Covid-19 prompts Thailand gambling legalization debate

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In yet another sign of how Covid-19 may fundamentally change the gambling landscape in Asia, Thai media is reporting that the government is open to studying whether to legalize gambling.

Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha has said he’s willing to look at the pros and cons, even though he is personally opposed to the idea. 

Thailand has in the past flirted with the idea of legalizing gambling, but draft bills have been bogged down in parliament, or dropped out of sight with changes in government. As a result gambling is strictly forbidden apart from on the state lottery and on horses through the Bangkok Turf Club.

Apparently, an outbreak of Covid-19 linked to illegal gambling dens, coupled with widespread illegal gambling in the country has sparked a change of heart.

Gen Prayut, in his capacity as chairman of the Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration (CCSA), on Friday said it was time to begin discussing the possibility of legalising gambling in Thailand, the Bangkok Post cited CCSA spokesman Taweesilp Visanuyothin as saying.

The PM said the key question was whether legalised gambling would be considered morally correct by most Thais since not everyone considered gambling acceptable.

Gen Prayut has approved the formation of two committees which will help provide information about the situation in Thailand. One will look into authorities’ investigations of illegal gambling and the other will investigate how illegal border crossings are handled.

Both committees will work with the Anti-Money Laundering Office to track the flow of illegal funds.

The studies are seeking to throw a spotlight on police and military involvement in the country’s gambling dens.  

Thailand has long been viewed as one of the markets with the most potential in Asia and would undoubtedly attract interest from all the major casino operators. Las Vegas Sands in particular is known to have proposed an integrated resort in the country.

Minority politicians have also been calling for the market to be opened with Mongkolkit Suksintharanon, leader of the minority Thai Civilized Party, last summer suggesting that legalization could bring in about THB5-6 billion in tax revenue. 

As well as illegal gambling in the country, Thais are regular patrons in the border casinos of Cambodia and an increasingly important segment of the clientele in other areas of Asia.

“Since Thailand currently has insufficient income from tourism and exports, the government should consider legalizing what is illegal and bringing the tax into the country. This should be useful for the whole country,” he was cited as saying.

Whether the latest rumblings on legalization will lead to concrete action remains to be seen, with powerful sectors of Thai society, such as its religious leaders, firmly opposed to gambling. However, for the head of the military government to publicly pronounce an openness to consider the subject is a major step forward.