Casinos: the house always wins

Casinos: the house always wins

On Saturday, the Bangkok media carried stories about Thai villagers protesting against plans for yet more casinos just over the border in Cambodia’s Koh Kong province.

The reports noted that politicians and senior officials in both countries are “co-owners” of the casinos and reap vast profits from them.

They also claimed that “large amounts of shares in the casinos were offered to top officials in Cambodia”.

Of course, it is widely believed that corruption and money-laundering occurs in all casinos here, as it does in others around the region. And no amount of official monitoring appears able to stop it.

What is more pertinent, especially in a needy nation like Cambodia, is whether those who pocket the vast profits, and the officials who get the backhanders and share allocations, are the only ones who benefit.

In short, do ordinary Cambodians and citizens of other casino-hosting nations in this region gain in any way from the seemingly unstoppable proliferation of gambling dens?

Here, due to the sweetheart deal given to Phnom Penh’s NagaWorld, the nation’s biggest legalised gaming operation, no other casinos are permitted within 200km of the capital until 2035.

Even that mind-boggling monopoly has not stopped the mushrooming of provincial casinos at Bavet (nine), Poipet (eight) and other border points such as Koh Kong, nor those in Sihanoukville (three) and Kampot (two).

Where next, for heaven’s sake? Battambang and Siem Reap? Angkor Wat? There are already more than 30 casinos in Cambodia – and counting.

When will the spread cease? Given the profits and the kickbacks and the nefarious fringe activities, gambling operations, once permitted and set in motion, are a hard train to stop.

It’s all a bit odd. After all, Cambodians cannot legally enter casinos and gamble in their own country.

Of course, this rule is not enforced, nor is it in Singapore and Vietnam, although in Singapore, where lucre is the only rule that counts, citizens can gamble if they pay a hefty entrance fee.

In any case, the vast majority of customers in Cambodia’s ubiquitous gambling palaces are Thais, Vietnamese and Chinese.

It is not unreasonable to ask what the burgeoning, but dubious, trade they bring here does for the country’s image and development.

Consider, for a start, that many of the casinos are owned by foreigners.

NagaWorld is run by Chen Lip Keong, a reclusive Mal-aysian Chinese who once told senior staff that the less his company was mentioned in the media, the better.

Given that Buddhism, the official religion of Cambodia, forbids gambling, it is a perverse irony that NagaWorld is located beside the revered Buddhist Institute.

But Cambodia doesn’t have a lock on such ironies. Muslim-majority Malaysia has one of the world’s largest gaming complexes.

And Singapore, which once railed against the vice of gambling, now has two huge casinos.

Again, they are foreign-owned. Sheldon Adelson, a hawkish American Zionist, operates the $5 billion Marina Bay Sands gambling joint – and adopts a Chen-like antipathy towards the media.

Perhaps it’s because he is under investigation for bribery. Who knows?

What we do know is that he has donated millions to the presidential campaign of Newt Gingrich, the man who says the Palestinians are an invented people and who wants to colonise the Moon.
Yeah, hand it to the Singaporeans: they give a casino licence to an ultra-right-wing American billionaire so he can reap yet more billions and bankroll the White House bid of a nutcase like Gingrich.

And what does it bring them?  What do casinos bring to Cambodia? And to Laos, the Philippines, Myanmar and Vietnam?

Arguably little, except to fill the pockets of shady foreign tycoons and their polit-ical fixers. Oh, and it also brings, as extensive research has shown, more violence, money-laundering, prostitution and drug use.

So let us hope the protests of those Thai villagers succeed. But don’t bet on it – the house always wins in the end.

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