Chief Government Whip Dinesh Gunawardene confirmed the Government’s intensions to go ahead with legislation to legalise casinos and betting centres throughout the country despite criticism from the clergy and opposition political parties. The new law will empower a minister to designate areas in any part of Sri Lanka for gaming or gambling and is now before Parliament for approval.
Titled the Gaming (Special Provisions) Bill, it will legitimize the operation of casinos, betting centres and similar businesses.
The Bill stipulates that from and after January 1, 2012 no person shall engage in the business of gaming other than under the authority of a valid licence issued by the Minister in charge of the subject of Gaming. The Secretary to such Ministry, the Bill stipulates, will publish in a daily newspaper in Sinhala, Tamil and English languages giving “adequate notice to the public of the requirement of having to obtain licences for carrying on business of gaming.”
Those violating the law once it becomes effective will be liable for imprisonment for a term extending to five years or to a fine of five million rupees. The minister in charge of the subject is to be empowered to make regulations stipulating the form of application for a licence. He will determine the fees to be paid and the period for which such a licence is valid. Such regulations will be subject to approval by Parliament.
The main opposition United National Party (UNP) has voiced its strong opposition to the move. Opposition Leader, Ranil Wickremesinghe told the Sunday Times “the Government is trying to smuggle through Parliament this Bill sandwiching it together with other legislation. Like opening liquor bars, it will empower them to open gambling centres in any part of Sri Lanka.”
Mr. Wickremesinghe said that the same had come up in 2003. “We took the view that no gaming establishment is paying the levies imposed by the Government. That did not confer any legality on gaming. Money was required and we generated it,” he said.
“The Government claims it wants to attract tourists. Malaysia which records an annual tourist arrival of 15 million a year has only one casino in Genting Highlands, a few hours drive from the capital, Kuala Lumpur. However, this move is purely to help all the Government’s friends to operate casinos and betting centres,” he said. Ironic enough, it comes in the same year where Sri Lanka, a Buddhist country, is to observe Sambuddha Jayanthi, the 2600 years of the Buddha’s first sermon after enlightenment, he added.
Sections within the Government have also expressed opposition to the proposed legislation. However, the Government wants to go ahead with it.
Jathika Hela Urumaya Leader Venerable Athureliya Rathana Thera told the Sunday Times “Our party is against this Bill. We hope to move amendments to enable only foreigners to be allowed to these places. We will also propose that only one zone be set up instead of several zones.”
Chief Government Whip, Dinesh Gunawardena told the Sunday Times “this particular Bill was referred to the Consultative Committee meeting attended by opposition members. There were no objections at this stage. Therefore, we are going ahead with this Bill. We hope to get it approved. If there are any amendments, they could be submitted on the day of the debate.”