James A. Warren, Gambling, the State and Society in Thailand, c. 1800-1945

London and New York: Routledge, 2013. Pp. xvii, 244; table and illustrations, explanatory notes, list of abbreviations, notes, bibliography, index.

Reviewed by Porphant Ouyyanont.

This book is an eye-opener. An apparently unpromising and peripheral topic – the history of gambling in pre-1945 Siam/Thailand – becomes, in the skillful and well-informed work of Dr. James Warren, a fascinating and significant story.

Those with some knowledge of present-day Thailand will be aware of the fever of twice-monthly state lotteries, of the fact that nearly all other forms of gambling are illegal, and of the many grandiose casinos just beyond Thailand’s borders, mainly Thai-owned and with a largely Thai clientele (locals are not allowed).They will be aware, too, of widespread illegal gambling activity within the country, ranging from the flourishing “underground” lottery (with more customers than the state lottery), to illegal gambling dens and betting on international football and local sports. What is less well known is that the present situation is a product of a long historical interaction between gamblers and state policy.

Dr Warren lectures at Mahidol University. For this study he has used a wide variety of Thai-language archival sources, newspapers, and secondary literature. Based on his doctoral thesis undertaken at the University of London, this book looks at gambling from a number of perspectives, covering the games played, the different participants, the attempts at enforcement of laws concerning gambling (including the attempts of the police and judiciary), government policy towards gambling, and changing social attitudes, including the teachings and influence of the Buddhist Sangha and also public opinion as reflected in contemporary newspapers.

The author highlights many different facets of his subject, but his focus is principally on three related elements: the overall development of gambling and the different forms that gambling took, gambling as a source of government revenue, and state attitudes and policies towards gambling.

As far as the first element is concerned, the author shows that gambling activity grew rapidly from the early nineteenth century, spurred by Chinese immigration, a growing economy, and monetization. All groups gambled, “from princes to slaves, Chinese merchants to coolies, government officials to farmers and monks to children” (page 39). Indeed, gambling was a force promoting monetization, and during the first decade of King Chulalongkorn’s reign (1868-1910), “gambling counters became the de facto currency in large parts of the kingdom” (page 24). Much gambling activity was undertaken by Chinese immigrants, both as players and as organizers of the dens. Dealing with revenue, Warren emphasizes that gambling became an important source of government income, representing around one-fifth of total tax-farm revenue by the late 1860s. The collection of revenue mainly through the tax farms, with the tax farmer – almost invariably a wealthy Chinese businessman – bidding for the farm and then paying the state the agreed sum in return for the exclusive right to raise the tax revenue, became a significant aspect of government policy. Since gambling revenue was considerable, gambling became essential to the expenditures of the Siamese state.

Contemporary Western commentators frequently expressed the opinion that both Chinese and Thais were particularly prone to gambling, while many among the Thai elites considered gambling to be a peculiarly Chinese addiction. Warren is reluctant to give much weight to such views of national stereotypes, and instead stresses the social and historical context in which gambling took place. He argues,

Rather than see the prevalence of gambling in Siam/Thailand as stemming from some cultural disposition towards gambling…it was the result of a conjunction of socio-economic factors from the mid-nineteenth century onwards, which marked the country’s transition towards capitalist modernity. (page43)

Official attitudes towards gambling, and government policies, were complex and contradictory, and they changed over time. They were bound up with several factors. Not only was gambling important as a source of tax revenue, but it also involved state relations with Chinese communities and Chinese businessmen; the need to present an image of “civilized” behaviour to the outside world as part of Siam’s strategy to ward off foreign intervention, and so preserve independence, and also to reinforce pressure for ending the unequal treaties; and a perceived connection between gambling and crime.

In the event, the history of gambling in Siam shows an initial period of state encouragement, with gambling dens permitted and a lottery (colloquially known by the Chinese term “huai” to this day) established in 1835. However, from the last quarter of the nineteenth century there was increasing control of gambling, and the numbers of farms and gambling dens was curtailed. A 1902 act brought nearly all forms of legal gambling under official control. At first, revenues were not affected, and reached an all-time high in 1905/6. But a decline in the numbers of farms, both in Bangkok and the provinces, brought a steady decline in state revenue: the huai lottery was ended in 1916, and the last tax farms were abolished the following year. In keeping with the image of a “civilized” country, and in line with supposedly appropriate norms for a developed nation, virtually all forms of gambling were now outlawed. Such prohibition continues to the present.

Gambling did not cease after 1916, of course, and state involvement with gambling also continued. Corruption on the part of police and other officials as well as social attitudes ensured that illegal gambling remained, and remains, widespread. During the controversial reign of King Vajiravudh (1910-1925) a number of semi-official lotteries were sanctioned to finance some of the king’s pet projects. Following the 1932 coup and the end of the absolute monarchy, the state, especially under the military regime of Phibun Songkhram from 1938, used gambling as a means of producing social cohesion and inculcating modern attitudes. This was the background to the “Constitution Celebration Day” lotteries, which commenced in 1933 as an effort to make the anniversary of the constitution a major, festive, and national event; and it was also the background to the opening of a casino – a symbol of modernity – on the eve of the Second World War. As the author expresses it, the role of gambling policy shifted from state building to nation building.

A major argument of the book concerns the extent to which gambling revenue (and revenue from other tax farms) permitted state building during the reign of King Chulalongkorn. State building involved the building up of the absolute monarchy and the decline of the nobility, the growth of centralized administrative control in Bangkok at the expense of the provinces, and the preservation of Siam’s independence in an age of aggressive colonialism. To achieve these aims, the state needed both increased revenues and the control of revenues by the Bangkok authorities. This was especially the case following the unequal treaties with Western powers (the first was the 1855 Bowring Treaty with Britain), which removed traditional sources of revenue from monopolies and imposts on exports and imports (the latter were fixed at just three per cent). Tax-farm revenue, such as that from gambling, thus became an essential element in state building.

During the constitutional period after 1932 (and even to an extent earlier, during the reign of Vajiravudh) the significance of gambling policy changed from state building to nation building. With gambling income now much smaller, lotteries were used for special purposes associated with political objectives.

Thus, through the lens of gambling, the author touches on many of the major themes of Thai political and social history: economic developments that accompanied agrarian expansion and monetization; Chinese immigration; the unequal treaties and growing Western influence; administrative centralization and the consolidation of absolute rule under King Chulalongkorn; and the various problems that beset the country in the 1920s, leading to the revolution of 1932.

Not only does Dr Warren make a convincing case for the overall importance of gambling in terms of revenue raising, changing social behaviour, and state regulation, but he also provides a perceptive commentary on the growth of the Siamese/Thai state and nation. Moreover the author’s excursions into such issues as the policing of gambling, the links between gambling and other forms of entertainment, and the attitudes of the Buddhist Sangha provide valuable insights into neglected spheres of Thai history. The author’s comparison of state policies towards gambling with those towards other revenue-raising vices, such as opium addiction and prostitution, is revealing: he stresses that, whereas the state could deal with gambling as a largely internal matter, policies towards opium and prostitution involved international issues and obligations, especially after Siam became a founder member of the League of Nations in 1920.

Throughout the study, the author draws on a wide variety of secondary sources, and he is able to integrate his narrative with the perspectives of other scholars. This is valuable, since a number of recent works have significantly widened our understanding of the nature of Thai political history, including challenges to the “king-centered” view that continues to dominate Thai historiography.

Despite its origins as a doctoral thesis, the book is eminently readable, and the author presents his analysis concisely and lucidly. The study will be welcomed by all interested in Thai social and political history, and it has also much to relate about the history of gambling and Southeast Asian social history more generally.

Porphant Ouyyanont is Associate Professor in the School of Economics, Sukhothai Thammathirat Open University, Nonthaburi, Thailand.