Ethnic rebels in Myanmar attacked casinos and security forces’ command posts near Muse, a town in Shan State on the country’s border with China. Insurgents say the casinos are a target, because they are a center of cross-border drug smuggling and other social problems.
The casino attacks are a further sign of the rampant ethnic strife in Myanmar, sometimes referred to by foreigners as Burma. While much of the international media focuses on the ethnic cleansing of Myanmar’s Rohingya people, the clashes along the Myanmar-China border involve the Ta’ang or Palaung ethnic groups.
The Ta’ang or Palaung are members of the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), which want greater autonomy for ethnic minorities in the northernmost province of Myanmar, Kachin State. The TNLA fights against local police forces and government-backed militias.
Casino Attacks Were Retaliation
TNLA members say the casino attacks were retaliation for recent government strikes against the Kachin Independence Army, which is an ally of the TNLA. The retaliatory strikes killed 19 people, including four members of the paramilitary forces.
Colonel Tar Aik Kyaw, a spokesman for the TNLA, admitted that civilians were caught in the crossfire during one of the casino attacks, near the border town of Muse.
Tar Aik Kyaw said, “The militia are protecting the casinos — those casinos are the gateway for distributing drugs. Many civilians they go to the casinos and it causes many social problems, so we launched a major assault.”
Chinese-Myanmar Border Casinos
Border town casinos are a common feature throughout much of Southeast Asia. States like Myanmar and Thailand ban land-based casinos, so border casinos spring up on the border to attract gamblers from adjacent countries. Because China has a ban on casino gambling outside Macau, casinos on the Chinese border are particularly lucrative.
Gambling dens on the Myanmar-China border host Chinese gamblers mostly. Because communities in Myanmar encourage the influx of cash, border crossings are waived through by Myanmar’s police. The commerce allows for the trafficking of drugs into China. Since the local casino is where much of financial activity takes place, it is a natural site for drug smuggling — or at least drug deals.
Myanmar’s police and paramilitary forces protect the casino’s patrons, for various reasons. Chinese communist officials and their families are known to gamble in Myanmar’s casinos. A few years back, Chinese Communist party officials and their children reportedly were losing big money in Myanmar casinos. One raid across the border might have been linked to gambling debts . With such incursions rare but always a possibility, protecting local ethnic Chinese gamblers is important to border forces.
Myanmar Government Calls Casino Attacks “Terrorism”
Myanmar government spokesman Zaw Htay described the TNLA’s actions as terrorist attacks. Htay said, “Now the Myanmar military is attacking and following them. They ran away after attacking the civilian targets. This is not an ethnic rights movement, this is a terrorist attack.”
Zaw Htay emphasized that the attack killed 15 civilians, including 2 women. Another 20 civilians were injured in the attack. The government earlier had warned that Ta’ang National Liberation Army and the Kachin Independence Army were making plans to attack the town of Lashio, which is about 75 miles from Muse.
Shan State Politics
Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Prize Laureate (1991) and civilian leader of the National League for Democracy in the area, managed to broker a ceasefire between Myanmar and the 2 of the 8 insurgent groups in the area. She said she shares powers with the rebel military, though, and cannot bring the TLNA to the negotiating table.
Last year, insurgents dressed in police uniforms killed 30 people in Laukkai, a main town in the Chinese-speaking Kokang region in Shan State. The Myanmar Nationalities Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) has been fighting since 2015, when decades-long conflicts intensified. The 2015 fighting left scores dead and forced tens of thousands of refugees to flee across the border into China.
In June 2017, rebels raided Laukkai’s casinos and seized an estimated $70 million in casino funds. The MNDAA’s casino raid injured 100 civilians and was a main reason people fled into China.
Rohingya Refugee Crisis
While the fighting continues in the northern part of the country, in the western part of Myanmar, the Rohingya refugee crisis continues unabated. Even as the casino attacks were transpiring, a UN Security Council delegation was visiting Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh. The 700,000 refugees there described a policy of rape, murder, and other atrocities committed by Myanmar’s “security forces” — which include a combination of the Myanmar military, police, and unofficial paramilitary forces.
Bangladesh Offical Calls Myanmar Government “Evil”
Some international relief workers term the Rohingya crisis as genocide. Others use the more modern terminology of ethnic cleaning. Bangladesh’s Finance Minister, Abul Maal Abdul Muhith, simply described the Myanmar government as “evil”.
Abul Maal Abdul Muhith said the refugees likely never would return to Myanmar. Talking to Hindu Business Online, the Bengali government minister said, “I do not believe the Rohingya can be sent back. You can speculate that very few will return to Burma. The first reason is that Burma will only take a few and secondly is that the refugees will never return if they fear persecution.”