Inside Asian Gaming

INSIDE ASIAN GAMING | April 2008 6 T hailand’s newly appointed civilian prime minister Samak Sundaravej caused quite a stir recently when he announced on a live radio phone-in programme he wanted to start a casino industry in the country before the end of his four-year term. Of all the economic reforms he could have chosen to publicise at this stage in his tenure, the introduction of casinos seems the least obvious. Mr Samak is, however, a colourful character. Aside from being a deputy prime minister in the 1990s, he was also–until 2006–a television chef with his own show on Thailand’s ITV network. The casino scheme appears to be the political equivalent of a mystery recipe, as it took many people by surprise, including, reportedly, members of his own cabinet. Locals pay Mr Samak’s office elaborated on the idea after the broadcast, suggesting five casinos could be built in Thailand’s holiday resorts. Foreigners would be allowed free entry, but Thai nationals would need to pay 100,000 baht (US$3,200). It wasn’t made clear whether that would be a one-time fee, an annual charge or a per visit expense, adding to the impression Mr Samak was cooking up the policy at short notice. “Thais who want to gamble can gamble, and police can do other jobs instead of cracking down on illegal gambling dens,” a pragmatic Mr Samak was quoted as saying. Almost as soon as he was off air, opposition was mobilised from within his People’sPower Party (PPP) and frompowerful social interest groups. Some deputies from his own side went public saying the issue had not been properly debated. In-fighting For experienced Thailand watchers, the failure of the governing party to speak with one voice on a key policy issue was nothing new. This is not just because some of the kingdom’s practising Buddhists may have Cooking Up a Storm Thailand’s TV chef-turned-PM curries favour on casinos ethical concerns about casinos. It’s because factionalism and in-fighting in Thai politics is the norm, especially when cash and influence-peddling are at stake. Thailand is a country with a relatively independent judiciary, but where the complicated legal system is often manipulated by politicians seeking to advance their own business interests, stifle unwelcome policies or silence opponents. A favourite technique of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra before he was ousted in a military coup in September 2006 was to lean on media organisations (including ITV, which his family controlled until January 2006) to sack hostile journalists. If that didn’t work, his government launched a number of criminal libel law suits against news outlets in a bid to get individual reporters jailed. Thailand is also a nation with significant levels of administrative corruption, and any business involving large amounts of money could be viewed as a potential cash cow to be milked at every opportunity. The Samak Sundaravej Market Outlook