Gambling fuels poverty

In a dimly lit room in a frontier town along the Thai-Cambodian border, a man slaps down a card on the table, having bet all his daily earnings as a motorbike taxi driver.

He loses the US$4 he earned that day. To quell his anger, he sniffs a bowl of glue - a daily habit to boost his stamina to work through the oppressive heat.

"How am I going to pay off the police tomorrow?!" he exclaims in a flurry of curses, referring to the daily cuts demanded by the border officers.

Gambling addiction poses a huge problem in Southeast Asia's second-poorest nation, and those afflicted can rarely find help. In a country where 33 percent of the population live on 50 cents a day, according to Cambodian government statistics, gambling is only worsening the poverty cycle.

However, the Ministry of Interior, whose mandate includes overseeing Cambodia's largely unregulated gaming industry, does not even recognise gambling addiction as a problem.

"It [gambling addiction and gambling-related crime] doesn't happen here," said one police commander at the Ministry of Interior in Poi Pet, who refused to give his name. "Maybe in countries around Cambodia, but definitely not here." Poi Pet is a small town along the Cambodian-Thai border known for its casinos.

"If people want to gamble legally, it's their choice," he said. But there are no counselling or mental-health services for gambling addicts in the town.

Poi Pet is home to a special border zone between Thailand and Cambodia with regulated gaming, popular among Thai gamblers, as casinos are outlawed and gambling tightly regulated in Thailand.

The Cambodian government has outlawed informal gambling in Poi Pet. But gamblers claim the police abuse the law, demanding exorbitant bribes when caught.

Savuth, 27, who did not want his surname revealed, said Poi Pet police demanded up to two-thirds of illicit gambling earnings when caught.

That added heavily to the weekly "corruption tax" as he put it, which involves paying another cut to the police just to avoid harassment.

Rock bottom

A thief-turned-casino employee, Savuth claims he was once drawn by the glamour and potential of big gambling years ago in Phnom Penh and lost everything. One night, he promised himself he would play only three times at the city's Naga Casino, but bet $1,500 and his motorbike – crucial to his career as a taxi driver.


Photo: Geoffrey Cain/IRIN
Bustling with casinos, Poi Pet attracts a large number of visitors from Thailand, as well as locals. For some games, casinos require low wagers at US$0.25 or less to attract poorer, more vulnerable gamblers

As a result, he became a thief in the capital, and developed an addiction to hard drugs. He kept gambling to sustain his addiction and soon lost his house.

His commune intervened, donating $50 a month to his personal expenses until he found a new job. Instead, he gambled it away.

"I went crazy at that point. I couldn't find help anywhere, because everyone was so angry at me," he told IRIN. "And I was homeless."

With his family and friends having abandoned him, Savuth shaved his head - signifying a promise for purification – and succeeded in beating his gambling habit but not drugs. He migrated to the border where, ironically, he found work at a casino.

With a lack of services for gambling addicts, such stories are common. "I've known some people who lose everything, can't repay their debts, and are hunted down by criminals and killed," he said. "Sometimes their children must repay the debts."

Gambling on the weather

Illicit gambling is so pervasive in Cambodia that residents in Battambang and Phnom Penh bet daily on the rain, with wagers topping $1,000.

Such gambling is considered a higher-end sport in Cambodia, according to recovering addict So Sopheap. "It's an activity of richer people," he said. "But it's also an activity where the rich lose everything."

It has spawned underground mafia-style networks. Participants can bet on the minute and hour rain will occur, as well as how much.

"The networks really get you hooked by promising a lot of money," he said. "But the fact is, you can't win this game unless you know weather patterns from observing rain for years."

Sopheap lost his house, property and car. His children had to find better jobs just to support his addiction, but he did not stop until he developed a serious drug addiction and his family intervened.

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