In shadow of Cambodian casinos, illegal gaming soars

A recent government crackdown on illegal gambling has Cambodians talking about a double standard; legal gaming is thriving.

On a small vacant lot behind a Buddhist temple in the capital, shelves are stacked with glass jars, each containing a colored fighting fish ready to square off on center stage.

Once two fish are put together, men huddle around the jar for hours to bet and watch as the fish fight to the death.

"I just do this as a hobby, in my free time, mostly on holidays and weekends," says one longtime gambler here. "I can come here and laugh and bet money. Everyone comes here - civil servants, staffers from nongovernmental organizations, businessmen, street vendors, and jobless people."

More and more Cambodians, especially in urban areas, have taken to betting, and betting on just about anything - from how much rain might fall to who would win the war in Iraq. Officials are cracking down on this informal gambling even as they promote the growth of authorized casinos.

During Khmer Rouge rule, gambling was strictly outlawed and punishable by death. It wasn't until the last decade, when Cambodia emerged from war and isolation, that gambling reemerged.

"As the country develops, so has the gambling," said Michelle Trenet, undersecretary of state for the Culture Ministry. "We didn't used to have this. People who live in more isolated areas still don't know what gambling is."

Until recently, government pledges to rid the streets of gamblers have been mostly talk. But in September, police raided two illegal casinos in a rare, highly publicized sweep.

The raids were followed by pledges by officials to crack down not just on illegal casinos, but on unsanctioned lotteries and even the roadside card playing that has popped up throughout the country.

"The motodops [motorbike taxi drivers] use their free time not to find work, but to play cards," says Phnom Penh Municipal Police Chief Suon Chheang Ly. "It is not for entertainment, but for money. It is a waste of time and money."

The timing of the government's tightening up on illegal gambling coincides, however, with a sharp rise in legal casinos and other forms of state-sanctioned betting.

A sports betting company, just two years old, now has some 16 branches around Phnom Penh. A new state-sanctioned lottery company has begun competing with the widely popular sidewalk lotteries.

And still under construction is the towering $100 million Malaysian-owned Naga World casino resort - one of the highest buildings in Phnom Penh - that already dominates the city's waterfront.

"Gambling is everywhere on the streets now, and the police just ignore it," said Manh Sathan, a member of parliament and chairman of the legislative committee. "Why? The powerful people think gambling is OK, so the normal people think so too."

Many complain that the growth in legal gambling takes the punch out of any antigambling message. The increase also raises suspicions about the motivation behind the recent raids and rhetoric, especially in a country notorious for corruption.

"The crackdown is maybe from an agreement with the big, legal casinos, that they have to crack down on illegal casinos," says Chea Vannath, director of the Center for Social Development in Phnom Penh.

Officials at the Finance Ministry refuse to discuss how much money is going into the government's coffers from casinos in general, and from Naga World in particular.

And the lack of a casino law to regulate tax revenue makes it difficult to say how much money Naga World or other gambling institutions might add to the national treasury.

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