Thailand considers a gamble on Singapore-style casinos, online betting to boost state coffers. Will it pay off?
The current sources of online gambling Thailand are illegal and have long been connected to various criminal activities, such as money laundering, drug and human trafficking.
Extensive scamming operations working in close proximity to gambling dens in border areas have been well documented.
Thai police officers have also been connected to such illicit activities. Last September, several officers were found to be involved in running illegal online gambling sites, which led to raids at multiple locations, including houses belonging to Thailand’s deputy national police chief Surachate “Big Joke” Hakparn.
At present, it is estimated that vast sums of Thai money are leaking out of the country via illegal gambling, offshore and online.
Legalising on-site casinos has been framed as one solution to diverting money away from such activity, into the coffers of the government instead.
Mr Karit Pannaim, a Move Forward Party MP and member of the parliamentary committee studying the legalisation proposal said he believes legal casinos could make a dent in the illegal activities occurring in border gambling dens, including in the province he represents, Tak, on the border with Myanmar.
“If we have an entertainment complex, we will reduce the money that flows along the borders,” he said.
But identifying the scale of illegal gambling in Thailand is very difficult, according to Dr Nualnoi. She said the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in a sharp rise in online gambling within the country, when gamblers were unable to cross the border.
Her centre’s research found that the number of online gamblers in Thailand doubled to 1.9 million people in 2021 during the worst of the lockdown periods. Gross gaming revenue in the country was estimated at US$2.8 billion for that year.
“A lot of them play inside the country now. And the ones who are providing this online gambling are all Thai,” she told CNA.
“If you have legal casinos, it doesn’t mean illegal casinos will disappear. It’s another story,” said. “When you have legal casinos, you need to supplant the illegal ones, otherwise they’re just other places for people to gamble in the country.”
Mr Thanakorn Komkris, the secretary-general of Stop Gambling Foundation, said without a proper crackdown on such illegal operations, Thailand cannot hope to have a sustainable gambling industry.
“If we don’t want the people to spend money outside the country, the government should put pressure in every way possible to stop people from accessing this (illegal gambling). Legal gambling doesn’t decrease illegal gambling,” he said.
The government announced last year that it had shut down thousands of gaming sites and dealt with thousands of illegal gambling cases.
Mr Thanakorn said he is still worried that the government will rush legislation that does not ensure the industry is properly controlled and managed.
“I’m also afraid that it will be done in a way that it’s an excuse to do a ‘sandbox’ or they legalise it first and do the control measures after, like the decriminalisation of cannabis,” he said.
The legalisation of cannabis in Thailand in 2022 – namely allowing its possession, cultivation, distribution, consumption, and sale – came hard and fast.
Throughout the country, especially in popular tourist cities, marijuana dispensaries surfaced at a rapid pace and the industry had enjoyed freewheeling liberties to expand. This month, the government said it would urgently introduce a bill to ban recreational use of the drug.
“We have a lot of lessons about doing it first and fixing it later. We can’t do this because we will not be able to catch up with problems or stop it later,” Mr Thanakorn said.
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