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Sri Lanka passes contentious development bill

Critics say use of misleading language paves way for legalized gambling

<p>Demonstrators hold up a placard depicting the moral dangers of gambling during a procession opposing the passage of a controversial development bill that critics say would legalize casinos in the country (photo by ucanews.com)</p>

Demonstrators hold up a placard depicting the moral dangers of gambling during a procession opposing the passage of a controversial development bill that critics say would legalize casinos in the country (photo by ucanews.com)

  • ucanews.com reporter, Colombo
  • Sri Lanka
  • April 25, 2014
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Sri Lanka’s parliament on Thursday evening approved a controversial development bill that critics have said would pave the way for unregulated gambling and destroy traditional values in the country.

The Strategic Development Projects Act passed with a vote of 113 in favor and 42 against, despite widespread resistance by the opposition United National Party (UNP) and a coalition of civic and religious leaders.

The bill was first tabled in October last year but was suspended after public protests over fears that legalized gambling and the proliferation of casinos would create social problems and lead to a rise in crime.

Earlier on Thursday, about 200 protesters gathered at the proposed site of a multi-million-dollar gaming facility to be funded by local businessman Dhammika Perera in Colombo, demanding that the development bill be scrapped.

“This SDP act promotes casinos and gambling, but the government is hiding that fact by using phrases such as ‘associated facilities’ instead of gambling,” said Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna party information secretary Vijitha Herath.

“We proposed an amendment that would prohibit casino development, but the government ignored it and is trying to mislead the general public by playing with words,” he said.

During a meeting on Thursday with the heads of local media organizations prior to the vote, President Mahinda Rajapaksa noted that the act made no reference to casinos or gambling. 

But critics site the inclusion of phrases such as “mixed development projects” and “associated facilities” to suggest the government has cloaked its intent to legalize gambling, which is currently illegal in the country.

Passage of the development act follows the provisional approval of several proposed luxury hotel and casino complexes, including a $400 million project by Australian casino mogul James Packer and a $650 million complex by local conglomerate John Keels holdings.

The development act further grants tax holidays worth more than $1 billion for so-called dual-purpose facilities that would include high-end hotels, office space, shopping facilities and gaming. 

“Casinos would provide the cover to launder black money by politicians and ultimately damage the economy by promoting crime, prostitution and drug use,” Herath said.

Basil Rajapaksa, the country’s economic development minister and younger brother of President Rajapaksa, said the government had no hidden agenda with respect to the development act.

But opposition United National Party parliamentarian Ravi Karunanayake dismissed the claim.

“[The act] has renamed casinos as strategic development projects and has effectively legalized gambling,” he told ucanews.com.

“Confusing terminology has been included in the bill to overcome our objections.”

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