General News - Tuesday December 18, 2007
A DIVISIVE ISSUE
The decision to legalise the two- and three-digit lottery raises questions about dealing with ethical issues
Story by PIYAPORN WONGRUANG, Photos by KOSOL NAKACHOL and PATTARACHAI PREECHAPANICH
The decision to legalise the two- and three-digit lottery, which has been accused of encouraging gambling, was among the toughest the National Legislative Assembly (NLA) has had to make.
The decision was finally made when the NLA passed the Government Lottery Bill on Nov 28.
However, the story does not end there. The legalisation of the lottery has pushed people _ even members of the NLA _ to take sides on the issue, and has challenged society to find a way to define and deal with ethical issues from now on.
It has long been known that Thai people love to gamble on lotteries, as well as other kinds of games.
The oldest known lotteries in the country were started more than a hundred years ago in the reign of King Rama V, according to the Government Lottery Office.
There was a major change in 1974, when the Kukrit Pramoj government passed an act to launch legitimate lotteries.
However, many gamblers love to play illegal underground lotteries in which they choose two- and three-digit numbers. Before state lotteries are drawn, gamblers can purchase their favourite numbers of two or three digits from dealers.
These are written down or typed and copied for gamblers. If their numbers are the same as the last two or three digits of the state lottery draws, they can take the copies of their tickets to dealers to claim their prizes.
It has been estimated by some studies, including one carried out by NLA member Associate Professor Sungsidh Piriyarangsan, that the turnovers of such illegal lotteries were as high as almost 400 billion baht in some years.
The deposed Thaksin Shinawatra government attempted to tackle the underground lotteries.
It gave a green light to the sales of tickets, which came as blank forms so purchasers could fill in their favourite numbers, claiming this would help undermine the underground lotteries.
However, this practice was not supported by any laws either.
After the coup last year, the interim government debated whether to continue the practice.
It first decided to abandon it, before later proposing the legalisation of the two- and three-digit lottery to the NLA.
This initially failed. But later on, some members of the NLA including Assoc Prof Sungsidh picked the idea up and pushed for the new law until it was eventually passed.
"I consider that what we have done is worthwhile. Sometimes, some things _ especially gambling _ have not only an ethical aspect to consider. They also have impacts on society as well as the economy for us to contemplate, and as legislators we cannot stick on any particular points," said Assoc Prof Sungsidh.
As he has carried out the most in-depth studies of gambling in this country, Assoc Prof Sungsidh knows well how two and three-digit lotteries could affect society if left underground.
During his year-long study, Assoc Prof Sungsidh found that money from the lotteries has partly been used to support vote buying at every level, which he says badly undermines the country's democratic principles.
He said major dealers in lottery tickets are often family members of politicians or canvassers.
In some Tambon Administrative Organisations, he found that the TAO representatives were major lotto dealers who spent lottery money on expanding their networks, or even bought their posts at their TAOs.
Although it cannot be established how much lottery money politicians have spent on political activities, the findings of the study were enough to convince Assoc Prof Sungsidh to push for the legalisation of the lottery, to undermine the underground sales.
"How can we call for real democracy if our democracy is still bought, especially by money from gambling?" said Assoc Prof Sungsidh.
"This is casino democracy and I think it is a critical problem for our country. Political reform will never come true as long as vote buying is allowed to continue by any means."
Under the new bill, state lotteries will also include two and three-digit lotteries _ the major difference from the old bill.
This will allow the government to legally sell the controversial lottery tickets from now on, with some money from the sales going to a newly established charitable fund.
Although the law has been crafted with good intentions, members of the House have placed themselves on opposite sides of the debate.
Chermsak Pinthong, a former economics lecturer and also a former senator, said proponents of the bill asked the wrong question in the first place.
With the problem of underground lotteries being spread nationwide, they should rather have focused on how to tackle the dealers, the main causes of the problem.
He said the legalised two- and three-digit lotteries are likely to have long-term impact on the poor, who are the major purchasers of the tickets.
The lotteries, he said, just take money from some people's pockets and put it into others.
This is particularly bad as the poor, who have already dreamed too much of luck in their lives, are often the losers.
"I don't believe it if people say that Thai people love gambling and this is a part of our culture that we should accept," said Mr Chermsak. "If we allow our minds to succumb to evil-like practices, in the future we will have to accept a lot of them in our lives."
Surichai Wankaeo, a sociology lecturer at Chulalongkorn University and a former NLA member, who also disagrees with the legalisation of the two- and three-digit lottery, said it is unethical in the first place.
He said it is pitiful that the government has succumbed to this unethical practice and accepted it.
This, he said, has reflected the weakness of the state system in dealing with problems, and more importantly, the weakness of society and citizens in dealing with unethical practices.
"There are many realities that we have to deal with, but do we really need to succumb to them easily without trying to cope with them to the best of our capacities?" said Mr Surichai.
"We often choose a simple way, and this is pitiful. It is not necessary for us to accept some realities that reduce men's honour."
Shortly after the bill was passed, some members of the NLA threatened to ask the Constitution Court to rule on whether the new bill is constitutional.
It remains to be seen whether the public will have a chance to once again buy these controversial lottery tickets.