US$1 billion in resort casino plans are under fire in Sri Lanka’s presidential election
The leading challenger to Sri Lanka President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s bid for a third term in office says he will cancel the licenses issued to Crown Resorts and John Keells Holdings to develop resort casinos in the capital of Colombo.
Mithripala Sirisena, who quit as Mr Rajapaksa’s health minister to run for president in the 8th January election, has crafted a platform designed to appeal to the spiritual leaders of the island nations’s Buddhist majority, who are very influential politically and are skeptical of the president’s vision of casinos as economic development tools capable of boosting tourism and attracting foreign investment in new hotel construction.
The platform is incorporated in a manifesto endorsed by the United National Party, the main parliamentary opposition, and built around a vow to weed out official corruption and advance populist measures such as extended farm loan waivers and lower fuel prices aimed at weakening Mr Rajapaksa’s rural power base.
Dealing a further blow to Crown’s and John Keells’ prospects was the subsequent defection of Mr Rajapaksa’s counsel and deputy minister of investment, Faizer Mustapha, just days ahead of the election. Mr Mustapha had been until then the public face of the president’s casino policy and its most vocal proponent.
Mr Rajapaksa and his family have held a lock on government since succeeding at the end of the last decade in winning a civil war against a militant Hindu Tamil minority that raged in the north of the island for 25 years. The Rajapaksas’ resistance to Western calls for investigations into alleged war crimes in suppressing the rebellion scores highly with voters among Sri Lanka’s dominant ethnic Sinhalese-Buddhist majority, and the regime has been successful in countering Western sanctions with large-scale infrastructure investment from China. China’s booming travel market is a prime target of the pro-casino development strategy.
“I would achieve for the country 10 times the development that actually occurred during the past six years,” Mr Sirisena said, and although Mr Rajapaksa is favored to win re-election, his challenger’s message is reported to be gaining support in urban areas and from Tamils and the country’s Muslim and Christian minorities with promises to purge the foreign service and establish independent commissions to deal with the war crimes allegations and secure the impartiality of the judiciary, police and other public services.
“The extent of corruption in Sri Lanka in the last few years is unprecedented and unheard of,” his manifesto states.
Sri Lanka is home to four officially sanctioned casinos, all relatively small, foreigners-oriented venues comprising a market that Melbourne-based Crown and resort conglomerate John Keells, Sri Lanka’s largest listed company, want to revolutionize by investing more than a combined US$1 billion in luxury casinos with hotels in Colombo’s tourist core. The administration supports both projects, but gaming approvals have been held up by political and religious opposition.
Mr Sirisena’s manifesto does not mention the country’s largest operator: the three-casino group owned by Sri Lanka’s richest man, Dhammika Perera, which also is set to expand with the addition of a $350 million gaming resort in Colombo.