Where Lies The Answer?
The only issue that has shaken the Mahinda Rajapaksa led UPFA government was the opposition to the proposal to open up three new luxury class casinos in spanking new hotels in Colombo. The islandwide rally against this proposal that brought together religious leaders of all the main religions, rival political parties and even strange bed fellows like government ministers together with their bête noire in the opposition, sent political tremors through the Rajapaksa establishment. It eventually led to President Rajapaksa categorically stating that no casinos would be established in the proposed multimillion dollar Strategic Development Projects.
However, despite the categorical assurances given by President Rajapaksa there are lingering doubts being expressed by those who had opposed the casinos.
Casinos have shown a wonderful resilience of bouncing back. Around twenty years ago a Singaporean Casino operator Joe Sim was actively rolling the dice and seemed to be welcomed by the Premadasa government. After a seemingly enjoyable honeymoon, the government and Joe Sim fell out and soon Sim was asked to pack up his jackpots with other paraphernalia and exit.
It is contended by some pundits on tourism that casinos are an essential adjunct of the tourist industry.
For those tourists who are not satisfied with beautiful beaches, wild life and archeological wonders, something more exciting is called for like posh casinos. To some of these pleasure seekers, Colombo after dark is half as alive as New York’s cemetery and twice as dead. Our ambitious tourist projects are no longer confined to attract barkeepers, waiters and barbers, etc., of Western Europe who want a cheap holiday in the sun. We are attempting to lure the high spending millionaires, if not from the West, the new rich Chinese or Indians at least. The existing Casinos won’t do and the present state of the tourist industry has to be revived with a kick behind its pants.
Doubts about the return of James Packer and the resurgence of local Packers remain because a few months ago a Bill to establish casinos presented to parliament was withdrawn following protests by leading Buddhist monks and the political opposition. Two weeks ago they surfaced as regulations framed under the Strategic Development Project Act. No mention was made about the establishment of casinos in the proposed projects but it left room for casinos to come in under ‘other facilities’. An opposition amendment for regulations to directly state that no casinos would be permitted was rejected on a legal technicality that an amendment to a regulation was not possible.
President Rajapaksa will be justly exasperated. He had denied quite categorically that no such casinos would be established in the proposed projects. What more can he do?
The rallying cry of Buddhists has been that gambling is one indulgence which he Buddha has clearly denounced.
Other religious leaders also do realise the pernicious effects of gambling. But do religious or moral grounds have a bearing on the thinking of our political leaders? Apparently not to most of them if the ‘buckshee’ materializes for them in a confidential way.
The high life led by our politicians and their kith and kin who not very long ago led humble lives cannot be explained away from the legal declared incomes. With money laundering playing a serious role in allegations of how such monies are earned, this no doubt leads to extensive corruption in public life.
It has been argued that if big international casinos are in operation in Colombo, they will be confined to foreigners.
Even so there will be the local tycoons sitting on stacks of money and having no legal avenues to spend it in Sri Lanka. Where would that money go? It will obviously be invested in more hideous business such as heroin smuggling and of course buying influence.
Buddhist monks, other religious dignitaries and those politicians that opposed the establishment of international casinos here have done a great service to the nation.
But casinos, as we said, have a wonderful capacity for rebounding. Eternal vigilance is called for.