Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Gambling goes underground in Cambodia

In late February, Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen outlawed all forms of gambling involving slot machines and betting on football games, ostensibly in the name of improving the country's morality.


And although Cambodians are now barred from gambling in all its forms - they have long been forbidden from entering casinos to gamble, for instance - many still love to indulge the passion. From playing cards to cock-fighting, betting on fighting fish contests and even gambling on when the rain will fall - where there is uncertainty, there is a chance for a wager. And that's unlikely to change, whatever the politicians say.

Presenter: Robert Carmichael 
Speakers: Kim, card player and small stakes gambler; Kim Vorn, fighting fish vendor

CARMICHAEL: Until February, gambling was big business in Cambodia, but it just got a bit smaller. At the end of last month, Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen issued a surprise directive banning all gambling that uses slot machines, and all football gambling - whether online or on the high street, and whether the businesses were licensed to take bets or not.

Ostensibly the reason for the ban was to protect the country's morals and prevent the spread of social ills. Not everyone is convinced of that, but in Cambodia what the prime minister says, goes. And so within a week, around 100 outlets shut down across the country and more than 5,000 people lost their jobs. Card games are much favoured here (they're illegal), but people also bet on fighting fish and cock-fighting - although the last is seen as the preserve of the wealthy and hasn't been outlawed. 

So despite the prime minister's ruling, gambling will probably continue for ordinary Cambodians.

Kim is a 30-something Cambodian who runs a boat service in Phnom Penh, and enjoys regular games of cards with his friends. The card game he plays is called O' Pai, and players normally bet 12 cents on a hand. So what does he like about gambling?

KIM: It is not about like or dislike. Sometimes when we get together, Khmers like playing cards, especially during the festivals like Khmer New Year or Phchum Ben day. We meet and feel bored, so we play. And we usually bet on it with some money. Well, it's a common thing to do. Usually, we lose or win between five and seven dollars. We are not professional players. Professional players would bet with a lot more money. Overall I have lost more than I have won in card games.

CARMICHAEL: Away from the river on a busy street corner next to a temple is Kim Vorn's stall. For the past ten years she has sold fighting fish. The fighting fish rest - 50 of them - placid for now, each in their own glass bottles, separated from one another by playing cards so as to prevent them trying to attack each other through the glass. 

Vorn says the ban has not yet affected sales, but it has affected gambling on them. 

VORN: This government ban on gambling of course has affected gambling on fish-fights. But since our government says we must close it, we cannot disobey. Because now it is illegal, and that means we can be arrested for it.

But will the government's prohibition work? Most people don't seem to think so. Card-player Kim says Cambodians will continue to gamble.

KIM: People are afraid when they hear that the government is cracking down on card games. So they are careful about it, but they still play. They find quiet, safe places to play cards. They rent a room in a hotel or a guesthouse. If they see police around, they will stop playing all of a sudden. But during the ceremonies and festivals like Khmer New Year, they play and are not afraid no matter what the government says.

CARMICHAEL: There is no doubt that gambling can have a detrimental effect on societies - especially poor countries like Cambodia - so it's possible that, regardless of the motives behind the crackdown, some good might come from it. 

That said it seems clear that the government's closure of the different types of high-street gambling operations won't change Cambodians' love for a wager. People might well go somewhere quieter, but the odds are good that many will continue to bet small sums on games of chance.

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