‘Dark business’: Thailand prepares for World Cup gambling frenzy | Crime

Bangkok, Thailand – Every 15 minutes, a small crowd gathers in a shack in a Bangkok market to wait for the numbers to be drawn.

The buzz of anticipation with each ping pong lotto draw is palpable, but the excitement is invariably short-lived.

When number five is announced in a recent draw, a man chewing a betel nut sighs at his loss of 1,000 Thai baht ($28). Another crumples the paper containing his bet of 20 baht ($0.50).

Bettors who guess the correct number can win 10 times their bet. But in the end, the house always wins.

“We can make up to $15,000 a month at each table and we can pay the right people to keep them open,” the street bookmaker who runs the draw told Al Jazeera, asking to remain anonymous.

With the Qatar World Cup kicking off on Sunday, Thailand is bracing for a surge in gambling, which, while hugely popular, is illegal outside of a handful of state-sanctioned venues. .

While Thailand did not qualify for the tournament, Thais are expected to bet up to $1.6 billion on the games, according to researchers at the University of the Thai Chamber of Commerce.

Anti-gambling Thai defenders worry about anticipated increase in betting during World Cup in Qatar [File: Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]

“World Cup fever will lead to a 50% increase in newcomers to the game,” Thanakorn Komkris, secretary of the Stop Gambling Foundation, told Al Jazeera.

“But the sad thing is that around a quarter of these newcomers will become regular players based on our experience with past football tournaments.”

Under Thailand’s Gambling Act of 1935, betting is illegal outside of the official lottery and a small number of racetracks.

Authorities have long maintained that the game goes against the tenets of Buddhism, the majority religion in Thailand, and encourages other social ills to flourish.

Yet illegal casinos, online betting shops, underground lotteries and pop-up bookmakers taking bets on everything from cockfighting to Muay Thai are ubiquitous, forming an underground economy worth billions of dollars a year. .

The COVID-19 pandemic and technology have made gambling easier than ever, says anti-gambling activist Thanakorn, with cash-strapped people turning to illegal websites that have sprung up all over the Southeast Asian country.

“Over a million Thais identify as pathological gamblers,” he said.

“Some argue with families because they have to borrow money, but many others turn to loan sharks who are often linked to illegal football websites…they are intertwined like a web.”

Thai horse racing
Betting is illegal in Thailand outside of the official lottery and a small number of racetracks [File: Lillian Suwanrumpha/AFP]

Ahead of the World Cup, Thai police said last week they had shut down 500 websites linked to a national gambling syndicate known as ‘Fat Fast’. Authorities seized nearly $13 million in assets in connection with the raids, local media reported.

Jun, a 34-year-old office worker in Bangkok, knows firsthand the temptations that come with World Cup fever.

He lost around 40,000 baht ($1,120) – several times the average monthly salary – at the 2018 World Cup in Russia, during which he bet up to 2,000 baht ($55.70) on every game. Despite his losses, Jun also plans to float this time around.

“But with the unstable economy, I don’t think I can risk that much this time around,” he said. “I just want to participate, it makes watching games so much more interesting.”

Like many Thais, Jun places his bets with neighborhood motorcycle taxi drivers, who act as street agents for underground bookmakers who ply their trade in almost every community.

But he says real money has to be won – and lost – online, where millions of baht can be at stake.

Authorities say many of these companies are based along Thailand’s border with Cambodia.

The Center for Gambling Studies at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok has estimated that these gambling sites have created up to 700,000 new players this year alone.

Thai money flowing through these websites – along with the proliferation of casinos in neighboring Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar – has led some lawmakers to float the idea of ​​amending the Gaming Act of 1935 to allow licensed casinos .

In June, parliament heard a debate on the issue, which led to the creation of a commission to assess a relaxation of the law. If successful, the drive to bring gambling out of the shadows would break long-held taboos and could bring in billions of dollars in tax revenue currently being paid to illicit businesses.

Opponents say the companies that get the licenses to operate will inevitably grow so big, so fast that authorities will find it hard to contain them, especially if they come with illicit activities such as prostitution, human trafficking , drugs and money lending.

Muy Thai
Gambling on Muay Thai and other sports is popular in Thailand [File: Wally Santana/AP]

Activists such as Thanakorn have also argued that any legal change must be preceded by a lively debate over the health and social consequences in a nation already obsessed with betting.

“There’s no way it’s a good idea,” Thutchakrit Wongpanaporn, a former gamer who runs a YouTube channel dedicated to warning people about the dangers of gambling addiction, told Al Jazeera.

“Unless Thailand can regulate gambling like other Western countries, I just don’t see it,” said Wongpanaporn, known as Sia Joe, who lost more than $1.5 million to because of his addiction. “The government must first control online gambling before thinking about legalizing casinos.”

There are also fears over who would take control of the gambling industry, with casinos in neighboring Cambodia and Laos gaining a notorious reputation as hotbeds of online scams run by Chinese criminal gangs.

“In a ‘dark business’ like gambling, which has ties to criminal activity, there is no regulator strong or serious enough to handle it,” Wongpanaporn said.

For players like Jun, however, legalization could only be a good thing. Whatever its drawbacks, it would at least free millions of Thais from the threat of legal sanctions.

“The thing is, in Thailand, gambling is part of our DNA,” he said.

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