BANGKOK - Thailand's military leaders are cracking down on illegal gambling, which is forecast to soar during the World Cup, as part of a campaign to clean up the country and restore its image.
The national police force said on Monday it had arrested 1,677 people involved in World Cup betting from June 9 to 21 and shut down 675 illegal gambling websites.
"Thais are quite addicted to gambling and the World Cup is a period when gambling spikes," Anucha Romyanan, deputy police spokesman told Reuters.
"People are still trying to access gambling websites so we're locating those websites and shutting them down."
Apart from horse racing and the national lottery, most forms of gambling are illegal in Thailand, including casinos and Internet wagering.
But gambling remains a popular national pastime. Many Thais cross the border to play in Cambodian casinos, while others bet illegally on sports such as 'Muay Thai', or Thai boxing.
Thais are expected to spend around 45 billion baht (S$1.75 billion) on World Cup betting, according to the University of the Thai Chamber of Commerce. "This tournament only happens every four years, so Thais take advantage of the occasion," said Thanawat Polvichai, director of the university's Center for Economic and Business Forecasting.
"People's salaries are higher than four years ago and football betting has become easier due to higher Internet penetration,"he told Reuters.
The junta, which took power in a bloodless coup last month, has embarked on a campaign to "clean up society", cracking down on activities such as drug-taking and gambling. It has also pursued foreigners working in Thailand illegally.
That helped spark an exodus of more than 200,000 Cambodian migrant labourers from Thailand over the past two weeks.
The junta denies it is targeting foreign workers, who are vital for industries such as fishing and construction, saying it is merely trying to regulate the migrant workforce.
The clean-up campaign extends to Buddhist monks after a series of high-profile misconduct cases in recent years, including that of Wirapol Sukphol, the "jet-setting monk", who was defrocked after a YouTube video showed him on a private jet sporting aviator sunglasses and carrying a Louis Vuitton bag.
Around 95 per cent of Thailand's population is Buddhist and religion is considered an essential pillar of society, but junta leader General Prayuth Chan-ocha says the country has lost its moral compass and he wants to "return morality to Thailand".
Last week, the National Office of Buddhism set up a hotline for the public to inform on errant monks.