Will Vietnam ever get its gambling act together?

vietnam-gambling-actAs Vietnam considers harsher punishments for illegal gambling, some politicians are urging the government to reconsider gambling’s legal status.

Vietnam, which outlawed the ‘social evil’ of gambling back in 1948, is currently weighing a proposal that would increase the severity of punishments on illegal gambling activities. Under the existing Penal Code, gamblers caught wagering stakes over VND 2m (US $88) face prison sentences starting at a minimum of three months.

The new plan would let many gamblers off the hook by boosting the stakes threshold at which charges would be filed to VND 5m. However, the proposal also calls for minimum prison sentences to be raised to one year. In cases where the stakes are over VND 50m ($2,220), convictions would result in minimum sentences of three years in prison.

But Thanh Nien News reported that some lawmakers are suggesting it’s time for a rethink of whether gambling really was a social evil. Noting that the 1948 law had failed to reduce gambling prevalence, Pham Xuan Thuong, who represents the northern province of Thai Binh, suggested a better solution would be to “organize gambling activities in a more sensible and manageable way.”

Other lawmakers noted that Vietnamese gamblers – who currently aren’t allowed in local casinos, although the government has flirted with the idea of relaxing this edict – will continue to go abroad to gamble, as evidenced by the growing number of casinos being built just across the border in Cambodia.

But Vietnamese gamblers forced to leave the country to gamble can face true social evils, like kidnapping. Last week, Cambodian police arrested four Vietnamese nationals for illegally detaining two other Vietnamese men who’d borrowed money to gamble at the Asia Casino in Bavet City then failed to make good on their debt. In February, Vietnam tightened its border with Cambodia after reports of similar kidnappings became too frequent to ignore.

Vietnam is notorious for the glacially slow approach to revising gaming legislation. It’s been 17 years since the country first contemplated legalizing football wagering and two years since the country approved draft legislation, yet punters are still waiting for the law to be finalized. On June 30, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung instructed (again) the Ministry of Finance to continue to tweak the legislation.

The latest revisions involve the types of bets that will be permitted, which include not only match winner but also props like first scorer, number of yellow and red cards and corner kicks. The proposed maximum allowable bets are also getting a boost, from their previous limit of VND 1m ($44) per day to VND 1m per wager.

Whatever changes the government eventually adopts, they will come too late for defendants in the trial of an illegal online gambling ring linked with Philippine-licensed sportsbook 188Bet. The four principal defendants stand accused of organizing gambling and illegally transporting currency across the border for a ring that handled wagers of over VND 400b ($17.7m) between 2011 and their arrest in 2013. The trial, which got underway in Ho Chi Minh City People’s Court on Monday, is expected to wrap up this Friday.