poipet commune, Banteay Meanchey province – Cambodians are not allowed to play in the towering casinos, but life in this squalid border town is gamble enough.
Drug addiction, a booming sex industry and poor hygiene in the town’s open-sewer squatter camps threaten life and livelihood every day.
And now the sole symbols of prosperity—nine glitzy, high-rise casinos—are at risk themselves. Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s threat last month to fire government officials who gamble in Cambodia, and the tight border checks that followed, have slowed the flow of Thai gamblers to a trickle.
“The number of gamblers has dropped a lot,” said Tim Sareth, an RCAF officer with the Thai-Cambodian Cooperation Committee. “They make the Thai gamblers stand in line for a very long time, and they don’t want to.”
Dealers yawned and stared past idle slot machines at casinos here last weekend, as Thai border police kept up their stringent checking of passports, identification cards and financial statements. Lines to cross the border stretched long, but most were Western backpackers.
“It’s a violation of people’s rights,” said Sokunthanun Sutee, a Thai casino supervisor. “Thailand wants to disrupt the business.”
The number of Thais crossing the border daily has dropped by more than half, down to 500, according to Poipet immigration police. Citing Thai border officials, The Nation newspaper reported that the decline was much worse, from 5,000 to 1,000 a day.
It is the second time in less than a year that the Thai government has all but paralyzed the Poipet casinos. Thailand closed its border after the anti-Thai riots a year ago, causing the casinos to lose millions of dollars and a near humanitarian crisis among the thousands who rely on cross-border trade for their wages.
Casino workers say about 90 percent of the gamblers are Thai, and the drop after Thaksin’s holiday declaration was significant enough that some fear their jobs are in danger.
“We don’t know if they will reduce the number of Cambodian or Thai staff or not,” said Im Vichhay, a casino bar supervisor. “It is clear that the number of gamblers is down.”
Thaksin might not stop there. Thai gamblers lose millions of dollars in overseas casinos every year, and the business-minded prime minister has argued that legalizing gambling would keep that money from leaving the country.
“Illegal gambling would automatically decrease after such complexes were opened [in Thailand],” Thaksin was quoted as saying in The Nation this month “This has happened in several countries…. Don’t say that we are a Buddhist country and cannot have casinos.”
The hope of landing a casino job lures thousands of young men and women from across the country every year, making Poipet, with an estimated population of 80,000, one of the fastest-growing areas in Cambodia.
But the majority of Poipet’s population works in far more strenuous and dangerous trades. Many transport goods across the border, pushing rented wooden carts full to overflowing for about $1 a day.
Hundreds of girls who migrate to Poipet take up work in the red-light brothels that are the town’s nocturnal pulse. Other migrants wind up homeless and sleep beside burning trash by the casino complex gates.
“You come to Poipet because you hear the rumor that it is easy to get a job, but it is a risk,” said Den Vorn, a 44-year-old woman with two daughters working in the casinos. “My first day here I had nothing to eat.”
University-educated Cambodians who get jobs in the casinos can earn as much as $125 a month, and they often use that money to feed families in their home villages. The exact figure is unknown, but one casino worker estimated that Cambodians make up about half of the 6,000 employed in Poipet’s casinos.
Most work 12-hour days as dealers or waiting staff, he said.
“In my village, there are no jobs,” said Loh Ath, who arrived from Kompong Cham province two years ago. Employed at one of the casino bars after six months of job-searching, he considers himself one of the lucky.
“It’s very hard to save money here, but you can survive,” Loh Ath said.
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