Gambling and the glitzy ads promoting it in the media are keeping Cambodians poor, encouraging crime and seducing even children into spending more than they can afford.
That was the grim assessment last week of Heav Veasna, managing director of the Center for Social Development, who called on the government to crack down on games of chance and the advertisements that make them seem like fun.
Casinos, lotteries and other forms of gambling “do not benefit the people, but only the businessmen who run them,” he said. The Cambodian economy is too fragile to support such enterprises and the crime they generate, he said.
He said robberies, kidnappings and murders are on the rise as elements of organized crime seek to gain more of the gambling market.
When gamblers lose, as most do, Heav Veasna said, “they dare to do everything in an illegal way. They do not think about their reputation. They focus only on how to make money.”
In general, casinos and playing cards are illegal in Cambodia, but lotteries are not.
Khieu Kanharith, secretary of state for the Ministry of Information, said that because lotteries are legal, people have the right to wager their money on them.
Officials were split over whether the government should allow gambling advertisements on television and radio. Khieu Kanharith said those ads, like those for beer and cigarettes, are legal.
Chum Serey, under-secretary of state for the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport, said the ads should not appeal to children.
And, while Cambodians have long loved games of chance, the lotteries are no longer run by the government, but by private individuals, Chum Serey said.
“They should be run by the state, not [businessmen]. If the government runs them, they will provide money for the national budget,” he said.
A Ministry of Interior official, who asked not to be identified, said he agreed that gambling leads to more crime. He said the television ads, showing ecstatic people winning big prizes, have a dangerous influence on susceptible children.
“The children will play this game when they are grown up, as they know their parents have done,” the official said.
Some are not waiting. A lottery ticket seller on Monivong Boulevard said children as young as 10 buy tickets from her. “Some buy for themselves, and some for their parents,” she said.
A Ministry of Interior official, who asked not to be identified, agreed that gambling leads to more crime perpetrated by gangsters or gamblers who have turned to crime to recoup losses.