Hundreds of Sri Lankan opposition party members have protested in the capital, Colombo, to press the government to stop Australian gambling tycoon, James Packer, from opening casinos in hotel projects planned by his Crown Resorts Ltd.
The protest was held on Thursday as parliament began debating whether to approve Crown’s $400m mixed-development project and two similar projects, altogether worth more than $1.3bn.
“If the government is saying casinos are not allowed for these projects, why can’t government include that clearly and mention in the gazette that these projects will not be permitted to operate casinos?” Harsha de Silva, a United National Party (UNP) legislator said.
Opponents of casinos believe the project will lead to a boom in prostitution and damage religious values and culture in the mainly Buddhist island nation.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s coalition government holds a two-thirds majority in parliament, but its stance on casinos has been criticised by Buddhist and other religious leaders, opposition parties and even from within its own ranks.
Stung by criticism, the government amended late last year gazette notifications on Crown’s three projects and deleted the word “gaming”.
Currently, there are only a few, mostly small-scale, casinos in Sri Lanka run by local businessmen.
Packer, one of Australia’s richest men, first obtained cabinet approval for Crown’s projects in September, but the terms were altered and it has been dogged by delays.
While the government has said it would not allow casinos in Crown’s proposed hotel projects, opponents suspect it is little more than double-talk as the government had earlier proposed designating an exclusive gaming zone in the capital.
The president was quoted by local media as saying that “new hotel projects will not have any casinos”.
However, his brother and economic development minister Basil Rajapaksa told parliament during the debate that “there won’t be any tax concessions for casinos through this order (under gazette).”
Members of the opposition chanted “say no to casino-prostitution bill’ at the site of proposed hotel project, which Crown is building with its local partner, Rank Entertainment Holdings Pvt Ltd.
The protest march ended with a sit-in outside Bally’s Casino, owned by a Sri Lankan entrepreneur, who also has a multi-million dollar expansion plans.