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Demonstrators demand end to ‘casino bill’ in Sri Lanka

Huge tax breaks for developers criticized

<p>Protestors demonstrating against the passage of a bill they say would legalize gambling prepare to march on a proposed site of a new casino complex in Colombo today. (Photo by ucanews.com)</p>

Protestors demonstrating against the passage of a bill they say would legalize gambling prepare to march on a proposed site of a new casino complex in Colombo today. (Photo by ucanews.com)

  • ucanews.com reporters, Colombo
  • Sri Lanka
  • April 24, 2014
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Nearly 200 demonstrators, including civic activists, religious leaders and opposition parliamentarians gathered on Thursday in Colombo to protest the passage of a bill they say would legalize gambling and pave the way for luxury hotel and casino complexes in the country.

The rally, organized by the opposition United National Party (UNP), came ahead of an expected vote in parliament to approve a controversial development bill, dubbed the "Casino Bill" by its critics.

The bill was first tabled in October last year but was suspended after widespread criticism by parliamentarians and religious leaders, who said it would promote crime and damage the morals of the country.

"We suggest reforms, and the bill should at least be edited to exclude provisions for casinos," UNP parliamentarian Harsha de Silva told ucanews.com.

"We urge the government to bury this bill forever, but we are not against development work in the country. Casinos do not only promote gaming, but also major social evils such as prostitution and drugs," he added.

Protesters converged outside the site of a proposed multi-million-dollar hotel and gaming facility to be funded by local businessman Dhammika Perera.

Two other projects—a $400 million development by Australian casino mogul James Packer and a $650 million facility by local conglomerate John Keels Holdings—have also been provisionally approved.

Gambling is officially illegal in Sri Lanka but widely available informally as well as at several luxury hotels in the capital and other parts of the country.

At stake for many protesters is also a provision in the draft bill that would include tax holidays worth more than $1 billion for developers at a time when many in Sri Lanka are struggling to survive.

"Many...farmers, fishermen and laborers lack social benefits and even proper homes, but the government has decided to promote gambling and the vices that always accompany it," said UNP parliamentarian Sajith Premadasa.

"Too many people don't have social security, pensions or subsidies. There are no jobs for our graduates, but they promote this evil," he said. "[The government's] money should be spent for the benefit of farmers, fishermen and poor government civil servants, and not on tax breaks for wealthy investors."

President Mahinda Rajapaksa told a gathering of heads of local media organizations that the bill under consideration did not address the issue of casinos.

"The government will never allow casinos through this act. Even for the new hotels that are in development, we will not allow them to operate casinos," Rajapaksa said.

Last October, Rajapaksa said after the suspension of the bill that the word "casino" had been removed. But critics have noted that the draft legislation does use the phrase "mixed development projects", which they say could be used to allow casinos in the future.

"All religions reject gambling. It misguides people and kills the morals of human beings," said the Venerable Maduluwawe Sobitha Thera, chairman of the People's Movement for Social Justice.

"Buddhists, Catholics and other religious leaders have urged the government not to approve this casino bill, but so far there has been no positive development," he added.

R.A. Hiniaminy, 59, a mother of four who traveled from Moratuwa on the outskirts of the capital to attend the demonstration, said she has seen firsthand how addiction and gambling can affect people and destroy families.  

"If we allow the casino business here...all would be attracted by this evil and it would destroy their lives and the lives of their loved ones. We need a moral society."

Parliament was expected to debate the bill on Thursday, with a final vote slated for Friday, the UNP's Sajith Premadasa said. 

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