Casinos owned by ruling Cambodian People’s Party Senator Ly Yong Phat have been granted top-level authorisation to run cockfighting tournaments despite a longstanding ban on the controversial bloodsport.
The tycoon owns two large casinos, in Koh Kong and Oddar Meanchey provinces, where the fights will take place. He is also the leading “commercial ally” of several Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) units in those provinces.
Yong Phat requested permission to run a number of new gambling operations out of his casinos, including cockfighting, on September 4.
A letter in response from the Council of Ministers, signed by cabinet secretary Hing Thoreak Sy on September 15, said that Deputy Prime Minister Sok An, who Prime Minister Hun Sen in 2009 admonished for being a lover of the fights, had approved Yong Phat’s request after it had been reviewed by the premier a day earlier.
The letter went on to instruct Yong Phat to make arrangements with the Ministry of Economy and Finance before holding any bouts.
Phat Bun Hour, deputy general director of the Ly Yong Phat Company, said the fights will take place on the grounds of the casinos.
When asked about the apparent legal conflict, he referred questions to government officials.
“On this point you need to ask the government, because they have approved it now. There is no reason that we can’t do it, and yes, the cockfighting will take place on the grounds [of the casinos],” he said.
Cockfighting was prohibited nationwide in 2009, but the ban only seemed to serve to drive the betting rings underground. The phenomenon traces its roots in the Kingdom at least as far back as the 12th century.
Small-scale betting arenas are routinely broken up by law enforcement, despite many of the fights being organised with the knowledge and sometimes participation of high-level officials, police and military officers.
Mey Vann, director of the Finance Ministry’s department of industrial finance, said a lawyer working for Yong Phat was preparing to submit the documentation for final approval.
“The lawyer has made an appointment to meet me and submit the documents . . . When the formal request is filed to the ministry, our experts will examine the different aspects [of the proposal],” he said.
Ros Phirun, spokesman for the Finance Ministry’s gaming and casino department, and Ek Tha, a spokesman for Sok An, could not be reached.
Srey Naren, Oddar Meanchey provincial coordinator for local rights group Adhoc, warned that if Cambodians are allowed to gamble on cockfighting they could “lose money and fall deeper into poverty, because casinos use special techniques to win”.
He added that thousands of dollars were sometimes wagered in a single fight in the province’s underground cockfighting rings, while Cambodians who were let into the casinos at the O’Smach crossing with Thailand had lost land and even their homes to the gambling industry before.
Cabinet spokesman Phay Siphan said that despite a ban on betting on the fights, the practice was allowed at casinos because the industry was regulated. “We made it legal at the casinos so that it is under control,” he said.
San Chey of the Affiliated Network for Social Accountability said he was disappointed that the fights had been approved.
“The government has tried to ban gambling, including cockfighting and betting on football, but then gives licences for unlimited gambling,” he said. “If cockfights are illegal, how can the government allow them inside of a casino?”
Additional reporting by Cheng Sokhorng