Illegal gambling a trump card for opposition in censure debate against govt
Illegal gambling will be among the issues fired at Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and nine members of his Cabinet in next week’s censure debate.
The grilling – scheduled for February 16-19 – comes amid a series of police raids on an underground gambling industry thought to be worth hundreds of billions of baht per year. Among those caught in the police net is internet celebrity Siapo Po-anon, previously known as Apirak “Sia Po” Chat-anon, who is charged with running an online gambling business.
Internet betting is becoming increasingly popular among younger people.
The censure push over illegal gambling will be led by former National Police chief Sereepisuth Temeeyaves, leader of the opposition Seree Ruam Thai Party.
Disputing General Prayut’s claim that “even 100 prime ministers couldn’t solve this problem”, Sereepisuth said recently: “When I was police chief, there were no illegal gambling dens. I was able to do it even though I was not a prime minister. But they [illegal casinos] reopened after I left office.”
‘Trail of corruption’
Sereepisuth, 72, warned he would give the government a lesson or two on “how to suppress illegal gambling dens”. He also threatened to expose the “trail of bribes” that allow this vice to bypass the law and thrive.
“All you need to do [to run illegal gambling] is set up an appointment, show them your phone message confirming the appointment and then pay the bribe in cash. It doesn’t take that long,” Sereepisuth explained.
When asked how far the corruption reaches, the policeman-turned-politician asked: “Who oversees the police then?”
In fact, it’s not only the police who have the power to arrest people over illegal betting. Also empowered are local administrative officers, who have been accused of numerous cases of gambling-related graft. This is why Interior Minister Anupong Paochinda and his deputy Nipon Bunyamanee, who oversee local administrations, are also being targeted in the censure session.
Others in the opposition’s crosshairs are Deputy PM Prawit Wongsuwan, Deputy PM and Public Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul, Deputy PM and Commerce Minister Jurin Laksanawisit, Education Minister Nataphol Teepsuwan, Labour Minister Suchat Chomklin, Transport Minister Saksayam Chidchob and Deputy Agriculture Minister Thamanat Prompow.
Blamed for outbreak
Illegal gambling — estimated to be worth between Bt640 billion and Bt820 billion annually — is partly to blame for Thailand’s new wave of COVID-19 infections. Though most of the 19,000-plus new cases recorded since mid-December were found among Myanmar migrants in Samut Sakhon, many were also linked to illegal casinos – mostly in the eastern seaboard province of Rayong.
Last month, Prayut appointed a high-level committee to tighten law enforcement against illegal gambling dens in a bid to curb the virus outbreak.
Since gambling dens are illegal, the punters and staff tend to hide details of their movements if they are diagnosed with COVID-19.
“Gamblers and gambling den workers often choose not to disclose their travel history or illness. This delays the investigation and control of the disease, which in turn increases the risk of a wider outbreak,” the PM said in his order.
Born to a wealthy family, Apirak “Sia Po” Chat-anon could have made money without courting legal trouble. But this 28-year-old macho internet celebrity chose a different path – one that led to heavily armed police officers showing up at his home this week.
To legalise or not
The perennial question of whether casinos should be legalised came up again after illegal gambling dens were revealed as “super spreaders”. Advocates of legalisation point out that measures to prevent COVID-19 could be applied more strictly at regulated casinos.
Former finance minister Korn Chatikavanij, who now leads the Kla Party, says legalising casinos will not only help contain the spread of the virus, but also boost tax revenue.
Under proper regulation, gambling dens will be required to pay taxes, which the government can use to fund state projects, said Korn, a former senior Democrat Party member.
“Illegal gambling dens are a key source of income for criminal syndicates and feed corruption among state officials. The country’s money also flows to legal casinos overseas, and the secret nature of illegal dens contributes to the spread of COVID-19 in the country,” the politician said recently.
“The answer lies in legalising gambling. With proper regulation and taxation, the money can take care of the people instead of filling the pockets of mafia. But only a courageous prime minister can do this,” Korn said.
Illegal since 1917
Thailand declared gambling dens illegal in 1917 to prevent large swathes of its population from getting addicted and indebted.
Moves were made to set up legal casinos while Thaksin Shinawatra was in power from 2001 to 2006, and then during his proxy governments led by Samak Sundaravej and Thaksin’s sister Yingluck.
The idea of legalising casinos has been raised many times over the years but is usually rejected on ethical or religious grounds.
Opponents say Thailand is a Buddhist country and gambling is a sin. However, observers say this argument is being used to benefit officials whose pockets are regularly filled so illegal casinos can continue operating.
Others warn legal casinos would have a negative effect on society and economy, increasing money laundering, personal debts, crime and gambling addiction.
Tanakorn Komkrit, secretary-general of the Stop Gambling Foundation, has warned that without efficient supervision, legalising casinos could lead to new problems in the future.
“Also, legalisation does not mean underground casinos will disappear completely,” he said.
“Without reform of the police force and serious suppression of criminal syndicates as well as corruption, legalisation of casinos would not offer much of a solution,” the anti-gambling campaigner said.
What about the neighbours?
Thailand’s neighbouring countries, be they Buddhist or Muslim, all allow casinos to operate legally. And up to 80 per cent of their clientele is Thai – though the pandemic has made gambling trips more difficult.
Among the 10 Asean countries, only Thailand and Brunei have made gambling illegal.
In a recent opinion survey, a slim majority of Thais – 50.7 per cent – backed the legalisation of casinos, though 86.3 per cent did not believe it would help prevent the spread of disease.
More than 83 per cent of those surveyed said they have “no interest” in gambling, legal or not.
The survey of 1,929 people was conducted by Suan Dusit University between January 27 and February 5.
In contrast, a majority of 58.5 per cent opposed legalisation of casinos in a survey of 1,093 people in June 2015, while only 35.1 per cent supported it.
By Thai PBS World’s General Desk