Will casinos ever be part of Thailand's landscape?

Will casinos ever be part of Thailand's landscape?
Thai national police chief, Police General Somyot Poompanmoung, who has openly voiced support for legalisation of casinos.
PHOTO: Reuters

Over the past week, there has been intense debate over a proposal to legalise casinos in Thailand. The idea was floated by a group of National Reform Council members, who called themselves "NRC Patriots" and argued that revenue from casino legalisation could help prop up the national economy.

This is a hot potato, as casinos are generally seen as unacceptable in Thai society. Proponents of casinos and their supporters are normally viewed as sinners.

It is not surprising that we do not know the identity of all the NRC members who floated the idea. We just know that two of them are Anan Watcharothai and Boonlert Kachayuthadej, as the other proponents in the NRC have kept a low profile over this issue. They are said to have been shocked by the strong social opposition against the idea, so they do not want to reveal their identity.

It has been rumoured that this group of NRC members was instructed by a powerful figure to float the idea publicly. A fellow NRC member, Sira Jenjaka, claimed that the 'NRC Patriots' were given an order from a powerful figure to do so in exchange for seats in the Reform Movement Council, the body which will replace the NRC.

The NRC is to be dissolved after completing its task of voting on whether to endorse the draft constitution.

Sira said that the "deal" also involved an offer of Bt10 billion (S$397 million) to fund the setting up of a new political party. The ball is now in the court of the 'NRC Patriots', who have to explain themselves against the allegations.

Earlier, executives of a world-class casino business attempted to meet with certain powerful figures in the government, possibly to lobby for the establishment of legal casinos in Thailand.

There was also a surprise move by national police chief, Police General Somyot Poompanmoung, who has openly voiced support for legalisation of casinos. His strong backing for legal casinos has drawn criticism on whether it is proper for the police chief to publicly back an illegal business.

They told him to focus on tackling the problem of police accepting bribes from illegal gambling dens. Some critics also called for the police chief to be dismissed.

Somyot responded that he simply proposed the idea and did no wrong. He said the question should be for "people all over the country" to answer - which appears to suggest the idea should be put to a national referendum.

This issue comes at a time when the country is due to have a referendum on the draft constitution. The amended provisional charter allows two additional questions for the plebiscite, in addition to the one that asks whether voters approve of the draft charter.

If the idea gets sufficient support, there may be a question in the referendum as to whether voters want legal casinos to be set up in Thailand.

However, before going straight to that "big question", we should first try to answer smaller relevant ones.

First, why would we want casinos? Do we want money to help prop up the economy? Do we want to stop the outflow of money to casinos outside the country? Do we want to get rid of bribery from illegal casinos? Or do we want something that is more manageable and controllable?

If those are what we want, the next question is whether legalisation of casinos would be able to meet all those needs. Would revenue from legal casinos be enough to help prop up the economy? And isn't this the money that is already circulating in the country's economic system?

Would local gamblers be prevented from trying their luck overseas? Would we really be able to prevent gambling money from flowing out of the country? This might not be the case if local gamblers faced a lot of rules to enter legal casinos.

If legal casinos were restricted to well-to-do gamblers only, small illegal gambling dens would still be operating to meet the demand.

This in turn would allow corrupt police officers to get bribes, as is the case at present.

Before we ask the question whether casinos should be legalised, we should ask if we would get the expected benefits. If the answer is yes, we could go ahead with legalising casinos.

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