‘Dark Business’: Thailand prepares for World Cup gambling frenzy | crime

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

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

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

Players who guess the right number can win up to 10x their stake. 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 ran the draw told Al Jazeera, asking not to be named.

With the World Cup getting underway in Qatar on Sunday, Thailand is bracing for a surge in gambling which, while hugely popular, is illegal outside a handful of government-recognized venues.

Although Thailand didn’t qualify for the tournament, the 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.

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Thai anti-gambling advocates are concerned about an expected surge in betting during the Qatar World Cup [File: Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]

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

“But what is sad is that around a quarter of these newcomers become regular players based on our experience at past football tournaments.”

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

Authorities have long argued that gambling violates the principles of Buddhism, Thailand’s majority religion, and encourages other social ills.

Still, illegal casinos, online betting shops, underground lotteries, and pop-up bookies taking bets on everything from cockfighting to muay thai are ubiquitous, creating a shadow economy worth billions of dollars a year.

The COVID-19 pandemic and technology have made gambling easier than ever, said Thanakorn, the anti-gambling activist, and people short on cash are turning to illegal websites that have sprung up across the Southeast Asian country.

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

“Some fall out with families over borrowing money, but many others turn to loan sharks, who are often tied to illegal football websites… they’re intertwined like a web.”

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

Ahead of the World Cup, Thai police said last week they had shut down 500 websites linked to a nationwide gambling consortium called Fat Fast. Authorities seized nearly $13 million in assets as part of the raids, local media reported.

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

He lost about 40,000 baht ($1,120) – several times an average monthly salary – during the 2018 World Cup in Russia, where he wagered up to 2,000 baht ($55.70) on each game. Despite his losses, Jun plans to have a flutter this time as well.

“But given the unstable economy, I don’t think I can risk that much this time,” he said. “I just want to get involved, it makes it so much more interesting to watch the games.”

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

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

Many of these companies are based along Thailand’s border with Cambodia, authorities said.

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

The Thai money flowing through these sites – as well as the proliferation of casinos in neighboring countries of Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar – has prompted some lawmakers to float the idea of ‚Äč‚Äčamending the Gambling Act of 1935 to allow licensed casinos .

In June, Parliament heard a debate on the issue, which led to the creation of a committee to consider relaxing the law. If successful, the push to lift gambling out of the shadows would break long-standing taboos and potentially rake in billions of dollars in tax revenue currently pouring into illicit businesses.

Opponents argue that the companies that get the operating licenses will inevitably grow so large, so fast, that authorities will have trouble containing them, especially when accompanied by illegal activities such as prostitution, human trafficking, drugs and moneylending.

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

Activists like Thanakorn have also argued that any change in the law must be preceded by fierce debate about the health and social consequences in a nation already obsessed with betting.

“This is by no means a good idea,” Thutchakrit Wongpanaporn, a former gamer who runs a YouTube channel warning people about the dangers of gambling addiction, told Al Jazeera.

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

There are also fears over who would take control of the gambling business, 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 that has ties to criminal activity, there is no regulatory body strong or serious enough to deal with it,” Wongpanaporn said.

However, for players like Jun, legalization could only be a good thing. Whatever its downsides, it would at least relieve millions of Thais from the threat of legal sanctions.

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

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