Protesters take to streets to voice casino opposition

More than 1,000 people representing a number of civic and religious organizations, joined a “backwards march” in Taipei yesterday to show their opposition to the construction of casino resorts on off-shore islands.

Lining up behind a big red banner that read: “Save Taiwan from casinos,” the activists began their demonstration in Liberty Square and marched toward the Presidential Office.

When they reached Jingfu Gate at the head of Ketagalan Boulevard, they turned around and marched backwards.

Taking part were members of groups representing women, Penghu residents, environmentalists, Christians, Taoists and Buddhists.

“This is the first time in history that so many people have walked backwards at the same time — because we’re worried that casinos would drag the country backwards in terms of the economy, public security, the environment, politics and morals,” said Ho Tsung-hsun, spokesman of the Alliance against the Legalization of Gambling.

He pointed out that Nevada, the US state where Las Vegas is located, ranks first in suicide and gambling addiction, third in bankruptcy and abortion, fourth in rape cases and alcohol-related deaths and last in voter turnout in presidential elections.

The Legislative Yuan passed an amendment to the Off-Shore Island Development Act in January that allows off-shore islands to build casinos after obtaining consent from a majority of residents in a simplified referendum.

Many local governments have shown an interest in building casino resorts, with Penghu County being the most active.

While the Penghu County Government estimates that casino resorts could attract more than 5 million visitors per year to Penghu and bring in more than NTD 2.2 billion (USD 63 million) in annual tax revenue, Buddhist Master Shih Chao-hui said that Taiwan would pay a much higher price.

“According to US studies, 17 percent of gamblers would become addicted and it takes USD 18,000 to treat each of them,” Shih said. “Based on the figures, if 4.5 million gamblers in Penghu are from Taiwan, then we will need to spend NTD 45 billion — plus other welfare spending and costs — to treat them.”

Huang Chi-hsiang, a 28-year-old from Penghu, said only a handful of people — such as big corporations and politicians — would benefit from casinos.

“What would really benefit everyone in Penghu is to develop resort tourism modeled on Hawaii, Bali or the Great Barrier Reef,” he said.

As a casino referendum may be held in Penghu at the end of the year, Huang is worried.

“I know that most people my age are against casinos, but many older people are for them,” he said. “I’m a bit worried because most young people are either working or studying away from home.”

The march ended with a concert on Ketagalan Boulevard.