Is legalised betting worth the gamble?


Tourism has been one of the strongest sectors of the Thai economy in recent years. Its annual revenues of up to around 300 billion baht have been a major buffer for the economy given the recent declines in exports. The government has rightly looked to strengthen the attractions for tourists through a variety of promotions and development campaigns.


Now Gen Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, former prime minister and defence minister, believes that legalising gambling and opening casinos will help to further strengthen the country’s appeal to tourists. Not necessarily foreign tourists, but Thais who now travel abroad to satiate their need to place a bet. Gen Chavalit argues that up to 300 billion baht is lost each year from Thais travelling to casinos. No less than 40 casinos are known to be operating along our borders, catering largely to Thai punters. Gen Chavalit said the military considered these casinos a direct threat to the country’s security, and thought legalisation would help the economy by keeping proceeds within our borders. Allowing a casino to open in Pattaya, for instance, would not only reduce incentives for Thais to travel abroad, it would further the tourism industry by attracting foreign gamblers to the country.


Under the 1935 Gambling Act, all gambling activities, save horse racing, are prohibited. While temporary licences can be issued by the police, this is not done in practice. For the most part, the government lottery represents the sole legal gambling option for most people.


There is little question that illegal gambling, ranging from underground lotteries to football pools to card games, is huge business. A study in the mid-1990s by Chulalongkorn University estimated that illegal gambling generated value-added of up to 277 billion baht for the economy each year. Punters cross a broad swath of society _ rich and poor, urban and rural. This year’s World Cup saw billions of baht change hands in ways varying from casual office pools to sophisticated, multi-million-baht wagers with betting syndicates.


The arguments for legalising gambling generally focus on the futility of prohibition and its corruptive influence on law enforcement. Gambling dens, after all, cannot exist without a heinous pact between mafia elements and police, politicians and state officials. Given the popularity of gambling, why not acknowledge reality and bring the industry into the open, allowing law enforcement resources to be turned to more critical needs, such as drug suppression? Or so goes the argument. By legalising gambling, the state would benefit from tax revenues and would be able to impose selective controls, such as zoning regulations and a bar on the entry of minors to casinos.


Yet legalising gambling for the sake of expedience is hardly principled policy. The belief that legalised UFABet gambling means the end to public corruption is facile, for underground betting will continue to exist if only in the name of convenience and to circumvent whatever controls are imposed. The negative effects _ poverty, debt, crime _ would increase, falling particularly hard on the lower-income, less-educated rungs of society which multiple studies have shown to be the worst-affected victims of gambling. And it is hardly the role of the state to encourage and condone a vice which violates many of our country’s social norms and Buddhist traditions.


Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra has stated wisely that the issue of legalised gambling is a social one which must be decided by the people. This is proper. Yet in the rush to strengthen our economy, we must not forget the need to strengthen our society as well. Sacrificing values and principle for lucre is a reckless bet indeed, one which could make losers of us all.