BANGKOK – Legalised casinos may be Thailand’s best bet of gaining some control over its multi-billion-dollar underground gambling industry.
From the Prime Minister down to the national police chief, official backing has been pouring in since the proposal was revived recently.
The rationale is simple.
Thais spend an estimated 400 billion baht (S$16.6 billion) in illegal gambling dens within the country and in overseas casinos annually.
The government could use the revenue from taxing just a small percentage of this amount to close the country’s growing budget deficit.
Another benefit would be reduced levels of corruption.
Licensed casinos would no longer have to bribe the police in exchange for protection.
Yet it was not so long ago that few politicians here could or would have openly endorsed the idea.
This is because gambling, with the exception of a state-run lottery, is ‘officially illegal’ despite their being hundreds of underground gambling dens in the country.
And like most contradictions in this society, there is no logical explanation.
Officials have cited a respect for Buddhism and concerns about gambling addiction as reasons for banning casinos in Thailand.
But many people remain unconvinced.
The fact is that gambling – from football UFABet betting to rolling dice, a favourite game among Thai housewives – is popular and widespread.
When Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra raised the casino idea as part of a wider plan to legalise underground activities recently, he struck a common chord with several officials.
Former Premier Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, who is now Mr Thaksin’s deputy, followed up immediately with a call for a casino to be located in Pattaya, a tourist seaside resort.
On Monday, Police Chief Sant Sarutanont weighed in with his support.
‘We cannot tell Thai people to stop gambling. Even when they are at the barber’s having their hair cut, they bet on licence plates and banknote numbers,’ he said.
‘There are underground and mobile gambling dens. We cannot stop them.’
With the exception of opposition politicians, support has also been received from the country’s top lawmakers.
Parliament Speaker Uthai Pimchaichon said casinos had been generally accepted by many countries.
A Thai Senator cited Sri Lanka, which has casinos as well as a large Buddhist population, as an example.
Anti-gambling groups, however, have called for a public referendum, a move which Mr Thaksin supports.
There are major issues to be considered.
Casinos could become money-laundering havens, drug-abuse and prostitution could increase, and productivity could be hit if workers spend too much of their time gambling.
The adverse social consequences would have to be weighed against the monetary and other benefits of legalised gambling.
Thai MP Kobsak Chutikul, a member of an official committee studying the issue, said there were ‘more pros than cons’ to issuing gaming licences.
One of the most persuasive arguments revolved around the belief that Thais are consummate gamblers.
Many of them visit casinos in neighbouring Cambodia, Myanmar and Malaysia with the result that billions of dollars flow out of the country and out of the economy.
The gamblers evade exchange controls by moving their funds to foreign proxy accounts.
Mr Kobsak said the flow of funds could be reversed by keeping these gamblers within the country and, in turn, attracting a significant foreign clientele to casinos here.
‘It will also help remove the hypocrisy in this country,’ he said.
‘Thailand has many gamblers but they have to cross the borders into our neighbours to find casinos.’