Police chief General Somyot Poompanmoung yesterday backed a controversial proposal to permit legal casinos, saying he would open a website to sound out public opinions on the issue.
"I am ready to declare myself as the first national police chief to push for [legal] casinos," he said, adding that he would organise a press conference to clarify his position on the issue - one month before his retirement at the end of September.
Somyot said new casinos should be open to registered members who reside in different areas. Registered residents in the South, for example, could be allowed to enter a casino in Chiang Mai.
Under a proposal unveiled earlier this week by some members of the National Reform Council (NRC), possible sites for casinos include Phuket, Ubon Ratchathani, and Koh Larn, which is situated off Pattaya in Chon Buri.
"I am not afraid of being slammed by groups of people and members of society [that are against casinos], as I adhere to reality and well realise the Thai people's gambling habit. Illegal and underground gambling activities flourish with [or without] legal casinos," Somyot said.
NRC member Assoc Prof Sungsidh Piriyarangsan, an academic who has studied the legalisation of gambling and police corruption stemming from it, said casinos could generate up to Bt400 billion in the first year.
And he argued that legal casinos in Thailand would surely outperform those in Singapore - which has seen around Bt4.75 trillion (S$190 billion) generated each year - given the Kingdom's greater number of tourist attractions, plus its abundance and variety of food and other natural resources.
Casinos in Thailand would come later than those elsewhere, but operating them after other nations would present an advantage in that weak points in countries that had run them for some time could be studied and corrected, said Sungsidh, who is dean of the College Of Social Innovation at Rangsit University.
Citing Singapore's case, he said the island-state's annual visitor numbers had increased to 15 million in 2014 from 9.7 million when the casinos opened in 2009, hotel reservations had risen 24 per cent and the room occupancy rate by 10 per cent, while 30,000 jobs had been created in and around the casino sector.
Singapore has used casinos as supplementary activities for event participants to support its tourism and event industries, he said. Other facilities capable of supporting casino operations were large-scale convention centres with up to 30,000 seats in total, more tourist attractions, hotels, shopping areas, entertainment venues and restaurants that could be accessed by electric trains.
He said the first Thai casinos should be opened in Pattaya, as it already has some of these support facilities, while others have been proposed for the area.
The minimum age of casino entrants should be 30, and they should be able to prove a minimum monthly salary of Bt300,000. He said they should also pay a high cover charge for each visit.
A group of NRC members who raised the legal-casino issue said yesterday that Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and NRC president Thienchay Kiranandana were not openly opposed.
They quoted Prayut as saying "the government has no stance on the issue and the public could voice their views on it", and Thienchay as saying "the legalisation of gambling is not on the NRC's current agenda".
Meanwhile, The Moral Centre, a public body, expressed concern over the issue, saying lax enforcement of restrictions against unregistered gamblers would worsen social and crime-related problems.