Bhumjaithai Party MP last month urged the government to look at how Singapore is benefiting from selectly legalising casinos with a report that the US casino and entertainment behemoth Sands may be interested in developing opportunities in Thailand if they arise

Thailand’s leaders are considering plans put forward last year for legalising gambling and casinos in the Kingdom. In September, Deputy Prime Minister Somsak Thepsutin came out in favour of the move and has promised to bring the matter to cabinet. By and large, public opinion is hostile to the prospect, as are many experts, given the history of gambling in the country and the social ills it creates. There is also concern that the move may send the wrong signal as the new government seeks to broaden the country’s investor appeal and base and become a ‘good’ global player. However, with the Finance Ministry looking to find new sources of tax revenue, a potential boost for tourism and avid interest from large foreign operators, the proposal has its merits with those supporting the move pointing to Singapore’s experience. 

In September, Deputy Prime Minister Somsak Thepsutin suggested that the government should move to legalise online gambling sites to boost the economy and provide extra funds to vulnerable groups. It follows calls from Bhumjaithai Party MP Saritpong Kiewkhong on casinos. The MP wants to see the government move forward with recommendations issued by a panel of the last House of Representatives in 2022.

An MP with the Bhumjaithai Party, which controversially legalised cannabis in June last year, is making noises about legalising casinos in the Kingdom to generate badly needed revenue for the Government and to combat the growth of illegal gambling dens and online betting activities.

A massive growth of illegal gambling sites throughout the Kingdom is thought to feed into organised crime. 

Report by the last House of Representatives suggested that the Kingdom allow the development of large casino and entertainment complexes at key sites

On Thursday, the 28th of September, Bhumjaithai Party MP Saritpong Kiewkhong called a press conference in which he asked the government to speed up its response to a report delivered in February 2022 by the House of Representatives which reported favourably on a plan to build several large entertainment complexes within 22 designated provinces including Bangkok which would house legal casinos.

The report was produced early last year by a panel of lawmakers in the Thai Parliament, leading to speculation of a prominent complex being built within the Greater Bangkok Metropolitan area and the Eastern Economic Corridor (EEC) development area in the provinces east of the capital.

Gambling and casinos are big business in Asia, with Thailand presenting itself as an opportunity for many larger operators working from Macau. 

The former Portuguese colony, now increasingly incorporated into China, is noted worldwide as a gambling mecca.

Ultimately, the decision on whether to proceed with the scheme will depend on the cabinet and the Thai Prime Minister, as well as senior officials in the power structure in Thailand.

However, it is argued that the legalisation of casinos by large national operators would be a significant tourist draw, particularly concerning the Chinese market.

Casinos seen as a draw for Chinese tourists and a win for the country’s famous nightlife industry as a boost for efforts to attract foreign visitors

Thailand is at the moment trying to woo back Chinese visitors to the Kingdom with a special visa-free waiver running from September until the end of February, which is expected to bring the number of Chinese visitors back to 6 million from January 1st, 2023, to February 25th next year which would still only be 60% of what was seen in the last record year for the industry which was 2019.

At the same time, tourism chiefs are trying to ramp up flight connectivity as a critical objective in the foreign tourism recovery, which has been notably slower than in other countries with large tourist-driven economies.

The Kingdom’s economic planners, including the Ministry of Tourism and Sports and the Tourism Authority of Thailand, are looking closely at the nature of Thailand’s tourism industry, which is very much linked to the country’s nightlife and Bangkok as the world’s most visited city.

In recent years, the country’s marketing abroad has become confused since tourism itself became a political issue with the military junta or the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) setting out to eradicate the country’s sex tourism image while promoting concepts such as wellness tourism or nature tourism, ideas still trotted out by the current political leadership.

Public opinion is against casinos and gambling

However, there are potential challenges to the move to legalising casinos, with a survey conducted in January 2022 by the National Institute of Development Administration (NIDA) showing strong public opposition to any progress towards legalising gambling, with 57% of people voicing opposition to such a proposal, only 39% were in favour of legal casinos. 

The same opposition was seen in a survey published last Sunday by the National Institute of Development Administration (NIDA), which demonstrated strong opposition to allowing nightclubs in popular tourist hotspots to open until 4 am, even though most respondents have never visited these entertainment centres.

Poll shows that the public is split evenly on the issue of 4 am closing for nightlife centres

The objection is based on the threat to the country’s morality, culture and safety, given the propensity of Thais to become chronically addicted to gambling.

Deputy Prime Minister Somsak Thepsutin, an experienced politician and minister, has endorsed the legalisation of gambling in the country to raise funds

In September, Deputy Prime Minister Somsak Thepsutin, who has special cabinet responsibility for security, raised the prospect of legalising online gambling sites.

He argued that the move would boost government revenue.

Still, social activists sharply criticised his remarks based on the threat posed to ordinary and vulnerable people in Thailand, given the nature of such sites.

The experienced minister, known for his reformist instincts while Minister of Justice in the previous government, suggested that he would at length bring a proposal to cabinet for consideration.

He particularly mentioned using funds generated by an online gambling tax to finance improved services for those with disabilities, the less well-off and the elderly.

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The minister made his pronouncement in the wake of a controversial police raid on the home of the country’s most popular policeman, who was tipped to become the next police chief after an investigation linked the property with an online gambling network.

Dangers posed by online gambling, which has a bad history in Thailand and which the Royal Thai Police has linked to much of the country’s serious crime 

Nevertheless, most critics acknowledge that the danger posed by online gambling will not disappear as many of the most popular sites are operated from outside Thailand, particularly in Cambodia and even Myanmar.

Proponents of the move, such as Deputy Prime Minister Somsak, also argue that allowing firms in Thailand to operate such concerns will help drive employment in the country and keep wealth within the struggling economy.

One Thai-based economic expert, Mr Visanu Vongsinsirikul, while warning about the danger of gambling addiction due to the convenience of online gambling, suggested that even if the government allowed well-financed and managed companies to establish such operations in Thailand under licence where they could pay taxes to the exchequer and be regulated to help tackle any social problem and prevent excesses, there is still the danger that money will ultimately be taken out of the economy.

He urged the government to be cautious.

‘The problem is different from that involving legalising casinos. The online platform brings together all forms of gambling, and people can always gamble, meaning it is hard to control or curb the number of gamblers. It will not only lead to people becoming more addicted to gambling but also linked with other problems such as money laundering and credit card forgery,’ Mr Visanu said. ‘Online gambling should be the last to be legalised. You can even gamble in your bedroom, and who can arrest you? For example, most online baccarat games come from Poipet in Cambodia. Suppose a bookmaker is allowed to operate legally in Thailand. In that case, income will remain in the hands of the main company in Cambodia, anyway.’ 

Thai culture is very much set against gambling, which was legalised from 1930 to 1935 with such negative consequences that it had to be outlawed again

There is good reason for the vociferous opposition to the move, including from the public.

People in Thailand have long been fascinated with gambling, with it being noticed as a weakness, as evidenced by the country’s obsession with its twin lotteries and the continued existence of an illegal gambling industry which often serves as an illicit source of funding for officials and corrupt police officers.

On the 1st of April 1917, King Rama V outlawed gambling in Thailand for the first time, which is said to have given rise to increased levels of criminality and soaring bankruptcies.

The government legalised it again in 1930 with a new gambling law. 

The situation had to be amended again in 1935 to outlaw nationwide gambling.

The activity had again undermined security and caused widespread hardship. 

Current illegal online websites are a cash bonanza. Revelations this year show senior officers within the police force are operating these concerns 

In recent days and particularly this year, the flourishing success of online gambling operations has been making the news in the Kingdom, with several confirmed instances of senior police officers within the Royal Thai Police being the prime movers behind the networks, capable of generating billions in cash profits. 

Many sites are hosted outside the Kingdom but managed by online administrators within Thailand.

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Indeed, the potential downside or scale of the threat from legalised online gambling could be seen this year from the country’s most disturbing serial killer case involving 32-year-old Ms Sararat Rangsiwutthaporn or Am Cyanide, who is alleged to have murdered at least 14 people from 2005 to 2023 by cyanide poisoning.

Police concluded this was due to the woman’s chronic gambling addiction problem.

Police traced the 78 million she had earned through her killing spree to illegal gambling websites.

Bhumjaithai MP points to Singapore as an example

The scale of the cash flow generated from the gambling websites and the relative ease with which they can be operated is prompting a serious rethink within government circles regarding the need for an official response.

At the end of September, Mr Saritpong, the Bhumjaithai Party MP, urged the government of Srettha Thavisin to speed up plans to introduce legal Casinos in Thailand and pointed to the success such schemes had seen in Singapore.

‘According to our research, Singapore has invested over ฿50 to ฿60 billion in operating legal casinos and entertainment complexes, which has now created more than ฿20 billion in profits.’ 

The MP told the media that this has raised Singapore’s tourism business by up to 20%.

In January 2022, a select House of Representatives committee heard that it would cost approximately $8 billion or about ฿280 billion to build a large entertainment complex housing Thailand’s first legal casino, which would be expected to be located in the Greater Bangkok area. 

House of Representatives report was highly positive in advocating the select development of casinos and smart legalisation of gambling online

The report to the House of Representatives said such a project could generate employment for 30,000 people.

The plan to legalise casinos in Thailand suggested that such complexes could be built within 100 km of international airports and immigration checkpoints to attract international high-rollers.

It called for new innovative legislation which would make betting or gambling within casinos legal while legalising online gambling, placing bets on the movements of the Stock Exchange of Thailand (SET), foreign exchange rates and sporting events. 

Analysts within the gambling and casino industries suggest that prominent international players such as the Las Vegas Sands Hotel Management Group have already indicated a strong interest in developments unfolding in Thailand. 

US behemoth reportedly interested in Thailand

The Sands Group has a market capitalisation of nearly $45 billion.

It is a top player in Macau, which would be a particular model for Thailand, with Bangkok becoming a gambling mecca of the world if the new government implements such a plan. 

Last year, the report to the House of Representatives suggested that a legalised casino industry in Thailand alone could generate $3 billion or over ฿100 billion per year in tax revenue for the exchequer.

The report particularly noted that unless the government taxes this income, it will be lost to the Kingdom and instead will be spent in other Southeast Asian countries, often through underground or semi-legal operations based on Thailand’s borders.

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Further reading:

Top Royal Thai Police officers under scrutiny over links to huge illegal online gambling cash flows

Party leader: Thailand could be losing trillions of baht each year because of its highly restrictive gambling laws

Unlikely rags to riches convict star arrested again in Thailand over online gambling promotion

PM plays clips to parliament to defend himself against media ‘distortion’ of gambling claims

Rayong gambling boss is arrested as fact-finding panel finds police and officials acted corruptly

Gamblers and hosts at illegal gambling dens are being jailed as massive crackdown proceeds apace

Gambling debts the motive for the armed robbery on Monday in Chiang Rai, main suspect charged in court

Raids on online gambling websites by ‘Big Joke’ highlights the scale of Thailand’s illegal gambling market

World cup brought home Thailand’s chronic gambling issue

Activist: more gambling dens in Rayong, 45-year-old security man tested on Sunday dies on Monday