Gambling in Myamar
Maijayang, Myanmar, Oct 4, 2007 - Far from the crackdown in the rest of the country, Myanmar's lawless northeast has a distinctly Chinese feel as gamblers eager for a turn at the baccarat table cross into the Southeast Asian nation in droves.
Betting is illegal in China, so thousands of Chinese flock to the relative safety of Maijayang to try their luck at the mafia-run casinos on this Myanmar frontier town.
Shielded by Myanmar's lush green mountains, surrounded by a wall of dense sugarcane fields, Maijayang rises from these ancient lands in Kachin State -- which is effectively run by former rebels -- like a forbidden fortress.
While world leaders condemn a bloody crackdown by security forces against mass protests in Myanmar's main city Yangon and elsewhere, little is taboo in this sinners' paradise.
Business is roaring here, handily located just 20 minutes by motorbike from the border along pot-holed dirt roads that wind through picture-perfect paddy fields.
"Whatever you need we can take care of, gambling, drugs, girls -- all of it can be arranged," a former casino employee surnamed Wang said as he escorted an AFP journalist past Myanmar border guards to Maijayang.
Visas are required to enter Myanmar but are easily bypassed here in Kachin, where the rebel Kachin Independence Organisation and a fragmented coalition of warlords hold sway over an area bordering China's Yunnan province.
After paying the guards, Wang buzzed through the town gates, past rows of low-slung, white-tiled buildings that advertise hotels, restaurants, gems and massage parlours that double as brothels -- all in Chinese script.
At first glance Maijayang may look like any other small town in China, but police with hard stares patrol the streets where cars with Myanmar plates make it clear what country this is.
Inside International Entertainment, one of 11 casinos here, slot machines buzz and sing, as Chinese croupiers in maroon vests call for bets at blackjack and baccarat tables crowded by mostly Chinese patrons.
Suggesting a professionalism behind the operations, cameras are trained on each of the seven sprawling rooms packed with players, while shifty looking men who do not appear to be betting move around the floor.
"If the odds were deliberately stacked or players felt that it was not professionally run they would not come," said Michael Backman, an Asia analyst and author who has researched cross-border casinos in the region.
"A lot of the border casinos are very professional."
According to one Chinese man who has worked in three of Maijayang's casinos, operations are headed by a Chinese mafia boss in Ruili, a Chinese border town built on the illicit drug, gemstone and timber trade.
The popularity of Maijayang and another frontier casino further north in Laiza exploded after Chinese authorities last year cracked down on the multiple gambling dens in Ruili, about 45 kilometres (30 miles) south of here.
Chinese casino owners in Maijayang operate with impunity, as the gambling dens' extra-territorial location means they are beyond the reach of Chinese law.
Protection money is paid to Kachin soldiers but Chinese police also turn a blind eye to the hundreds of daily border violations in return for a piece of the action.
"Everyone takes a cut," said the Chinese man, who asked that his name not be used.
"It is very difficult for the Chinese government to control because the government would need the cooperation of the Myanmar government but they have almost no control over this area run by (the) Kachin army."
But China insists it is doing something.
In early 2005, with the agreement of officials in Shan state, a jungle area of Myanmar south of Kachin and also run by militias, Chinese police swept into the frontier town of Mongla, then a hub of Chinese gambling operations.
Meanwhile the number of casinos operating near China's borders in Myanmar and elsewhere dropped from 149 in 2005 to 28 last year, thanks to a crackdown that netted 445 million dollars in gambling related funds, China's official Xinhua news agency reported in January.
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