JULY 24, 2000 VOL. 156 NO. 3
Boys Abound in 'Vegas East'
the owners of casinos on Thailand's borders are warlords, drug dealers
and shady politicians
By ROBERT HORN Bangkok
Thai real estate baron Jiratha Anupavatham appears to have made a bad
investment. Not a soul is stirring in the eerily silent, marble-and-teak
lobby of his $25 million Paradise Resort, a 144-room pleasure dome that
opened in January on the Burmese bank of the Mekong River, opposite the
Thai town of Chaeng Saen. The hallways are deserted, the swimming pool
empty and the shop spaces vacant. But Jiratha, small and pear-shaped in
a black shirt emblazoned with Playboy logos, is unperturbed. "I'm the
biggest and the best," he proclaims, as he surveys the muddy river from
the Paradise's palatial dining room. His court of underlings and bodyguards
mumble in assent. "That's right, this is Vegas of the East," an associate
chimes in. Jiratha barks at the man to keep his mouth shut. Then he sternly
reminds all present: "There is no casino here."
ALSO IN TIME
no? Just a few meters away, behind stained-glass doors, metal detectors,
security guards and video cameras, scores of ethnic-Chinese Thais are
hunched over green felt tables playing blackjack, baccarat and roulette.
Despite appearances, the Paradise Resort is actually fully booked. But
Burma's generals, already scorned by many countries for allegedly profiting
from the drug trade, don't want it advertised they are also earning cash
from casinos. That's why Jiratha insists he merely runs a "games room."
edition's table of contents
Whatever you call it, it's elegantly appointed in golden teak and crystal
chandeliers. The mostly male gamblers, however, wear tacky windbreakers,
polyester pants and golf shirts. Rolexes, chunky gold rings and other
ostentatious jewelry abound. A woman with ruby-studded black patent flip-flops,
mauve pant-suit, diamond dangle earrings and a sculpture of sprayed black
hair, tosses chips at a baccarat table where the minimum wager is $250.
"I think it's great," she says. "Thailand should have something like this."
Don't bet on it: gambling is illegal in Thailand. So, to the consternation
of the government, military and security agencies, casinos are cropping
up all around the area in Burma, Laos and Cambodia. And Thais are flocking
to them, along with gamblers from China and other Asian countries. The
border regions in the Golden Triangle formed by the intersection of Burma,
Laos and Thailand have long been lawless zones where rebel groups hold
sway; the smuggling of drugs, weapons, timber and people flourishes; aids
and malaria are rife. Gambling is just the next logical step. Casinos
have become the hottest new business for former opium kingpins, mass murderers
and shady politicians.
Thailand's economy is still recovering from its 1997 bust, but the border
casinos are a sure sign that the black market never stopped booming. More
than a dozen have opened in the past three years, and more are being built.
"What's our reaction? Dismay," says Don Pramudwinai, spokesman for the
Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Casino owners say they are bringing
development to places that sorely need it. Thai military and law enforcement
officials say the gambling houses are money laundering operations and
that criminals may be using the easy cross-border passage they provide
to smuggle people and drugs. Gamblers who travel across the Mekong to
the Paradise, for example, never pass an immigration or customs checkpoint.
Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai has urged Thais to boycott the casinos, to
Thailand is itself infested with hundreds, perhaps thousands, of illegal
gambling dens and numbers rackets. In a 1996 study, economists at Chulalongkorn
University estimated that illegal gambling accounts for the lion's share
of Thailand's black economy and generates between $5.5 billion and $11
billion a year, or 4% to 8% of the gross national product. That's more
money than drug trafficking and prostitution combined. Profits from casinos
and underground lotteries are used to purchase protection from police
and the military, to finance political parties and to buy votes in elections.
While Gen. Surayud Chulanont, Thailand's Commander in Chief, has been
fighting to rid the army of corrupt soldiers, an intelligence officer
based on the Thai-Burmese border says the casinos couldn't operate without
the army's tacit permission. "The payoffs go up to the highest levels
of the militaries on both sides," he contends. Law enforcement officials
say prominent Thai politicianssome of whom are also suspected drug
traffickersare among the owners of several casinos. The politicians
they name, however, deny the allegation.
Prasit Phothasuthon, a partner in the Paradise Resort, is the Thai Minister
of Agriculture's brother and a respected businessman. With the blessings
of the government of Laos and help from international investors, he plans
to build more hotels and casinos, housing estates, a motor-racing stadium,
tea plantations, an airport and a tax-free banking zone. "It will be Macau
and the Cayman Islands rolled into one," Prasit says. "I don't want to
launder money. I want to launder the Golden Triangle. We can clean this
place up. It will be a crime-free area." But other casino operators are
skeptical. "If you have a casino, you will have money laundering, prostitution
and criminal elements. You can't avoid it," says a manager at a gambling
house in the Burmese town of Tachilek.
The Moei River separating the Thai town of Mae Sot from the Burmese city
of Myawaddy is a hotbed of crime. Myawaddy's squalorthe plywood-and-tin
shacks and unpaved muddy roads crowded with mangy dogs and goatsbelies
the lucrative smuggling that may be the city's main industry. Men and
women lugging sacks of amphetamines and other contraband ford the shallow,
marshy river to Thailand in daylight as scowling lookouts keep watch.
On the Burmese bank, a few meters from the wading smugglers is the Riverside
Club, owned by Tong Jo, son of Khun Sa, the opium warlord who surrendered
to the Burmese in 1996 but now lives comfortably in Rangoon. Thai intelligence
officials call the Riverside Club "Khun Sa's casino" and say partners
include a Burmese army official.
Khun Sa isn't the only drug dealer with a gambling den. The Wa, a Burmese
tribe with a 20,000-man army, are considered Asia's new heroin and amphetamine
kings. They operate a casino in Mong La, across from the Chinese province
of Yunnan, and were building another near Thailand until the Thai army
shut down a border pass.
The Thai army also forced Cambodian operators to abandon two casinos inO'Smach,
opposite Surin province. But elsewhere in Cambodia, all bets are on. In
Poipet, 2,000 Thai gamblers a day play baccarat, roulette and slots at
the Holiday Palace, the Golden Crown Casino and the Poipet Resort Casinofronted
by huge metal pillars depicting the Angkor Wat. Thai tough guys place
bets as their bodyguards hover behind holding their bosses' mobile phones.
"This is like Las Vegas 100 years ago," boasts one casino manager, blithely
unaware that Las Vegas didn't even have casinos 100 years ago.
The Cambodian owners are businessmen close to Prime Minister Hun Sen.
In December 1998, he ordered dozens of casinos in Phnom Penh closed, saying
they contributed to kidnappings and other criminal activity in the capital.
But he encouraged gambling in "development zones" along the Thai border.
Not everyone in Poipet is happy about such development. In June, more
than 1,500 townspeople protested that soldiers forced them off of land
near the casinos to make way for development projects. Soldiers fired
shots to disperse the demonstrators and arrested six people. A U.N. High
Commissioner for Refugees official confirmed that the land the Poipet
squatters are being moved to is mined. If people in Poipet feel brave
enough to protest, that isn't the case in Pailin, where two casinos are
run by former members of the Khmer Rougethe group that killed nearly
2 million Cambodians during their Killing Fields reign in the 1970s.
The same day as the protest in Poipet, Thai police closed the pier where
boats carry gamblers across the Mekong to the Paradise Resort. Prasit
says the closure is temporary, and that his opponents will soon see the
benefits of gambling. Having failed to shut down its own illegal gambling
dens, the Thai government is unlikely to be able to make its neighbors
close their casinos. Especially when powerful and connected players have
a piece of the action.
With reporting by Kay Johnson/Cambodia
Write to TIME at firstname.lastname@example.org
TIME Asia home
Quick Scroll: More stories from TIME, Asiaweek and CNN