Government officials claimed this week that talk inside the Thai government of legalizing casino gambling would not hurt the bustling casino industry that has sprung up in recent years in Cambodia along the Thai border.
“Other countries also have casinos, but those people still come to Cambodia to gamble,” Banteay Meanchey Governor Thach Khorn said Tuesday. “This won’t affect the Cambodian economy, because Cambodia doesn’t just have casinos.”
There are 15 casinos inside Cambodia along the border with Thailand, according to Ministry of Interior Information Department Deputy Director Khun Sambo, who is the government’s point-man on casinos.
There are eight casinos in Poipet, two in Koh Kong province, two at O’Smach commune in Oddar Meanchey province, two in Pailin and one at Phnom Proek in Battambang province, he said. There are also three casinos in Sihanoukville, one in Phnom Penh and one in Svay Rieng province.
Thais make up about 98 percent of the customers in casinos along the Thai-Cambodian border, often crossing the border just for one day to gamble at elaborate, air-conditioned casinos, Khun Sambo said.
Casino gambling is illegal in Thailand, and Thai officials are increasingly worried that Thailand is losing money to border casinos that operate next to Thailand in Malaysia, Burma and Cambodia. In August, a Thai government report estimated that $154 million a year is lost by Thais at border casinos.
Thai Defense Minister Chavalit Yongchaiyudh said on Tuesday that the border casinos present a “threat” to Thai national security, according to Agence France-Presse. He said he supported a plan to open casinos in Thailand, including one controversial project in Pattaya, a seaside resort southwest of Bangkok.
Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra said on Sunday that the government should study the gambling issue, which could boost tax revenue and halt corruption, AFP reported.
But co-Minister of Interior Sar Kheng seemed unconcerned.
“The Thais are just talking and planning. It hasn’t happened yet,” he said. “It is their right to create such gambling. But, importantly, we have already created many casinos along the Thai border. That is our right, as well.”
One Cambodian casino worker in Poipet, who requested anonymity, said workers are worried for their jobs now that Thailand is considering licensing casinos.
“Thais would rather gamble in their own country than go to other countries,” the worker said.
Already, business in Poipet’s casinos has slumped. The number of Thai gamblers coming to the casinos each day is much less compared to five months ago, the worker said.
Poipet border checkpoint Chief Pich Saran confirmed that fewer Thais have crossed the border to gamble in recent months.
That may be because Thai border officials have become more strict in allowing people to cross into Cambodia, he said. Or it could be that in recent months, Cambodian authorities have begun charging Thai gamblers for Cambodian visas, according to Pich Saran. Until two or three months ago, casino patrons often had their visa fees waived.
“We don’t see the big money gamblers anymore [in Poipet]. Only the medium gamblers are coming now,” he said. “I’m not sure why. They probably have no money.”
The issue of Cambodian casinos along the Thai border was to be discussed during a November 2001 visit to Thailand by Prime Minister Hun Sen. Chavalit Yongchaiyudh told the Nation newspaper at the time that investors in the casinos are Thai, not Cambodian. Other Thai officials have expressed fears the casinos are money laundering centers.
For now, it is too soon to say whether casinos will start being built across Thailand and whether Thai gamblers will eventually stop coming to Cambodia, according to Khun Sambo.
But on a hopeful note, he pointed out that many gamblers often feel guilty about their habit and feel more comfortable gambling away from their home “because they do not want anyone to know they are gamblers and they want to keep their reputation and their families’ reputation.”