The Thai government is preparing to lodge a complaint with neighbouring Laos for allowing a company to issue licences for foreign-facing online gambling operations.
Thailand is “very concerned” about the creation of the Laos Offshore Gaming Authority, a private venture that will issue offshore-facing licences to other ventures, said General Khemmarin Hassiri, commander of the police’s foreign affairs division.
Khemmarin told the Voice of America (VOA) in a report on Sunday (September 25) that the Laos Offshore Gaming Authority, which was granted licensing powers by the Laos Casino Control Commission three months ago, represents “a threat to Thai people”.
The police comments come as Thailand responds to increasing reports of its nationals falling into the hands of Laos- and Cambodia-based human traffickers, who enslave migrant workers in precincts that run online gambling, communications fraud and other criminal schemes.
Media reports in June said the Laos Offshore Gaming Authority presents itself as a cost-saving alternative to PAGCOR, the Philippine online gaming regulator, for regional online operators increasingly under dual pressure from pandemic disruption and Chinese government scrutiny.
However, the authority’s operations risk creating a sense of operational security for underground operators in Cambodia, where the government has finally begun a sweep of properties in Sihanoukville and elsewhere that trap and exploit tens of thousands of workers.
Khemmarin told VOA that Thai police have identified a property suspected of trafficking Thais in the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone, a joint venture between the Laos government and US-blacklisted criminal tsar Zhao Wei, whose Kings Romans Casino is an alleged base for drug, human and wildlife trafficking, child prostitution and money laundering, among other activities.
“They are very famous areas for drug trafficking in the past,” Khemmarin said of the vast Golden Triangle operation and similar economic zones.
“But at the present time they have everything — they have drugs, they have trafficking in persons, they have ... communication fraud, they have online gambling.”
Despite blacklisting by the US Treasury, Zhao’s empire appears to be thriving and expanding, including a river port and an airport now under construction, as well as a Vientiane theme park in development, the VOA report said.
Pressure on the governments of Thailand, China, Vietnam and other nations with migrant workers vulnerable to sham offers of high salaries may only grow, given a recent surge in political hostility in the Philippines toward offshore-facing online operators (POGOs).
Weary of years of uncontained criminal activity surrounding POGOs and service providers, including kidnapping and captive labour, licensee compliance breaches and diplomatic tensions with China, senior lawmakers have tabled a bill in Congress that would ban online gaming operations in their entirety.
Philippine officials are also preparing to deport some 280 Chinese nationals working illegally in the industry, a possible first tranche of repatriations that could amount to some 40,000 people.
Any such ban would likely accelerate migration of underground operator activity from the Philippines to Laos, especially given shrinking room for manoeuvre for illegal operators in Cambodia.
The deteriorating situation is also alarming the United Nations’ drug trafficking monitor.
Jeremy Douglas, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime regional head for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, told VOA that Southeast Asian governments must take the casinos’ activities “more seriously and be candid with each other quickly”.
“But aside from acknowledging they need to do something about casino risks and organised crime, the region needs to step in and take concrete steps to address the known criminals that are involved. Basically clean the industry up before it does more damage,” he said.