Casino – Yes or No?

Southasia - - CONTENTS -

There are con­cerns in Sri Lanka that some govern­ment poli­cies may harm the coun­try’s moral val­ues as a Bud­dhist na­tion.

While the Sri Lankan mid­dle class has been go­ing through a grad­ual trans­for­ma­tion af­ter the end of the three-decade long in­sur­gency, post-war eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment in some ar­eas sug­gests that the coun­try may ac­tu­ally be sail­ing into un­charted wa­ters. Reser­va­tions about the changes tak­ing place in so­ci­ety have ex­isted for quite some time but they came to the fore fol­low­ing an an­nounce­ment made by the govern­ment of the con­struc­tion of a $400 mil­lion casino re­sort pro­posed by Aus­tralian casino mogul James Packer.

With the aim to pro­mote tourism, the Ra­japaksa govern­ment has set an am­bi­tious tar­get of host­ing 2.5 mil­lion tourists by 2016 and of in­creas­ing the for­eign ex­change earn­ings to US$ 2.75 bil­lion. Against this back­ground, the of­fer of a $400-mil­lion re­sort and casino with 450 ho­tel rooms and a mul­ti­tude of restaurants, con­fer­ence fa­cil­i­ties and en­ter­tain­ment op­tions along with other com­ple­ment­ing businesses seemed like just the right be­gin­ning.

At the Com­mon­wealth Busi­ness Fo­rum last year, James Packer elu­ci­dated that Sri Lanka has great po­ten­tial and ca­pac­ity to be­come 'a leading tourist mecca' for the ris­ing mid­dle classes of China, In­dia and other Asian coun­tries. He stressed that un­less the Lankan au­thor­i­ties looked at the In­dian and Chi­nese mid­dle-class mar­kets, the coun­try would be miss­ing out on the many op­por­tu­ni­ties that are sur­fac­ing. “In 2000, around four mil­lion In­di­ans had trav­elled abroad. The UN World Tourism Or­ga­ni­za­tion had es­ti­mated that the In­dian out­bound mar­ket would reach 50 mil­lion by 2020, giv­ing great op­por­tu­ni­ties to her neigh­bors. Mid­dle­class Chi­nese have in­creas­ingly been trav­el­ling abroad. In 2000, 10 mil­lion Chi­nese had trav­elled abroad, in 2011 the num­ber had risen to 70 mil­lion. By 2015 it is ex­pected to reach 100 mil­lion," stated Packer at the fo­rum, quot­ing from a Mckin­sey study. He was also con­fi­dent that the pro­posed in­te­grated re­sort would as­sist the coun­try in meet­ing the govern­ment’s goal of hav­ing 2.5 mil­lion tourists by 2016.

Nonethe­less, a num­ber of civil so­ci­ety groups, academia and op­po­si­tion par­ties have claimed that the path the govern­ment is aim­ing to adopt may pose se­ri­ous threats to the coun­try’s moral val­ues as a Bud­dhist na­tion.

Ac­cord­ing to Siri Hettige, a so­ci­ol­ogy pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Colombo, Sri Lanka dis­plays a very high level of re­li­gios­ity, with the present regime go­ing to great lengths to fa­cil­i­tate the ris­ing tide of re­li­gios­ity and su­per­sti­tion, of­ten at the ex­pense of rea­son. “When we look at the present con­tro­versy over the pro­posed es­tab­lish­ment of a ma­jor casino com­plex in Colombo, it shows how des­per­ate we have be­come with re­gard to the need to at­tract di­rect for­eign in­vest­ment, no mat­ter what that in­vest­ment means with re­spect to longterm so­cial, cul­tural and pub­lic health con­se­quences. While the rest of Asia con­cen­trates on ex­port-led growth, we seem to have cho­sen the eas­ier av­enues of earn­ing for­eign money such as ex­port of la­bor, tourism and gam­bling,” Hettige wrote in an ar­ti­cle.

The re­li­gious groups rep­re­sent­ing all the main reli­gions of the coun­try have shown re­sent­ment against the en­deavor, claim­ing that per­mit­ting the gam­bling in­dus­try to grow will erode the so­cial, cul­tural, moral and re­li­gious fab­ric of the coun­try. At a me­dia brief­ing held by the Congress of Reli­gions, Ven. Madu­luwawe So­bitha Thera as­serted that so­cial evils such as drugs and pros­ti­tu­tion that are as­so­ci­ated with casi­nos would far out­weigh the ad­van­tages of the en­ter­prise. “We are ask­ing min­is­ters and MPs of the govern­ment and the op­po­si­tion not to let gam­bling de­stroy this coun­try,” he said at the me­dia brief­ing.

The arch­bishop of Colombo, Mal­colm Car­di­nal Ran­jith, said in a press com­mu­niqué that the govern­ment’s plan to es­tab­lish a casino vil­lage in the Katana area in the Gam­paha District threat­ens the spir­i­tual mores of vil­lages in Sri Lanka. "Sri Lankan soil, fed by the re­li­gious tra­di­tions of the world's four big­gest reli­gions, is not on sale. I call upon all those who op­pose this move strongly, and call upon the govern­ment not to go ahead with these plans. De­vel­op­ment – yes; but not at the cost of our dig­nity," stated the com­mu­niqué. Sub­se­quently, the US$ 3 bil­lion casino city project planned in Katana was re­port­edly put on hold fol­low­ing per­sis­tent com­plaints of the Catholic clergy.

The govern­ment, how­ever, claims that no new casino li­cense will be granted to the pro­posed com­plex and that all pro­posed casi­nos of the coun­try will be re­lo­cated to a spe­cial zone in Colombo that would re­sult in a net re­duc­tion of the num­ber of casi­nos. "Yes, we are for casi­nos, but we are not go­ing to is­sue any new li­censes. We have to im­pose reg­u­la­tions. The Fi­nance Min­istry passed the bill in 2010 and

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