Gambling epidemic snares Burma's poor

People living on just $3 a day spend half of their incomes on illegal wagers

As the clock ticks towards noon, the Sky Cafe in Rangoon's shabby Daubon Township starts to fill up. Young women carrying babies, men from the bicycle repair shop across the road, and old ladies smoking cheroots take their places on the small plastic chairs. By 11.55am, the wooden shack is packed, and a waiter revs up the generator to power the big TV in the corner. In an atmosphere of anticipation, the crowd is waiting for the Bangkok stock exchange price at its lunchtime close.

These are not people who have ever owned shares in anything. They are day labourers, hawkers, and low-ranking civil servants with earnings of around $3 (£1.80) a day. Their interest is not in the performance of the stock market, but in the random, final two digits of the share price, on which most bet at least half of their daily wages.

Gambling is an epidemic spreading unchecked among Burma's poor. This is a country with no political freedom, few economic choices and little hope. Its military leaders have kept democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi locked up for most of the last 20 years, and have presided over an economic slump while neighbouring countries have prospered. In the crowded townships of the former capital Rangoon, in decaying market towns and impoverished rural villages, everyone, it seems, is trying to bet their way out of a miserable existence.

Kyaw Kyaw works for his family business, repairing motors and generators on the ground floor of their house. For him, betting is something to look forward to: "Twice a day I have hope." The 35-year-old gambles on the "two digits" lottery both lunchtime and evening, giving a dollar each time to the saleswomen who go door to door taking bets. These women take a 10 per cent cut and hand the bets over to the bigger bookmakers. Kyaw Kyaw has a one in 99 chance of winning, and if he does, he'll get 80 times his stake. Like all Burma's small-time gamblers, he loses nearly every day. But the wins are what he remembers. "When I win I'll go out and buy lots of food, and we'll cook for my family and my friends," he said.

While the two digits they bet on are random and completely unpredictable, punters spend hours studying the form. Kyaw Kyaw's 81-year-old grandfather, sitting cross-legged on his wooden bed, studies printouts of the last months of numbers with studious concentration. He is looking for patterns, sequences and if he thinks he's found a good one, he may place a bigger bet than usual. Other gamblers consult Buddhist monks, astrologers or their dreams.

At the Sky Cafe, the stock price flashes up on Thai TV, beamed in by an illegal satellite dish on the roof. There is a lone whoop from the back, but no one else seems to have won. The crowd murmurs with quiet disappointment. "They don't believe it, they always think they're going to win," says my translator, who has brought me here from central Rangoon in a wooden-floored 1950s bus.

Burma's addiction to gambling has a price. While the ruling generals enrich themselves by selling off the country's gas, timber and rubies, their mishandling of the economy means those at the bottom of society have nothing, perhaps just a bamboo shelter with a tarpaulin roof. There is no social safety net, nothing to stop a family from going under when the betting losses add up.

"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," said a Burmese aid worker who runs self-help groups for poor women living in shanty towns. "Last week I saw a woman begging, holding a child. My friend told me she used to own a house, a good house, but because of the lottery she lost everything. She became a beggar. Sometimes they sleep in the market." As the poor lose, Burma's bookmakers are getting richer. Although this is an illegal business, and anyone caught gambling or taking bets could receive a prison sentence of between three months and two years, a bribe will see off most policemen – who also expect a cut if someone in the neighbourhood wins big.

In a comfortable, breezy apartment with a parquet floor and expensive teak furniture, three men in white vests and chequered longyis sit around a table , scribbling down numbers as the bets come in via mobile phone. Running the operation is a 47-year-old doctor who can earn far more as an illegal bookmaker than tending to patients in a Rangoon government hospital, where the standard salary for a general practitioner is $80 a month.

When the Bangkok exchange closing price is called through, he throws his hands up and smiles. "I've lost," he says, "11 lak [around $1,000] this week." But some weeks he makes double that amount, twice his annual doctor's salary. "This job gives me freedom," he says.

Economic woes: A struggling nation

9.4 per cent: Proportion of the population who are unemployed

32.7 per cent: Proportion of population who live below the poverty line

$1,200: GDP per capita

27.3 per cent: Rate of inflation

61: Male life expectancy

66: Female life expectancy

47.61: number of infant deaths per 1,000 live births

Source: CIA World Factbook

Life and Style
Customers can get their caffeine fix on the move
food + drink
Life and Style
techCould new invention save millions in healthcare bills?
Sport
David Moyes gets soaked
sport Moyes becomes latest manager to take part in the ALS challenge
Voices
Mosul dam was retaken with the help of the US
voicesRobert Fisk: Barack Obama is following the jihadists’ script
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Life and Style
Black Ivory Coffee is made using beans plucked from elephants' waste after ingested by the animals
food + drinkFirm says it has created the "rarest" coffee in the world
Arts and Entertainment
Loaded weapon: drugs have surprise side effects for Scarlett Johansson in Luc Besson’s ‘Lucy’
filmReview: Lucy, Luc Besson's complex thriller
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T plays live in 2007 before going on hiatus from 2010
arts + entsSinger-songwriter will perform on the Festival Republic Stage
Life and Style
food + drinkThese simple recipes will have you refreshed within minutes
News
peoplePamela Anderson rejects ice bucket challenge because of ALS experiments on animals
Arts and Entertainment
tvExecutive says content is not 'without any purpose'
News
A cleaner prepares the red carpet for the opening night during the 59th International Cannes Film Festival May 17, 2006 in Cannes, France.
newsPowerful vacuum cleaners to be banned under EU regulations
News
newsChester Zoo have revealed their newest members
Sport
sportLeague Managers' Association had described Malky Mackay texts as 'friendly banter'
Life and Style
fashion
Arts and Entertainment
tvSpielberg involved in bringing his 2002 film to the small screen
News
peopleCareer spanned 70 years, including work with Holocaust survivors
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Structural Engineer

Competitive: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: Structural Engineer Job...

Generalist HR Administrator, Tunbridge Wells, Kent - £28,000.

£25000 - £28000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Generalist HR Administrator - Tunbri...

Head of IT (Not-for-Profit sector) - East Sussex

£45000 - £50000 per annum + 5 weeks holiday & benefits: Ashdown Group: Head of...

KS1 teachers needed in Peterborough

£110 - £125 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Randstad Education are ur...

Day In a Page

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

Nick Clegg the movie

Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

Waxing lyrical

Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

Revealed (to the minute)

The precise time when impressionism was born
From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

Make the most of British tomatoes

The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape