By Elaine Hou, CNA staff reporter
Of those activists who oppose setting up a casino in Taiwan's outlying island of Matsu, a 13-year-old student recently stood out by writing a letter to express her concerns that a casino will ruin the future of the island group.
The letter written by Huang Wen-lan has been widely circulated on the Internet in recent weeks, raising more awareness of the issue of setting up a casino among many Matsu residents and others in Taiwan, Tsao Ya-ping, an anti-gambling activist from Matsu, told CNA in a recent interview.
As Matsu is scheduled to hold a referendum on July 7 to let local residents decide whether to accept a proposal to establish a casino resort there, the student's message even played a part in swaying those who previously supported the idea of building a casino to change their minds, local media have reported.
Having spent six months in an elementary school on the Matsu archipelago, Huang, who currently studies in New Taipei City, said she is "terrified about the island's future" after learning of a high opportunity that a referendum will be passed.
"When you see the land where you grew up become a 'cold establishment' and your home town is notoriously dubbed 'the island of gambling,' would you not feel sad?" she asked people from Matsu in the letter.
Hoping to play a part in the anti-gambling campaign, Huang sent the letter titled "No need for a casino in Matsu's future" to Tsao, a young adult who has been outspoken in opposing a casino in Matsu.
Although gambling remains illegal in Taiwan, a 2009 amendment to the Offshore Islands Development Act conditionally legalizes casino gambling on Taiwan's outlying islands. Under the amendment, a casino can be opened if the project passes a referendum among local residents.
The referendum on a casino will be passed if it is confirmed by more than 50 percent of valid ballots, according to the amendment.
The Lienchiang County government, which governs Matsu, has recently proposed opening a casino resort to boost local economic development and improve transportation facilities.
Building a casino could attract foreign investment and tourists to bolster the local economy, offer more job opportunities, enhance the development of infrastructure such as airports and harbors, as well as increase local tax revenue, the local government said.
It could also provide more choices for recreational activities for residents in Matsu, which lack a thriving entertainment industry, according to the local government.
But the government admitted that casinos could also bring about negative impacts such as the local economy's overreliance on a small number of enterprises, rising consumer prices and increasing crime, including money laundering.
Under the casino proposal, resort developer Weidner Resorts Taiwan is planning to build a resort in Matsu that will include 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, among the Matsu island group.
The student, however, worries that the proposal to establish a casino resort will jeopardize the ecosystem in Matsu, which is rich in natural scenery. It could also discourage backpackers and couples looking for a quiet getaway from visiting Matsu.
She 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 to be passed.
In 2009, a total of 17,359 voters were against allowing a casino resort to open in Penghu, with 13,397 in favor of the proposal.
Following Penghu, Matsu is the second outlying island to hold a referendum on the casino issue.
Echoing her remarks, Pan Han-shen of the Green Party recently argued that building casinos "is not the only way to develop the outlying islands," as evidenced by Penghu's thriving tourism, despite the failure of a casino referendum there.
Huang and Pan are not alone in their cause. A group of anti-gambling activists from Taiwan proper are also now in Matsu to observe the upcoming casino referendum.
There is also another anti-casino group of Matsu natives who have been distributing flyers to the local people and will hold a blessing event on the eve of the referendum day to pray for Matsu's future, Tsao told CNA.
Meanwhile, a Facebook page was set up to encourage Matsu residents to vote against the casino proposal to keep gambling away from their hometown.
Lienchiang government officials said 36 percent of the voters are estimated to support the casino proposal, 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 June 29 that the likelihood of Matsu passing the referendum only stands at 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 that she is pleased to learn that her letter has helped raise the public's awareness of the issue.
"It was meaningful," Huang added.