FEATURE: All bets off as fight against Matsu casino heats up

By Elaine Hou  /  CNA

Sat, Jul 07, 2012 - Page 3

Among the activists opposed to the setting up of a casino in Taiwan’s outlying Matsu island, a 13-year-old student has stepped into the limelight after writing a letter expressing her concern that a casino will ruin the island chain’s’ future.

The letter, penned by Huang Wen-lan (黃玟嵐), has been widely circulated on the Internet helping raise awareness about the potential perils of setting up a casino that many Matsu residents — along with their supporters on Taiwan proper — fear, said Tsao Ya-ping (曹雅評), a Matsu-based anti-gambling activist.

With Matsu scheduled to hold a referendum today designed to allow local residents to decide whether to accept a proposal to establish a casino resort there, the student’s message has helped sway even those who had supported the idea, local media have reported.

Having spent six months in an elementary school on the Matsu archipelago, Huang, who currently studies in New Taipei City (新北市), said she was “terrified about the island’s future” after learning there was a high probability that the referendum would be passed.

“When you see the land where you grew up becoming colder and more urbanized and when your hometown earns notoriety as ‘a gambling island,’ would you not feel sad?” she asked people from Matsu in the letter.

Joinging the campaign against the proposed construction of a casino on the island, Huang sent the letter titled “No need for a casino in Matsu’s future” to Tsao, who has been a key voice in opposing the creation of a gambling haven there.

Although gambling is illegal in Taiwan, a 2009 amendment to the Offshore Islands Development Act (離島建設條例) conditionally legalized casino gambling on Taiwan’s outlying islands. Under the ruling, a casino can be opened if the project is passed by a referendum undertaken by local residents. The referendum needs to garner more than 50 percent of all valid ballots, according to the amendment.

The Lienchiang County Government, which governs Matsu, recently proposed opening an offshore gambling resort to boost the local economy and improve transportation facilities.

Building a casino could attract foreign investment, encourage more tourism to bolster the local economy, offer job opportunities, enhance the development of infrastructure such as airports and harbors and increase local tax revenue, the local government said.

It could also provide more choices for recreational activities for Matsu residents — an island that lacks recreational facilities, according to the local government.

However, the government said that casinos could also have a negative impact, such as making the local economy over-reliant on a select number of industries, increase consumer prices as well as increasing levels of crime, including money laundering.

Under the casino proposal, resort developer Weidner Resorts Taiwan would build a resort in Matsu including a casino.

The company has also promised to construct an international airport and college town there, as well as a causeway linking Beigan Island to the neighboring island of Nangan.

Thirteen-year-old Huang, however, worries that the proposal would jeopardize Matsu’s ecosystems — an island rich in natural beauty. It could also discourage backpackers and couples who are looking for a quiet getaway from visiting Matsu.

Huang says believes that there exists a “better option” to boost the local economy.

In the letter, she also cast doubts over the benefits of setting up a casino, citing a previous referendum in Penghu on the same issue that failed.

In 2009, 17,359 people voted against allowing a casino resort to open in Penghu, with 13,397 voting in favor of the idea.

Following Penghu, Matsu is the second outlying island to hold a referendum on casino issue.

Echoing Huang’s remarks, the Green Party’s Pan Han-shen (潘翰聲) recently said that building casinos “is not the only way to develop the outlying islands,” as evidenced by Penghu’s thriving tourism which rejected its casino referendum.

Huang and Pan are not alone fighting their cause: Anti-gambling activists from Taiwan proper are also now in Matsu to observe the upcoming casino referendum.

There is also another anti-casino group made up of Matsu Aborigines that has been distributing flyers to local people and is to hold a blessing on the eve of the referendum day to pray for Matsu’s future, Tsao said.

Meanwhile, a Facebook page has been set up urging Matsu residents to reject the proposed casino.

Lienchiang government officials said 36 percent of the island’s voters are estimated to support the casino proposal, which is 4 percent more than those who oppose it, according to a local media report.

However, the Center for Prediction Markets under the Taipei-based National Chengchi University predicted on June 29 that the likelihood of Matsu passing the referendum stands at only 10 percent.

After spending days with the local people to get their message across, Tsao said “it is hard” to predict whether the referendum will pass or not, but Huang told Tsao she was still pleased to learn that her letter has helped raise the public’s awareness of the issue.