The idea floated by Deputy Prime Minister Somsak Thepsutin of legalising online gambling to boost government revenue has come under fire as critics believe the pursuit will be hard to control and will cause multiple social problems.
Mr Somsak, who supervises the Justice Ministry, made the remarks following reports that eight policemen were found to be involved in online gambling operations, which led to cybercrime police raiding 30 locations in six provinces on Sept 25.
They included five houses occupied by deputy national police chief Surachate "Big Joke" Hakparn.
The targets were those allegedly involved in the online gambling network dubbed "Betflix". Most forms of betting are illegal in Thailand.
He said more forms of gambling should be legalised, for example football. As of now, the state and the public do not benefit from gambling taxes, he said.
If these were taxed like other gambling activities which the Interior Ministry has licensed, including bull and cock fighting, state revenue would increase.
He said he would discuss the issue with the Strategic Transformation Office and possibly make a proposal to cabinet.
Online gambling, he says, involves huge amounts of money. The government could collect taxes and use that money to help people with disabilities, the elderly and underprivileged, the deputy prime minister said.
Deputy Prime Minister Somsak Thepsutin
Visanu Vongsinsirikul, an economics scholar, told the Bangkok Post that the internet brings together all forms of betting and people can gamble on apps, websites, on smart phones or computers.
"The problem is how to protect children and young people from online gambling. Even adults are likely to become addicted to it.
"Online gambling is easily accessible, and people can gamble anywhere, anytime,'' Mr Visanu said.
"The problem is different from that involving legalising casinos. The online platform brings together all forms of gambling and people can always gamble, meaning it is hard to control or curb the number of gamblers.
"It will not only lead to people becoming more addicted to gambling, but it is also linked with other problems such as money-laundering and credit card forgery,'' he said.
"Online gambling should be the last to be legalised. You can even gamble in your bedroom and who can arrest you?'' he said.
Mr Visanu said that if the government wants to legalise online gambling to collect revenue from it, it can allow companies operating online gambling websites to be established legally in the country.
"For example, most online baccarat games come from Poi Pet in Cambodia. If a bookmaker is allowed to operate legally in Thailand, income will remain in the hands of the main company in Cambodia, anyway,'' he said.
He added online gambling is legal in only a few countries. In the US, it is allowed only in some states while the only legal form of online gambling in Singapore is online football betting.
"Legalising online gambling should be considered carefully. It should be the last option because it is hard to control and set criteria for,'' Mr Visanu said.
Nonarit Bisonyabut, a senior research fellow at the Thailand Development Research Institute, told The Bangkok Post that gambling is a source of multiple problems.
"Legalising gambling is not a solution and social problems will not disappear.
"If gambling is to be legalised, it should be allowed on a limited scale, such as setting up a casino in each region with a set of criteria for screening people and it should be for the purpose of promoting tourism,'' he said.
Mr Nonarit said legalised gambling in some countries is still limited in scale. For example, money bet on football gambling is limited to no more than US$1,000 (37,000 baht) per match, he said.
"But this cannot be applied in Thailand because many Thais can gamble on anything. A full campaign must be launched against large-scale gambling,'' he said.
Nonarit: 'Source of multiple problems'
Not worth the risk
Thanakorn Khomkris, director of the Stop Gambling Network, said legalising gambling is easier said than done.
The government should prioritise the strict enforcement of the law against major illegal gambling operators and amend laws to tighten control over gambling, he said.
He said there are several agencies involved in dealing with gambling such as the Royal Thai Police, the Interior Ministry, the National Broadcasting and Telecommunication Commission, and the Anti-Money Laundering Office.
"But each of them only touches upon the issue and no agency is leading the charge or taking a prominent role in tackling the problem,'' Mr Thanakorn said.
He echoed the view that legalising online gambling will do more harm than good, saying people can have easy access to it and gamble all the time and it is more difficult to control than onsite gambling.
While the government may collect more taxes from legalised gambling, more social problems, crime and corruption will stem from it, he said.
"Legalising gambling is not worth the risk. Thailand may stand to lose Chinese tourists as the Chinese government dissuades its citizens from visiting countries where casinos are permitted,'' Mr Thanakorn said.
He said the Chinese government disapproves of gambling as it is a source of corruption and it plans to turn Macau, a world-renowned gambling hub, into a city of innovation and creative business.
"Creative business is becoming a global trend while the idea to legalise gambling in Thailand goes against such a trend,'' Mr Thanakorn said.
Thanakorn: 'Not worth the risk'
A source at the Central Investigation Bureau told the Bangkok Post that online gambling operators have paid kickbacks to some police offices, causing it to become widespread.
The source said some police support the idea of legalising online gambling and permitting legal gambling dens so the government can collect taxes to boost state coffers instead of money changing hands under the table.
The source added that even if online gambling is legalised, other forms of illegal gambling remain and the government has to keep up efforts to curb them.
The Bhumjaithai Party previously urged the government to speed up its legal casino project as that could help tackle the problem of gambling dens, illegal online gambling and fraud.
Bhumjaithai MP Saritpong Kiewkhong said he would like the government to consider legalising casinos to end corruption and gain revenue from legal gambling.
He said illegal casino operators have paid kickbacks to many police and government officials who exploit the law's loopholes.
Legalising casinos means that online gambling sites and offline casinos would come under government inspection.
In January, a special House committee came up with its study on the feasibility of building entertainment complexes, including legal casinos, due to their lucrative potential.
According to the study, such a complex would cost US$8 billion, or 280 billion baht. It would take five years to build and employ 30,000 people.
The report says one could be built in Bangkok, the Eastern Economic Corridor , or at any of 22 main tourist hotspots.
It could also be located within a 100-kilometre radius of an international airport, or in border provinces with permanent immigration checkpoints, such as Phuket, Phangnga, Krabi, Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, and Phayao, among others.
Eight types of gambling activities should be permitted, it said, including online casinos, betting on the stock exchange index and foreign exchange rates, and betting on sporting events.