Colombo casinos above the law on Vesak booze ban

By Chris Kamalendran

The Government had imposed a six-day ban on the public sale of alcoholic drinks in view of this year's Vesak celebrations -- and the 2550 Buddha Jayanthi -- but inside the well-lit casino in Kollupitiya as many as 300 guests were playing Blackjack, Roulette, Baccarat among other games trying their luck in gambling as Vesak was dawning on Friday.

Cheers to the spirit: Vesak illumination by the casinos

As I took up my seat more guests were welcomed by the neatly-attired doorman greeting them with either a "Good luck sir" or "Good luck madam”, as the case may be .Many of them appeared quite comfortable already when I dropped in at one of the more popular casinos in residential Kollupitiya close to midnight , and on the eve of Vesak.

The government’s official ban on liquor in view of the Vesak celebrations was made a mockery with liquor being openly served. Hard spirits, and beer were served on fine silver trays to all those who had cared to visit.

One guest, whisky glass in hand, told me that he had gone to his local club to see if he could tip the waiter to get him a drink, but had been turned down. Then he had heard that the happening place where you could get a drink was the casinos. "So here I am", he said with Rs. 500 worth of chips in his hand -- the mimimum requirement to qualify to be in there and for a tot or two.

Locals and foreigners mingled freely with smart but under-dressed ladies of the night from different nationalities as the tables groaned under the weight of the elbows of men and women chancing their luck.

The situation was similar in other casinos in Colombo's unofficial red light area, though a few of them confined themselves to serving soft drinks and soups trying to respect the Government ban on alcohol.

Elsewhere in the country, the Excise Department was working round the clock to pounce on those selling or transporting liquor and looking for restaurants, clubs and hotels violating the regulations. More than 230 raids were conducted by an army of Excise men by Friday noon and they were expected to continue their operations until midnight Friday.

All night clubs in star-class hotels were closed, and some hotels tried to accommodate unruly tourists demanding alcohol by serving it discreetly with pre-dated bills as the Excise Department issued stern warnings of fines upto Rs.100,000 per bottle that was sold and possible jail sentences.

But Excise Chief Prakrama Ekanayake conceded that casinos were serving liquor even on Poya days and that they were unable to take legal action under the existing Excise Ordinance. He said that at the Casinos they were only "serving liquor free of charge similar to a person hosting a guest at his home”.
And what is more, casinos do not come under the provisions of the Excise Ordinance as licences to them are issued by the Inland Revenue Department, and they do not need a liquor licence to serve drinks free. It seemed that it was business as usual for some of these casinos. And they did not want to even keep to the spirit of the ban.

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