streets of Yangon. The Burmese indulge in informal betting to the tune of an estimated $5-10 million a day. [Source: The Economist, October 8, 2012 \/]

“The most popular lottery is nhit-lone (two digit or “2D”). The winning numbers are generated by the Thai Stock Exchange: the first digit before the decimal marker of its main index and the last digit of the total value of shares traded. Grocers, shopkeepers and businessmen double as bookies and offer bets for different times of the day. If a better’s numbers come up, she (most players are women) gets $80 for each $1 wagered. But in the long run, addicts are likely to lose 20 percent of their ante: the expected value of a $1 bet is only 80 cents. \/

“Consulting an astrologer, a monk or a palmist can improve the odds, at least subjectively. Sometimes, however, these tell clients to go for more risk. Sitting under a tree near Yangon’s Sule Pagoda, one palmist counselled your correspondent to shun nhit-lone and play thone-lone (three-digit or “3D”) instead. It is a higher-stake bet, favoured by men. The winning numbers are the last three digits of the bimonthly Thai state lottery. The odds are lower, but if your number comes up, $1 turns into $550. The Thai numbers follow a pattern, the palmist says. But he has to make do without his time-tested chart, since it could be found by the police which have been going after his like recently. Illegal gambling is punishable with two years in the clink. Bookies risks three years. \/

“Myanmar also boasts a monthly state lottery, called Aung Bar Lay. For the last round in September 2012, some 30 million tickets were on sale. Thein Naing, the lottery’s director, expects to take in 3.2 billion kyat ($4 million). He would have a lottery every day, but the law does not permit it—which is fortunate. A $1 bet can turn into $175,000, but the odds are much worse than with any of the informal lotteries: the expected value of a $1 bet is only 44 cents. Just like the country as a whole, its state lottery needs reform. \/

Chinese Gamblers in Myanmar

Casinos began sprouting in Myanmar along the Chinese border in the 1990s, and eventually up to a hundred were operating. Most were modest in scale, sometimes featuring a hotel. In the Golden Triangle Area followed a similar formula: deploy fleets of boats to ferry gamblers along the Mekong River, mainly from China but also Thailand.

Mang Lar, a town near the Chinese border, has grown wealthy from the tides of Chinese who come to gamble in its casinos and visit karaokes and brothels filled with Chinese girls. The city is rich and full of action by Myanmar standards.

Forbes reported: “Casinos began sprouting in Myanmar along the Chinese border in the 1990s, and eventually up to a hundred were operating. Most were modest in scale, sometimes featuring a hotel, but all followed the same formula: deploy fleets of boats to ferry gamblers along the Mekong River, mainly from China but also Thailand.” [Source: Forbes, July 27, 2011]

Ruili in Its Gambling Heyday

Describing the border town of Ruili in the mid 2000s, when it was a mecca for Chinese gamblers, Mark Magnier, wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “The vans stopped in front of a yellow building the size and shape of a small airplane hangar. There was little to distinguish it from nearby industrial buildings other than a garish arrangement of pulsing neon flowers near the glass door -- and the nonstop arrival of customers despite the late hour. Inside, a hall the size of two football fields was jammed with eight banks of roulette tables immediately inside the door, a line of electronic blackjack machines against the back wall and 12 pits to the left for a game called heaven-earth-harmony. [Source: Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times, April 13, 2005 //\\]

“The mostly male clientele of the Ruili casino placed bets through a haze of cigarette smoke. There was no alcohol and almost no small talk. A small crowd gathered as one winner collected three thick stacks of bills totaling about $4,000 and stuffed them into the sequined purse of his female companion. The building's interior was bright and clean, with recessed lighting and newly plastered walls. But the gambling machines, chairs and tables were battered, suggesting an operation that has been moved repeatedly on short notice. //\\

"Great, I finally won one," said a gambler placing $5 bets at heaven-earth-harmony, a game in which a pingpong ball is dropped onto a grid, with players betting on where it will land. "It's about time." A businessman from Jiangsu province, who, like many of the gamblers, declined to be identified, said the government crackdown hadn't deterred him. "When business is slow, I go every day," he said, smoking as he rubbed a quarter-sized mole on his right cheek. "Whenever I win, I stop. Over the past few months, I've won $2,400." //\\

"Would you like to go to Myanmar?" a smiling Chinese soldier asked as she guarded the border near the "Union of Myanmar, Silver Elephant Immigration Gate." Visas, even temporary passports, are available, no questions asked, for $30 to $40 from people who have good guanxi with local officials. For those who can't be bothered with formalities, taxi drivers helpfully point out well-worn breaks in the yellow-and-green fence separating the countries. //\\

Chinese Casino in a Part of Myanmar Controlled by Ethnic Insurgents

In April 2006, Khun Sam wrote in The Irrawaddy, “Welcome to the Macao of northern Burma: Maija Yang, once a backward Kachin State border village but now a bustling boom town with more than a dozen casinos catering to Chinese gamblers sidelined by restrictions in their own country. The frontier-style administration of Maija Yang, 160 kilometers north of the Kachin capital Myitkyina, is effectively in the hands of the Kachin Independence Organization, which is said to earn around 8.5 million yuan (more than US $1 million) annually from the Chinese-run casinos. Prostitution, drugs and alcohol probably net the town even more money. [Source: Khun Sam, The Irrawaddy, April 30, 2006 <<]

“The first of the casinos was built four years ago under a KIO development program originally intended to provide local people, traditionally reliant on the opium trade, with an alternative source of income. The high-minded plan went awry, however—the casinos employ mostly Chinese staff, and the drugs problem is only getting worse. At least 14 Chinese-based companies run the casinos. Among the Chinese businessmen behind Maija Yang’s casino scene are two brothers, Wang Fwi and Wang Ja, who own a worldwide gambling empire, including casinos in Macao. Inevitably, Maija Yang has come to be called the Macao of northern Burma. <<

“On a typical day, several thousand Chinese gamblers are to be found in Maija Yang’s casinos. They cross freely into Burma, despite efforts by the Chinese authorities to reach agreement with the KIO on tightening up frontier formalities.Private jets are known to fly into the area gamblers from Hong Kong, Macao, Cambodia and Laos. Special package deals include free accommodation in the hotels that are now shooting up in and around Maija Yang. <<

“From across the border, Chinese authorities warily watch the gambling scene, powerless to prevent the outflow of huge amounts of yuan, which they complain end up in foreign bank accounts. In the absence of tight border controls or currency exchange regulations, China resorted to direct appeals to its nationals working in Maija Yang to return home. When persuasion proved to be pointless, the frustrated Chinese authorities tried to put the casinos out of action in May by cutting electricity supplies to Maija Yang from the Chinese-controlled power grid. The casinos were one step ahead of them, however—while Maija Yang and three other border towns were plunged into darkness the casinos carried on with alternative power from their own generators. <<

“Heavy security surrounds the casinos. KIO personnel guard the exterior, while security men in uniform and plain-clothes patrol the interior. Cameras are banned, and the KIO guards also ensure that no photographs are taken from the outside. Despite the tight security, residents complain their town has become a danger zone since the casinos opened. Drug-related crime has increased dramatically, prostitution is rife and murders are no longer a rare occurrence.Shirley Seng, co-ordinator of the Kachin Women’s Association Thailand, says that during a visit to Maija Yang she heard of the violent deaths of three sex workers. Cross-border trafficking of women is commonplace, according to a report by Seng’s organization. <<

Much of the blame for the crime wave is attributed to the casino operators, who—say the locals—seem to be above the law. Sit at a noodle shop table in Maija Yang and you’ll hear stories worthy of a Hollywood script, of mafia-style assassinations, bodies buried in concrete beneath newly-built hotels and casinos—of a Chinese woman tycoon who drove into town in an expensive black limousine and who then disappeared without a trace, along with her three bodyguards. <<

The KIO’s commander-in-chief, Col Gunhtang Gam Shawng, balances the town’s bad image against the benefits he says the casinos have brought to the community: the big rise in tourism revenues and the injection of funds into KIO development projects, including its campaign to create an “opium-free Kachin State.” Local critics of the meteoric rise of Maija Yang say the campaign is doomed to fail until the KIO asserts its control over the state that has arisen within Kachin State—the border region known as “casino-land.” <<

Cracking Down on Chinese Gambling

The Chinese government has shut down thousands of underground gambling parlors. In 2005, the Chinese government launched a campaign to crack down on gambling in China and urged neighboring countries to help out. A party cadre who lead the campaign told the press, “We’ve declared war on gambling. We must stop this illegal activity.” The move was prompted by embarrassing revelations about party cadres losing large amounts of public money at foreign casinos and local officials gambling during work hours at local tea houses. One official in Jilin province lost $330,000 during 27 trips to North Korean casinos.

In 2005, there were 149 casinos across the border in Myanmar, Russia, North Korea, and Vietnam, most of them illegal. Under Chinese government campaign many were shut down. As of April 2006 there were only 28 left. In Some cases the supplies of water and power were cut off to the towns that hosted the casinos.

Many places that were shut down reopened after the authorities left and the campaign was over. Well-connected gambling houses even welcomed the campaign because it helped get rid of competitors. Many thought the crack down on gambling was absurd. Hu Xingdou, an economics professor, told the Los Angeles Times, “Trying to ban it completely is just not going to happen. China also loses an incredible amount of money overseas every year.” By one estimate China lost $72 billion to foreign gambling in 2004, up from $48 billion in 1997. Hu has said it makes more sense to have some kind of regulated gambling in China to keep the money in the country.

Pets in Myanmar

People in Myanmar generally do not keep pets. Some people have mix breed dogs as guard animals. As Buddhists, people in Myanmar tend to kind to animals and go out of their to avoid killing or causing harm to them.

In the "The Great Railway Bazaar" Paul Theroux wrote in the early 1970s: “Only rats and dog in Burma. The dogs finished off the cats long ago. The dogs are gaunt and desperate and if a piece of trash is thrown from a train window or on a city street they seem to materialize from nowhere too eat it.” The condition of Burma’s animals made Theroux wonder about the no killing precept of Buddhism—"the principal of neglect. Because no animals are killed they look as if they starving to death.”

The main attraction of Ngaphechaung Monastery on Inle Lake monastery is its jumping cats. Monks at the monastery have taught a few of the many cats living with them to jump through hoops and perform other tricks. Sometimes the cats jumping through flaming cane circles.

Burmese Cats

The original Burmese cat the story goes arrived in the United States in the arms of a sailor who gave the cat to a cat fancier named Dr. Joseph Thompson. The sailor disappeared and it was never ascertained for sure whether the cat actually came from Burma. Burmese cats are known for their intelligence and have been taught to understand action verbs and respond to nouns. [Source: Adolph Suehsdorf, National Geographic, April 1964]

Much of the modern breed has descended from a single female cat, Wong Mau, who was taken to the United States in 1930, according to world pedigree organisation The International Cat Association. The short-haired cats have golden eyes and come in a range of colors from silvery blue to cream, although rich brown is the primary color. [Source: AFP, September 6, 2012 ==]

According to the NGO China Exploration and Research Society (CERS), Burmese cats -- which share characteristics with other regional breeds such as the Siamese -- have existed in mainland Southeast Asia for over a thousand years. The breed was diluted out of existence by an influx of other types of cats to the region in the 19th and 20th century, with only a handful of purebreds taken to Britain during colonial rule, which ended in 1948. ==

Saving Burmese Cats in Burma

In September 2012, AFP reported: “They are known for their sleek good looks, alluring eyes and sunny disposition, but one group of "Burmese" are virtually unknown in modern Myanmar -- the country's namesake pedigree cats. Once believed to be the favoured pet of royalty and guardians of temples, the Burmese cat had vanished from its Southeast Asian ancestral homeland until enthusiasts decided to return them. Yin Myo Su, who took on the project with the aim of preserving the country's heritage, has installed a growing family of the pedigree cats in a house on the shores of Inle Lake, in eastern Shan State. [Source: AFP, September 6, 2012 ==]

“The hotelier hopes to raise the profile of the breed among Myanmar people and even gave one to democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi -- what seemed like a sure-fire strategy to give the cats a badly needed public relations boost. But the Nobel Peace Prize winner's notoriously possessive dog became "jealous" of the feline intruder and Suu Kyi was forced to send the cat back."So now we are taking care of her cat at home as well! In case one day she can take it back with her," Yin Myo Su told AFP. ==

“From just seven cats imported in 2008 -- some sourced from Britain's Harrods department store -- the project now has 50 moggies living around Inle, including nine kittens, and has become a tourist draw. A further 17 have been given to cat lovers in Shan State and the main city of Yangon. Yin Myo Su -- who has pursued the project despite a slight allergy to felines -- gives neutered Burmese cats to interested local people free and charges foreigners 500,000 kyats ($580). "They like to be cuddled all the time," she said at the cats' home, the Inthar Heritage House, as a purring chocolate brown feline wound itself around her feet before collapsing onto its back for a tickle. ==

The idea of repatriating Burmese cats came from the China Exploration and Research Society (CERS), whose activities have included tracing a new source of the Yangtze river and promoting a yak cheese cottage industry in the Chinese province of Yunnan. "We are quite happy with the reproduction because we got (mostly) original colors," said Yin Myo Su, who runs the upmarket Inle Princess hotel. She has two of the pedigree moggies at home in a menagerie of animals that she calls a "mini zoo", including ducks, pigs, goats, geese and a monkey they have to keep hold of because it was "a gift from a monk". ==

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, The Irrawaddy, Myanmar Travel Information Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, burmalibrary.org, burmanet.org, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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