Should Cambodia Ban Casinos?

To quickly answer the question posed in my headline: not yet. But the Cambodian government needs to at least put this possibility on the table, to set a fire under the feet of the casino owners. A statement must be made by Phnom Penh that casinos have less than 12 months to turn the current dire situation around. If they fail, then regular gambling should go the way of online gambling, which Prime Minister Hun Sen banned in 2019.

Phnom Penh ought to be humiliated by recent events. Last week, video footage emerged and quickly went viral, showing dozens of Vietnamese nationals literally fleeing a Kandal province casino where they’d reportedly been held in slavery. The people flee the casino and try to swim across a river back to Vietnam. According to some reports, a 16-year-old drowned. (This took place whilst the new United Nations special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia, Vitit Muntarbhorn, was making his maiden visit to the country.) Thanks to some fantastic reporting in recent months, we know this isn’t the only (mainly Chinese-owned) casino in the country accused of forced labor. Cambodia’s coastal city of Sihanoukville has changed beyond recognition. Crime has spiked. The city’s now a byword for the social chaos caused by rapid investment in a seedy sector.

At the same time, laid-off workers at the NagaWorld casinos in Phnom Penh have been protesting since December 2021 over layoffs, which they claim are efforts by the Malaysian-owned firm to destroy their trade union (the only Cambodian union representing casino workers). They were finally able to demonstrate outside the casinos this month during Vitit’s visit, although many of their strikes resulted in police brutality. And then there are the things that everyone knows but has grown tired of repeating: the countless gamblers who have committed suicide at the casinos; the corruption; the land rights violations; the social and environmental costs.

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