poipet town – The $23 million Holiday Palace Casino and Hotel is an extravagant complex located on a 200-meter strip of Cambodian soil near the Thai border and on the forefront of a growing controversy. Hundreds of Thai gamblers can be seen sitting at any time of day or night, working the hundreds of slot machines or hunched over baccarat, poker and blackjack tables.
The Holiday, constructed in 1998, was the first of seven casinos built in Poipet. They serve as shrines to money, where fortunes are made or, more often, lost in the blink of an eye.
Yet the fate of the Poipet gambling halls rests on the shoulders of a man who makes less than $100 a month.
On March 5, the Sam Rainsy Party officially took control of Poipet commune from the CPP after winning the most votes in the Feb 3 commune election. One of the biggest issues newly inducted Sam Rainsy Party commune Chief Sok Sovann faces is whether or not the Poipet casinos should remain open.
“We are pushing the casinos to provide information to us, such as how they received their licenses and how much they pay the government in taxes,” Sok Sovann said last week as he sat in his new administrative office. “If we don’t get the information, we will ask the governor to close the casinos.”
Sok Sovann is not the only Sam Rainsy Party member looking into the casinos. Five Sam Rainsy Party parliamentarians recently petitioned the national government for the same information. They include National Assembly lawmakers Kim Suor Phirith from Banteay Meanchey, Lon Phon and Son Chhay. In a written statement they asked the government how it is going to “tackle the increasing crime rate associated with the thriving drug production, drug trafficking, human trafficking and money laundering industries, which are led by the Mafia behind the facade of casinos.”
But the party is fighting an uphill battle that extends well beyond the borders of Cambodia.
Casinos have sprouted up in almost all Asean countries except Thailand. Muslim-dominated Malaysia has allowed the Casino de Genting to operate within its borders since 1971, but prevents Muslims from attending the casino. Even communist-ruled Vietnam has allowed the state-owned Do Son Casino in the northern port town of Haiphong to operate for almost a decade.
The most recent trend is a proliferation of casinos along the Thai border. More than a dozen Thai-owned casinos in Burma, Laos and Cambodia are catering almost exclusively to Thai customers because of the prohibition on casinos in Thailand.
These gambling establishments are subject to disagreement among Thai officials. Although an official from the Thai Embassy in Phnom Penh declined to comment on the casinos in Poipet, Kraisak Choonhavan, chairman of the Thai Senate committee of Foreign Affairs, last April told the news agency Deutsche Presse-Agentur: “What I’m afraid of is that these casinos along our borders will serve as drug money laundering centers. These influential people [who own the casinos] have access to political parties and contribute to campaign financing, which requires unaccountable money, especially cash.”
Discovering who owns the casinos is not an easy task. Rumors abound in Poipet and Phnom Penh that the casinos are jointly owned by Thai businessmen and high-ranking officials in the Cambodian government. Knowing who owns the casinos would probably help explain how the casinos received their licenses to operate in Cambodia.
The land around the Poipet casinos is well-groomed. Street sweepers brush trash into neat piles all day while trucks spray water to keep the dust down.
But the water trucks do not venture past the casino strip. Although the casinos are officially located in Poipet, they look nothing like Poipet, a dirty, poorly developed border town which is home to an estimated 80,000 people.
There are six hotels and about 10 guest houses and 10 restaurants in Poipet. They remain, for the most part, empty. An estimated 99 percent of the casino’s customers are Thai, and they rarely venture outside the casinos, according to casino managers. Cambodians do benefit from the gambling dens. The casinos employ more than 3,000 Cambodians, including some in administrative positions, said Seang Ho, the new Ministry of Interior-appointed commune clerk for Poipet.
Unlike the Sam Rainsy Party commune chief, Seang Ho has no intentions of trying to close the casinos. They are the largest employers in Poipet, and offer a measure of economic security that the commune did not have before 1998, when there were no casinos in the area, he said.
“The casinos are not harmful to Cambodians because a majority of the gamblers are Thai and they really do not often come into Poipet,” Seang Ho said.
Two high-ranking Poipet police officials, who declined to be identified, claimed there has actually been a decrease in crime in the area since the first casino opened in Poipet in 1998. The police could not provide detailed statistics, but said the most common crimes were thievery or burglary.
Crimes do occur within the casinos. In January, two men planted a homemade bomb at the Princess Hotel and Casino, where Thai politician Chalerm Yubamrung and his family were staying. Their visit fueled speculation that they were staying at the hotel to visit their fugitive son, Duangchalerm, who is a murder suspect in Thailand and is suspected of hiding in Poipet.
Twelve Cambodians were injured in the blast, yet no arrests have been made.
“The bombs were not planted inside the casino where a lot of gamblers could have got killed,” sub-lieutenant Bo Ramee, who was injured in the blast, told the Bangkok Post. Thai authorities speculated that the bombs were planted because of a business dispute.
This would not have been the first time a casino business dispute was settled through violent means. Last December, the manager of Poipet’s Diamond Casino, identified only as “Fai” or “Samlee Pkha-in”, was almost killed in a car bomb explosion. The Diamond casino is also rumored to be a major rival of the Princess casino.
Most casinos in Poipet do not look like underworld gangster dens. The $11 million Tropicana Resort and Hotel—the only casino which displays a picture of King Norodom Sihanouk and Queen Norodom Monineath in its lobby—was nearly empty at 9 pm. A few elderly Thai gamblers sat at roulette tables and one elderly man slept in a cushioned chair.
The tired atmosphere depressed even the casino’s managing director, who complained bitterly about the troubles he faced running the casino.
“We pay very high taxes to the Ministry of Finance,” the managing director said, adding that each casino pays a different percentage of revenue to the government, depending on its size. The Tropicana brings in about $700,000 per month, and the Cambodian government takes about 10 percent of that amount in taxes, according to the managing director.
Tax revenues from the casinos is big business for the Cambodian government. The government expected to collect at 16,000 million riel (about $4 million) for 2001. Through September, the government had already collected 88 percent of that projected revenue, according to the Ministry of Finance figures. The $4 million is more than the government expected to collect in 2001 tax revenues from either tourism or timber royalties.
In contrast to the Tropicana, the Holiday Palace Casino is booming. It has 300 hotel rooms, a monstrous glass-enclosed lobby, Japanese and Chinese restaurants, and a full-service travel agency.
The Holiday is a $23 million fiefdom in Indonesian businessman Tony Tandijono’s empire. Tandinjono, who owns five casinos in Cambodia, also owns National Airways.
Tayan Arphapirom, the hotel manager for the Holiday Palace Casino and Hotel, refused to say how the casino received its license, how much it pays the government in taxes or how much revenue it makes per month. He was the only casino manager in Poipet who would say who owned his casino.
Tayan seemed at ease discussing the minute details of the casino. He mentioned enthusiastically that more than 100 Thais come to the casino every day, and that approximately 800 employees—or 70 percent of the staff—are Cambodian. He said no one from the Sam Rainsy Party had asked him for information regarding licensing, and looked slightly befuddled when told a Cambodian political party might want to close down the casinos in Poipet.
“Sam Rainsy who?” Tayan replied.