July 7, 2023

Anti-junta groups try their luck with lottery schemes

Frontier Myanmar


As the costs of waging revolution and providing public services continue to mount, ethnic-based organisations have followed the example of the parallel National Unity Government by launching lotteries to raise funds.

The NUG, founded by lawmakers deposed by the 2021 coup, started the Spring Lottery later that year, mostly to support striking civil servants who joined the Civil Disobedience Movement in defiance of the new junta.

More recently, the Ta’ang National Education Committee, which runs schools in ethnic Ta’ang areas of northern Shan State that are outside of junta control, has launched its own prize draw. It started selling lottery tickets last month and announced the winners on July 1, with the top prize of K50 million (US$28,800) going to a resident of Muse Township on the Chinese border.

The committee said 70 percent of the proceeds would be spent on about 400 former government schools that were forced to close after the coup, due to insecurity and state education staff joining the CDM. These schools resumed classes last year under the management of the TNEC, using alternative curricula taught by CDM and volunteer teachers. Although operating in territory now held by the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, the committee claims to be independent of the ethnic armed group.

A ticket agent told Frontier the aim was to ensure teachers receive a regular salary and relieve parents of the financial burden. He added that about 120,000 tickets, costing K2,000 ($1) each, were sold online and in person in towns and villages of northern Shan, with agents receiving a 10pc commission.

“Most buyers are not interested in winning and regard buying tickets as a donation,” the agent said. 

However, this and other lotteries launched in ethnic states face a range of obstacles. These include limited internet connectivity; difficulties distributing paper tickets in remote, conflict-affected rural areas; the risk of retribution from the junta, which has cracked down hard on resistance funding; and in some places, cultural taboos around gambling.

These prize draws will therefore likely remain one funding stream among many for groups that are either trying to overthrow the junta or provide parallel education, health and administrative services. They will also have to compete with efforts by the regime to revive the Myanmar state lottery, including through a new online system, after a post-coup public boycott dramatically reduced an important source of revenue for the generals.

Gambling on victory

Among the ethnic armed groups that use a lottery for fund-raising is the Karen National Union. Its Thoolei Lottery, whose name echoes the Karen word for their ethnic homeland in southeast Myanmar, Kawthoolei, was launched in May last year with the stated purpose of funding the fight against military rule as well as public services in Karen areas. 

The Thoolei Lottery, which is drawn on the first day of the month, was initially only available online, but paper ticket sales were introduced from the fifth draw, in September last year. Sales agents, who are paid a commission, have been partly recruited from among people displaced by conflict.

Tickets cost K4,000 and can be bought in nine different currencies, including kyat, Thai baht, Japanese yen, Australian dollar and Swedish krona. Draws are broadcast live on Facebook, with a top prize of K10 million. Figures for ticket sales and revenue have not been published, and Frontier’s calls to lottery officials went unanswered.

On the other side of the country, in Chin State, the Chin Relief Funding Program launched its digital Tumi Lottery in April last year. A lottery official said 70pc of the proceeds support Chin revolutionary groups and fund reconstruction efforts in a state that has seen some of the heaviest conflict since the coup. Five percent, meanwhile, goes towards administrative and other project costs, while the remaining 25pc is for prize-winners.

The lottery is named after the hand-made, single-shot “tumi” rifles that have been traditionally used to hunt game in Chin and elsewhere in the country, before the resistance groups that emerged after the coup began firing them at better-armed regime forces.

Tickets cost $5 and top prize in the 14th draw at the end of June was $1,300. The runner-up receives only $40 and the third prize is $30. 

The lottery official said it was generating at least K3 million ($1,430) a month for the resistance, but sometimes substantially more than that. “In some months, we can provide tens of millions of kyat to Chin revolutionary forces through lottery proceeds and donations to the CRFP,” the official said.

However, with a single assault rifle costing upwards of K10 million on the black market, these funds are just a fraction of what these resistance groups need to challenge the military.

Nonetheless, the CRFP intends for the lottery to become a vital state institution under a future federal system, when it will be renamed the Federal Lottery. “The Federal lottery could become an important source of revenue for a state like Chin that produces few of its own goods,” the official said.

Cultural taboos and other challenges

The Tumi Lottery official said because the revolution required a lot of money and there was no telling how long it would take, people should participate in the lotteries “until the end”. But in Chin, religious scruples are standing in the way of increased ticket sales.

According to the 2014 census, Chin is about 85pc Christian and is the only state or region with a non-Buddhist majority.

“I don’t buy tickets because lotteries are a form of gambling, which is against my religion,” said a rural resident of Chin’s Matupi Township. “As far as I know, few here are interested in buying Tumi Lottery tickets.”

The lottery official admitted that buyer resistance is a problem, saying, “Communities associate lotteries with gambling and are reluctant to buy.”

Another resident of rural Matupi agreed that “people usually don’t buy lottery tickets because it’s against their religious beliefs” but added, “The lottery is for the revolution and for our own people, and I think they should buy it. The younger generation understands this.” 

Another problem is that many people can’t buy tickets because they lack internet access and have no other means of taking part. In Chin, as in other major conflict areas, the junta has imposed a prolonged internet blackout to disrupt resistance activity. This places a greater onus on the substantial Chin diaspora elsewhere in Myanmar and overseas.

The lottery official said that because tickets in the Tumi Lottery can only be bought online, some people within the state had opted to support the revolution in other ways. “That’s why we are also trying to find more convenient ways [to sell tickets],” he said.

An agent who sells tickets for the Ta’ang lottery online said there were many more buyers from lowland areas, outside of the Ta’ang heartland in the mountains of northern Shan, where connectivity is weak even though the regime has not shut down the internet.“About 90 percent of my customers are from the lowlands. Perhaps that is because I sell online and internet connections are unreliable in our region,” he said.

The vendor added that many wanted to buy tickets but were too worried about their safety. Security is a big concern at a time when the junta is handing people multi-year prison sentences under the Counter-Terrorism Law for allegedly funding resistance groups. 

“Although the Ta’ang lottery is to raise funds for education, it emerged after the coup,” he added, suggesting that this alone would invite the suspicion of the junta. The regime, however, has regularly targeted public services in areas controlled by resistance groups – most notoriously, in an airstrike on a parallel civil administration office in Sagaing Region’s Kantbalu Township in April, which is estimated to have killed more than 150 people.

As for the Thoolei Lottery, efforts to side-step limited internet access through door-to-door sales have run into logistical problems. These are particularly pressing in the largely mountainous Karen areas of Kayin and Mon states, and Bago and Tanintharyi regions, many of which have seen intense conflict since the coup. 

“The residents of our township want to support the Thoolei Lottery but they cannot buy enough tickets because of weak distribution,” said a Karen resident of Kayin State’s Kawkareik Township.

One constraint is that there aren’t nearly enough tickets to distribute in the first place. There are more than 360 households in each village tract in Kawkareik but, as in other townships, each village tract is allocated only 27 tickets, the resident explained.

Junta takes spurned state lottery online

While more recent lotteries in ethnic states are being fine-tuned, the Spring Lottery established by the NUG held its 20th draw on July 1.

The lottery has run since August 2021, barring a suspension for several months last year to resolve technical and security problems. Tickets costing K2,000 can be bought via the online payment app NUGPay. 

The parallel government says the lottery scheme had raised a total of K918.8 million by April this year, with 70pc going to support those who joined the CDM and the balance allocated to prize money. Winners in the monthly lottery get K10 million, with certificates awarded to those who donate their prize money to the NUG.

A Yangon resident who describes himself as a regular participant said the public should continue to take part in “the revolution lottery”, especially those who are financially comfortable. “Even if they don’t win, it is a way of supporting the revolution,” she said.

Meanwhile, the junta launched online sales of the state’s long-running Aung Bar Lay lottery last month in partnership with Mytel, a partly military owned telecommunications company.

In comments at the launch of online sales on June 8, junta chief Senior General Min Aung hyped the convenience of using the Aung Bar Lay app to buy tickets on mobile phones, and urged the public to try their luck.

The junta likely hopes online sales will counter a public boycott of the state lottery that was launched after the coup, which decimated a useful revenue stream.

This revenue almost halved from K160 billion in the 2019-20 financial year to K85 billion in the following year, when the military seized power, according to figures from the Internal Revenue Department.  

With monthly sales dropping by as much as 90pc as 2021 progressed, the department reduced the top prize to K500 million, from K1.5 billion before the coup.

In September of that year, it also changed the amount of sales revenue that went to lottery winners, rather than state coffers, from 60 to 70pc, in an apparent attempt to stop prize money falling further. The change may also have been spurred by the Spring Lottery, which launched the month before.

Since 2021, sales have partially recovered but remain well below pre-coup levels. The new app may boost sales further, partly because it allows people to buy tickets discreetly. Before, they risked public disapproval for breaking the boycott when buying from streetside vendors.

“Those who wanted to buy tickets but were afraid of being seen or judged can buy them quietly through the online system,” said a woman who lives in Pyinmana Township, on the outskirts of the capital Nay Pyi Taw.

At K1,000, a ticket in the state lottery is also considerably cheaper than in the newer resistance-run and ethnic lotteries, and the prize money is many times higher.

The IRD said that in June, following the launch of online sales, the lottery generated K5.1 billion, an increase of about K100 million from May. This enabled it to introduce a runner-up prize of K200 million for the draw on July 1, with the top prize remaining K500 million. 

These are sums that anti-junta groups can only dream of. But for organisations running a local network of schools or waging guerrilla warfare, every kyat counts.

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