A man slams down a hand of cards on the riverside in response to news the police may be on their way.
ALONG Phnom Penh's riverside, Burth Sarom was playing cards with other taxi drivers. The 33-year-old was adamant the fifty-cent wagers injected excitement into the game but did not constitute gambling, as winnings and losses came out in the wash and games ended in laughs, he said.
The dozen or so cabbies there said they played only to kill time while waiting for customers and had never engaged in formal betting.
"We support the government in closing gambling places because people often lose money doing it," chimed in 49-year-old Kong Kompheak. "Gambling leads to robbery and violence."
Last week, the prime minister abruptly ordered the closure of all sports-betting outlets and slot-machine parlours across the country, claiming they had been responsible for moral decline in the Kingdom. The opposition Sam Rainsy Party said the move was long overdue.
While police have made no quantitative link between gambling and moral decay in Cambodia, the government has insisted upon the connection to justify the ban, and many Phnom Penh residents agree.
After City Hall on Monday released a report on crime numbers in the capital in 2008, Mayor Kep Chuktema singled out gambling parlours as a principal source of crime along with drug use, and said the vices needed to be stamped out if Phnom Penh was to become a safer place.
Nuon Samet, chief of the Municipal Cabinet, said authorities had previously "lacked control" of slot parlours and football betting, which he said were a "significant cause" of robberies. In 2009, City Hall planned to close karaoke bars and video sex cafes close to schools, in addition to gambling centres, he added.
Mok Chito, head of the Interior Ministry's Crime Department, said gambling clubs were the "root of crime". "This move [to close gambling establishments] has been welcomed by the population."
Pou Tley, 21, is a tuk-tuk driver based outside the shuttered Cambo Six shop on Street 63.
A security guard stands outside a Cambo Six betting shop last week before police moved to shut the venues down.
He missed the concentrated business he used to get from the gambling centre - "especially the winners would pay well" - but said the neighbourhood was better off without it. Cambo Six, most of whose business came from sports betting, was the largest establishment to be closed, employing 3,000 people.
"You would see people who needed money quickly and they would steal," he said. "They would steal wallets, cellphones and maybe even a motorbike to get some cash."
Applause for the closure came from as far away as Amsterdam. In a letter to the Post, Meas Bunly, a Cambodian in the Dutch capital, said any financial losses from gambling tax revenues would be more than overshadowed by reduced crime and school dropout rates - both of which he insisted were consequences of gambling.
Saved from himself
Nan Lavy said the ban was a blessing. The 11th-grader at Sisowath High School in downtown Phnom Penh, would pawn valuables given to him by his parents to pay off debts owed to Cambo Six.
"I would bet on soccer, lose lots of money and then sell my cellphone or anything else I had to get some quick cash."
The problem escalated, he said, when he was forced to borrow from friends and even mortgage his motorbike when he fell deep in the hole.
"I was happy to see Cambo Six close. It removed a temptation." He insisted his punting days were over.
Tang Koeung, the owner of a car-repair shop in Phnom Penh's Daun Penh district, said he had discovered some of his staff would often nab spare parts to sell off in order to recoup betting losses. He fired them.
"It was a bad influence. We are better off not having to worry about it now," he said.
Phnom Penh Police Chief Touch Naruth said the ban was permanent and applied to all forms of gambling, from sports matches and cockfighting to slot machines and informal wagers on the street over card games. Nearly 100 slot -achine and sports-betting venues had been closed since the crackdown, he said.
Although all residents interviewed by the Post said playing cards play for money has carried on in the streets unaffected, Touch Naruth said police were arresting people just for engaging in such informal betting and holding them in detention for 48 hours as punishment.
"When tourists visit Cambodia and see people gambling everywhere, it will have a negative effect on how they see Cambodia," he said.
Police can even prevent families from gambling within their homes, he added. He did not specify a sanctioned penalty for these offences.
He said the ban removed a poisonous addiction for workers and students who should be attending to their vocations, and recommended former punters immerse themselves in "wholesome Khmer pastimes, like dancing and sport", to fill the void.
Phnom Penh's most posh gambling venue, Naga Casino, where Cambodians cannot play, has remained untouched, but Touch Naruth said the government would consider closing if it was discovered Cambodians were gambling there.
Despite expressions by the government and residents to the contrary, Nancy Chau, the head manager of Cambo Six who is originally from Hong Kong, saw no connection between vice and gambling at sanctioned establishments like hers. "Look at Las Vegas, Macau, Hong Kong. It hasn't led to crime there," she said.
"People should be free to do what they want."
According to Chau, the closure of Cambo Six and licensed venues would simply push people to dodgy underground venues.
"People won't stop just because licensed places have been closed. They will go elsewhere, to places that are unregulated and dangerous."