Thai lottery ticket sellers out of luck

BANGKOK- Wat Hua Lamphong, an ancient temple in downtown Bangkok, has barely stirred when 60-year-old Mongkol Charoenphon starts making his rounds in the compound.

He cradles a home-made display case fashioned out of two picture frames. Inside, he has stapled dozens of lottery tickets, all with auspicious numbers sought by buyers.

There's a handful of tickets with six digits ending with "28", the day Thailand's Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn was born 62 years ago. Others end with "22", the day the Thai military seized power from the civilian government in May last year.

All tickets are priced at 80 baht (S$3.20) but Mr Mongkol, a former farmer from the northern province of Nakhon Sawan, gently asks each customer to throw in 10 or 20 baht more, for "rice money".

"I won't sell it for more than the controlled price, but I ask for mercy," he says. "Even the policeman gives me some. He understands."

Thailand's lottery vendors are having a lean time after the kingdom's military government tightened enforcement against overpriced lottery tickets.

Junta leader and Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, fed up with the lack of progress nearly one year after declaring war on profiteering in the lottery trade, sacked the entire board at the Government Lottery Office (GLO) in May.

He installed two-star general Apirat Kongsompong, the deputy commander of the first army area which oversees Bangkok, as its chairman.

Tighter enforcement

Soldiers were sent onto the streets to deter vendors from selling tickets for more than 80 baht. Errant sellers were threatened with a 10,000-baht fine and/or one month's jail.

Some 80 per cent of the lottery market has been brought into line, Major-General Apirat tells The Straits Times.

But he plans to clean up the trade further and possibly introduce permanent sale outlets, to overhaul the complex distribution system that has inflated prices by as much as 50 per cent.

The issue has been thorny, even for a government that until April 1 ruled with martial law, and continues to wield absolute power through a clause in the interim Constitution.

Before the crackdown, the GLO sold tickets to wholesalers at 74.4 baht. Each ticket had a cover price of 80 baht but was always sold for more, reportedly due to the domination of a group of wholesalers dubbed the "Five Tigers". In some cases, tickets already cost more than 80 baht by the time they reached the hands of small-scale vendors, who then hawked the tickets for 110 or 120 baht each.

Bidding up prices

The quirks of Thai lottery culture help inflate prices. Buyers bid up prices of tickets with auspicious numbers, based on the dates of birth, death and other numbers associated with well-known figures in society.

The number on the registration plate of ousted premier Yingluck Shinawatra's car was a popular bet during her time in power.

Thirty-seven million tickets are sold for each fortnightly draw. The excitement builds up on the eve of draws on the 1st and 16th of each month.

Bangkok's Mahabut temple, which houses a shack dedicated to a purportedly generous local spirit called Mae Nak, is open 24 hours to punters seeking numbers.

In the haze of scented oil and candlelight, worshippers prostrate themselves before Mae Nak's figurine before dipping their hands into an earthen pot filled with numbered ping pong balls.

They rub oil into the smoothened dents in tree trunks nearby, squinting at the darkened patches for a divine number before quietly slipping away to the rows of expectant lottery ticket vendors outside.

The junta, which came into power at the height of protracted political conflict that pitted the Thai elite and urban middle-class against the rural masses, has cast the policy as a pro-poor scheme.

"This involves poor people, and they have been taken advantage of for a long time," says Maj-Gen Apirat.

Certainly, the buyers are not complaining. Loan officer Siraphumsit Phadpradab, 32, says: "It's good to control the price, but I hope the government can consider the margins for the vendor. They are in a pitiful position."

Vendors say they are no better off than the poor people that the government says it is trying to help.

An estimated 100,000 people hawk lottery tickets nationwide.

In Bangkok, the majority of small-scale vendors come from farming regions upcountry.

They typically travel to the capital for about five to 10 days at a stretch, selling as many tickets as they can in the feverish run-up to each draw date, before returning home again.

Some pool money and rent accommodation to extend their stay in the capital, earning as much as 20,000 baht a month.

Ms Aporn Sisaengmuang, 44, was barely making ends meet on her family farm in Loei, northern Thailand, 20 years ago, before she came to Bangkok to work in a factory. She switched to being a cleaner, before hawking tickets for a higher income.

"I now have to sell twice as many tickets to survive," she says.

The real culprits

These street vendors say the middlemen are the real culprits behind overpriced tickets. In response, Maj-Gen Apirat has cut the wholesale price of tickets to 70.4 baht, and forced wholesalers to charge small-scale vendors only 72 baht per ticket. Still, he hopes the leaner profits would squeeze more vendors out of the scene.

"This is not a job," he declares. The easy profits from selling lottery - sometimes for just 10 days a month - make people "lazy".

"The rest of the time, they don't want to go to work. They don't want to go to study."

Asked about the thousands of sellers who could be laid off by the changes, he says: "If they have to find something to do in their village, they should… be a farmer.

"Or maybe they need to go to school to learn how to be electricians or construction workers."

It is an idea that 29-year-old vendor Sureekan Pingbong, who is also from Loei, scoffs at. "It's easy to talk," she says.

Since coming into power, the military government has rolled back on generous farm-support schemes that were offered by the Yingluck government.

Moribund rice and rubber prices, coupled with the water rationing to cope with the ongoing drought, have made returning to agriculture an unpalatable option.

"This is my job," says Ms Aporn with conviction, as she steps out under the midday sun in search of the next punter, a wad of lottery tickets firmly in hand.

This article was first published on July 11, 2015.
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