Casino – Yes or No?
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