Why gambling is flourishing in Thailand despite a strict ban

Yaowarat Road, the centre of Bangkok's Chinatown, at night. Photo: Ninara

A recent study revealed that 57% of the Thai population gambles. 2.4% of those who gambled this year were aged between 15 and 18 years old.

Editorial

Thailand’s gambling laws remain among the strictest on earth. The Thai government placed a full ban on almost all gambling activities in the country, with two exceptions: the state lottery and horse racing.  Despite the country’s strict gambling ban, the gambling rate in Thailand is on the rise.

Thailand’s Center of Gambling Studies and Center for Social and Business Development reported that 57% of the country’s population, or 30.4 million Thais, gambled during the past year. This figure was an increase of 1.4 million since 2017. Furthermore, the survey also revealed that 700,000 of them are punters who gambled for the first time this year.

The survey also indicated that huge numbers of punters are children. 733,000 or 2.4% of those that gambled this year were aged 15 to 18 years old. In addition to this, some three million or 46% are aged between 19 to 25 years old.

Thai gamblers are going online to bypass restrictions

The popularity and market share of online gambling is growing rapidly every year around the globe. The global online gambling market is expected to exceed US$60 billion by 2020 with a compound annual growth of more than 9%.

Online Gambling is highly popular in Thailand despite the prohibition in the country.  Right now, there is no specific legislation covering online gambling but it is considered prohibited by the local officials.

Any gambling operation in Thailand is regulated by the Gambling Act of B.E.2478. This act prohibits all Thai citizens from playing any casino or betting games. This includes various Thai dice games, betting on animal fights, and other traditional Thai games such as slot machines, roulette, and other card games.

In September last year, it was reported that 748 illegal gambling sites were shut down in the country this includes the popular but illegal Slot555.

Many Thais are using online casinos hosted overseas to circumvent the government’s restrictions.  This leaves the Thai government with limited options to prevent players from gambling on foreign sites.

However, the Thai Ministry of Information and Communication Technology has recently started monitoring the situation. The Ministry is reportedly watching local internet activity and blocking IP addresses found visiting any online casinos.

Despite its widespread use, online casinos are not as popular among Thais as other gambling segments. The Centre of Gambling Studies’ survey revealed that only 1.6% of those surveyed gambled via the internet. The study reported that punters wagered a total of THB20.2 billion (US$670 million) online.

Football betting appears to be the most popular among Thai gamblers. Football betting generates about 160 billion baht (US$5.3 billion) each year. It is closely followed by the underground lottery which produces 153 billion baht (US$5.1 billion) and government-run lottery which take in 150 billion baht (US$5 billion) from players.

Online casino bonuses draw in Thai punters

Most online casino websites offer a free credit bonus (or คาสิโนออนไลน์เครดิตฟรี in Thai) to attract players. This bonus is advertised as free money that punters can use to play their favourite casino games online. If the punters win, they can withdraw their winnings. Moreover, punters often receive a welcome bonus which can double their initial deposit.  

Aside from casino bonuses, many online casinos offer free play options to introduce new visitors to the services and the games offered on their websites. This feature allows new players to play games on the website without depositing any cash and posting bets. Many users use this free trial feature to play free slots (or เกมส์ สล็อต ฟรี in Thai) and learn the mechanics of the game. However, players cannot win money while free playing games; members can only use this function to practice the game.

Thai social media stars are getting paid to promote casinos

In 2018, Thai police arrested more than 6,500 people on gambling-related charges. Among those arrested were social media celebrities, affectionately known as “web pretties”. A number of these web pretties are being recruited to promote online gambling sites.

To promote the gambling site, the social media stars are using pen or lipstick to write the domains of the online casino site on their cleavage or on other body parts. They will then post videos or photos of themselves on social media. One girl who was caught admitted that she was receiving THB4,000 to 8,000 (US$125-250) every week to promote a gambling site.

What does the future hold?

A recent study revealed that the legalization of casino gambling could generate over US$2.8 billion from additional tax revenue. However, the legalization of gambling in Thailand will remain off the table for the foreseeable future. Supreeda Adulyanont, manager of the Thai Health Promotion Foundation is pushing for tighter regulations on gambling this year. 

But tighter restrictions will likely be ineffective at curbing gambling in Thailand. The major challenge for the government is to find an efficient way to control VPN use in the country and prevent punters migrating online to circumvent local restrictions.

Gambling in Thailand is here to stay. It will continue to occupy the grey area, remaining a highly illegal, yet totally accessible part of Thai society. There is little the government can do at this point beyond engaging in a lengthy and expensive game of cat and mouse.