Life is a lottery


Many, many years ago, I visited what used to be the two closest legal casinos to Thailand _ one in Macau and the other in Malaysia. Thai customers in Macau didn’t have to bring their money with them as it was illegal to take large amounts of cash out of the country at that time. You simply paid your agent who arranged the trip here in Thailand and when you arrived at the casino in Macau the appropriate amount of money was waiting for you.

As for the majority of Thais who couldn’t afford an overseas trip, the legal options to satisfy their insatiable gambling itch were, and are still, very limited. There’s the government lottery and, strangely, two horse race tracks in the very centre of Bangkok.

Of course betting at the Royal Bangkok Sports Club and the Royal Turf Club is a very lucrative source of earnings for these two “elite” clubs, and results in the relatively poor, who are the majority of gamblers on race days, subsidising the lifestyle of the rich and famous.

A number of years ago, in a pathetic attempt to assuage their conscience, the authorities declared that only gamblers wearing proper shoes could enter these clubs on race days. This move did not have the desired effect, but it did raise the cost of entry for poor people who now have to rent proper shoes for the afternoon from the stalls which sprang up at the gates of the clubs.

Of course today there are many more legal casinos closer to Thailand than Macau and Malaysia. According to no less an authority than First Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Gen Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, there are now seven casinos across the border in Cambodia and two more under construction. He failed to mention those in Burma but did point out that border casinos in neighbouring countries pose a new threat to national security as Thais are spending up to 10 billion baht a year in such establishments. He also failed to mention that the majority of these casinos are owned and operated by Thais, most of whom have close connections to the military.

Illegal gambling opportunities inside Thailand have also multiplied in recent years. The underground lottery has spread its dark tentacles across the land, undermining the rule of law and involving the rich and powerful at every level of society. To this add the spectacular growth of illegal gambling on soccer matches, primarily but not exclusively linked to the English Premier League. In a somewhat bizarre attempt to “control” soccer UFA gambling, the police recently blocked the website of one English bookmaker, although, according to most observers, this was most likely aimed at protecting sources of revenue for illegal Thai bookmakers.

Now the Government Lottery Office, a very non-transparent organisation for whom good corporate governance is probably a bad nightmare, is making noises about importing thousands of online lottery machines to compete with the underground lottery. It is also embroiled in a legal dispute surrounding its past attempt to move in this direction.

To move its project forward, the GLO is asking university researchers and the Ministry of Public Health to sound out public opinion. This is not the correct approach.

The government itself should establish a task force to first examine the basic question of whether our society as a whole thinks gambling in general should be legalised. The arguments in favour of legalisation are powerful. If it’s legal, this huge multi-billion-baht business can be regulated and contribute to tax revenues. On the other hand, moral arguments against legalisation must also be heard, not forgetting that those most against legalisation are usually the operators of illegal gambling businesses.

Personally, I believe it would be in the national interest to legalise most forms of gambling and privatise the GLO, mostly because of the present situation’s corrosive impact on our respect for the rule of law.