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Should legalizing gambling and police reform go hand in hand? 

Should legalizing gambling and police reform go hand in hand? 
Written by World Events

The latest allegations about the involvement of some senior policemen in online gambling operations have sparked a debate on the urgent need for reform of the police force.

A series of embarrassing news in recent months about corruption has seriously dented the image of the Royal Thai Police.

Cyber-police officers on September 24 conducted a search at the house of Deputy National Police chief Pol Gen Surachate Hakparn after securing search warrants for eight members of his team in connection with alleged online gambling.

The  police also raided many homes of the suspects and issued arrest warrants for another 15 people allegedly involved in running illegal online gambling operations. The incident also raised questions on whether it would be more appropriate for the government to legalize gambling for the sake of better management of this activity and to earn more government tax revenue.

Effective law enforcement

“Should Thailand decide to legalize the gambling business for the sake of attracting foreign tourists, we have to make sure about effective law enforcement,” said Nualnoi Treerat, associate professor at Chulalongkorn University, who has studied the issue of gambling for many years.

Her biggest concern is that legalizing casinos may lead to more local people engaging in gambling, spawning huge social issues.

One of the arguments often advanced for licensing the operation of casinos is that legalizing the underground activity would make it much easier to manage it and it could reduce corruption.

Nualnoi, however, says such an argument is too simplistic, as some corrupt policemen also seek illegal bribes, such as from heavy truck operators who violate the weight limit.

“We need to reform the police force, as currently their organization has become too centralized,” she said.

She suggested that giving licenses to casino operators must come with effective legal enforcement. She offered the example of government lottery tickets, which are still sold at inflated prices due to weak law enforcement.

Weakness for gambling

Legalizing could potentially draw more people into gambling, she warned. Studies have shown that more Thai people are engaged in gambling now.

According to the Center for Gambling Studies at Chulalongkorn University, an estimated 30 million people in 2019 engaged in gambling, and 800,000 of them were customers of online gambling operators with money circulation of 20 billion baht.

In 2021, the number of gamblers increased to 32 million, or about 60 per cent of the population aged 15 years and above.

Interestingly, partly due to the COVID-19 pandemic and wider internet access, the number of online gamblers jumped by 135.8 per cent in 2021, while the money in circulation shot up to 107 billion baht annually, or up 431.1 per cent from 2019.

Of the many avenues that offer the lure of earning easy money, the most popular gambling activity is the government lottery, in which  24.6 million people participate, while the money in circulation was more than 139.9 billion baht annually in 2021.

It was followed by the underground lottery, with 19.3 million people participating, and 149.9 billion baht in circulation annually.  The number of gamblers betting on football games increased 10.6% per cent from 2019 to 3.83 million with transactions of 181.2 billion baht in 2021.

The increase in gambling avenues has created many problems, including rising debt, health issues, domestic violence and criminal activities. Many households are unable to make ends meet.

New generation’s addiction

According to Nualnoi, gambling has evolved from traditional ways to modern ones. In olden days, local people participated in cock- and bull-fighting, which was followed by the evolution of gambling dens, underground lottery and government lottery.

With the advent of the digital age, some of the gambling activities have moved online, which has the downside of giving almost everyone easy access.

In the latest survey conducted early this year on children and those aged 15-25 years old, it was found that 3 million youths participated in online gambling and about 1.1 million played slot machines online. Another 1 million bought underground lottery tickets online, over 980,000 bought government lottery tickets and more than 400,000 were betting on football games.

Money in circulation in online gambling among new-generation gamblers is estimated to be 58.7 billion baht annually, according to the Center for Gambling Studies.

The idea of legalizing casinos has been floated several times but it has never gone through.

As recent as 2021, the House of Representatives pushed for a study on setting up an entertainment complex designed to attract foreign tourists.

The latest study of an entertainment complex aimed to seek more tax revenue and was submitted to the House of Representatives’ ad hoc committee last year. The study cited a poll conducted by Suan Sunandha Rajabhat University, suggesting that 81 per cent of the respondents agreed with the idea of an entertainment complex, but they were worried about crime, domestic violence, and household debt.

Nualnoi said that a new comprehensive study was needed if the Srettha government wants to revisit the idea of creating an entertainment complex. She did not agree with the previous study, which also explored the possibility of allowing local people to play at casinos. Casinos in  Thailand’s neighbouring countries allow access only to foreigners.

For the time being illegal casinos exist in Thailand, while many Thais cross the border to visit casinos in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Malaysia. Some fly to Macau, Singapore or even the city of Las Vegas in the United States.

By Thai PBS World’s Business Desk

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