Prime Minister backs legalised casinos, but opponents criticized the idea

Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej has backed the idea of legalising casinos in the country in a move which immediately drew criticism from opponents, who fear legalised gambling will lead to greater social problems.

The controversial question of legalised casinos was asked by a member of the public, who phoned in to Samak’s weekly programme which is televised across the country on Channel 11 and also on a network of state radios.

The viewer asked Samak about the possibility of legalising casinos and the government’s measures to crack down on football gambling among youngsters and students. He said he supported the legalisation of casinos in the country because other countries in the region such as Malaysia and Singapore already had legally established casinos. “If [existing casinos] are still illegal, we should legalise [them],“ he said without going into detail about how to put the change into practice.

Samak called for cooperation from parents and teachers to closely look after their children and students and teach them to stay away from betting on football matches. He pledged to help find measures to deal with the problem. The legalisation of casinos was an idea once floated in 2005 when Thaksin Shinawatra was in power.

His government considered setting up new casino complexes in tourist areas. But the plan was strongly opposed by critics who feared it would create social problems and would only benefit particular interest groups. After facing strong opposition, the Thaksin government backed away from the idea.

Suriyasai Katasila, the secretary general of the Campaign for Popular Democracy, opposed the idea and warned that Samak’s remark yesterday could be a return to the original plan.

“I believe the idea of legalising gambling dens is politically motivated. It must be well-planned in order to dust off the Thaksin government’s plan,“ he said. There will be many more social problems if casinos are legally accepted in the country, he added.

Kraisak Choonhavan, a Democrat representative assigned to monitor the work of the government at the Human Security and Social Development Ministry, said legalising casinos could make people poorer as they could slip into heavy debt if they become addicted to gambling. „If Mr Samak and his government really want to do it [legalise casinos], people must have a say whether they want it or not,“ said Kraisak.

However Sangsidh Piriyarangsan, an economics lecturer at Chandarakasem Rajabhat University, agreed with the legalisation of casinos if it was made transparently and with the consent of the people.

Having casinos in the country will stop gamblers spending their money in neighbouring countries, he said. „This will help prevent around USD 1.6 billion a year from flowing to gambling dens in our neighbouring countries,“ said Sangsidh, who studied the underground economy.