Casino debate fails to gain traction

Casino debate fails to gain traction

Special report: Fans of legal gambling fall short in making case

The youth networks protest against the initiative to legalise the establishment of casino in Thailand at the parliament on June 18, 2014. (Bangkok Post photo)
The youth networks protest against the initiative to legalise the establishment of casino in Thailand at the parliament on June 18, 2014. (Bangkok Post photo)

Calls to legalise casinos are losing steam after Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha put a brake on the idea. However, the controversy has left questions in its wake.

The group of 12 National Reform Council (NRC) members, who called for a law change to legalise casinos, have not done enough to make their case since they issued their call more than a week ago, says Thanakon Komkrit, coordinator of the Yut Phanan Network, an anti-gambling group.

Apparently in no mood to wait for an answer, Gen Prayut last Wednesday said he had ordered a key supporter of the legal casinos cause, national police chief Somyot Poompunmuang, to stop speaking in favour of the idea, as he had more pressing problems to consider.

Gen Prayut said the casino-cum-entertainment complex idea needs more study, but he added it was unlikely to come to fruition under his government.

The debate appears to have fizzled out, just as previous calls under past governments died out, after failing to gain traction.

The idea came up under the Thaksin Shinawatra administration in 2004, the Samak Sundaravej administration in 2008 and the Yingluck Shinawatra administration in 2011.

Mr Thanakon said the 12 NRC members who backed the idea, and proposed it as part of the "Rak Chart" group, failed to put up a detailed proposal to convince opponents who reject legalising casinos on moral grounds.

"The group attempted to revive the idea, which was shot down under past governments, but gave no further details to support it, so I'm not sure why they sought to reignite it," Mr Thanakon said.

Rak Chart member Maj Anan Watcharothai said casinos could help the government earn extra revenue for development.

It would also pull in income from the tourists who now spend their money in the 22 casinos in neighbouring countries.

His group suggests building a casino in the Pattaya beach area in Chon Buri province, renowned internationally as an entertainment hub in Thailand.

But the critics ask who would manage and regulate the casinos? Would it be another place for criminals to launder their money?

Would the potential social impacts be ignored in the discussion? These are just a few examples of the burning questions in Mr Thanakon's mind. 

Though his group stands firm in its rejection of gambling, "we are not so extreme that we listen to no voices different from ours", he said.

His group was ready to debate casinos if proponents back their ideas with more solid information.

Scholar and NRC member Sangsidh Piriyarangsan said casinos might be acceptable if they are part of entertainment activities for foreigners attending international conferences here.

This could make Thailand a more attractive choice for conference organisers, which was one benefit.

Authorities could also regulate casinos to serve target customers or well-to-do people to avoid possible social impacts caused by gamblers with poor financial status, Mr Sangsidh said.

Mr Thanakon said the debate should focus on all aspects of gambling to find out how the country can correctly approach the issue, as casinos can be considered both a joy for some and source of distress for others.

That is reflected in research on the treatment of gamblers, by Suphon Aphinanthawet, a child psychiatrist with the Faculty of Medicine, Siriraj Hospital.

She cited American psychiatrists who categorise "gambling disorder," which refers to people addicted to gambling, in the same group as drug addiction.

Gambling and drugs were found to be related as teenagers who enjoy gambling are at 20 times greater risk of becoming drug addicts than other youngsters, said Mathurada Suwannapho, director of the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Unit, Rajanagarindra Institute.

The state makes few efforts to bring gambling under control, says NRC member Seree Suwanpanont, adding he finds it hard to trust the Gambling Act, which has been in place for 80 years.

But while the country needs a fresh approach to the problem, it seems that whenever people raise the casino issue, they end up a sudden target of criticism.

"We never have clear proposals to solve the problem," he said.

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