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JHU game for Casino Bill

MPs ferried into a darkened and flooded House
By Chandani Kirinde, Our Lobby Correspondent

It’s not every day that Members of Parliament (MPs) get led up the steps of the Legislatures by policemen holding torches to light the way, but that is what happened last Thursday (11), when areas around the complex went under water, with the Diyawanna Oya overflowing its banks due to the heavy rains that hit Colombo district.

The MPs had to abandon their Prados, Monteros, Volvos and BMWs, and instead, be assisted into armoured personnel carriers used by the Army in the former war zones, to navigate their way up to the main entrance of the Parliament building.

Sergeant-at-arms Anil Amarasekara directs operations at the flood hit Parliament on Thursday. Pic by M.A. Pushpakumara
The road leading to Parliament was like a river on Thursday.

Speaker Chamal Rajapaksa, along with Leader of the House Nimal Siripala De Silva, went to Parliament by boat, and sittings began as scheduled at 1:00 pm, but lasted less then 10 minutes, within which time, with the agreement of the Opposition, approval was granted for a Rs 15 billion supplementary estimate needed for urgent development work.

The MPs were literarily in the dark during the brief session, as power to the building had been knocked off as a precautionary measure, as water had flowed onto the ground floor of the building, flooding the lobby areas, the committee rooms, as well as several office rooms.

While the flooding of Parliament made headlines in both the print and electronic media, the passing of a controversial Gaming Bill got submerged to some extent, especially, the fact that the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), a Party which jumped on the bandwagon of the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) with promises to set up a “Dharma Rajaya” (righteous society), having no qualms about supporting legislation that legalised gambling.

The change in name from Gaming (Special Provisos) Bill to the Casino Business (Regulation) Bill, may have sufficed to appease the JHU, because, other than a change in the title from the original draft Bill, Parliament approved virtually the same provisions with which the JHU had expressed its dissatisfaction. JHU member Minister Champika Ranawaka was among those who said “aye” to the Bill.

The JHU’s monk MPs Ven. Ellawala Medananda Thera and Ven. Aturaliya Ratana Thera opted to stay away during voting time, as did several senior members including Ministers Wimal Weerawansa, John Seneviratna, D.E.W. Gunasekera, Prof. Tissa Vitarana and Rajitha Seneratna among a few others. The Bill was easily passed with 114 voting in favour and 33 against, after a division by name. Tamil National Alliance (TNA) members did not take part in the debate, while opposition came from the United National Party (UNP) and the Democratic National Alliance (DNA).

Ironically, it was the JHU which took the initiative in 2006 to spearhead an anti Tobacco and Alcohol drive which resulted in the Government enacting the National Alcohol and Tobacco Authority Act that restricted and regulated the sale and use of these products.

So it was no surprise that Deputy Minister Dr. Sarath Amunugama had a difficult brief to carry, when he had to introduce the Casino Business Bill to the House and justify it to a country which has heard ad nauseum of the “matata thitha” programme of the Government and the Mahinda Chintanaya’s policy of restoring high values to society. As to how far this kind of law will go towards that end, he did not say, but the deputy Finance Minister said that the laws are enacted to regulate the unregulated sector, and locate casinos only in designated areas, away from proximity to schools and places of worship.

But what seemed more important to the Government was to provide for the needs of the growing number of foreign visitors to the country, who, the Deputy Minister said, would reach 700,000 by year’s end. “Laws have to be adopted to suit the fast paced economic development taking place in the country. We have to tie up the loose ends and get the country moving,” Dr. Amunugama said.

He urged the UNP not to clutch at straws to score points over the Government, which is exactly what one would expect the main Opposition party to do, given the sorry state it is in. And this time around, the UNP did have the opportunity to expose the double speak of the Government on issues of morality, which it likes to preach often.

“The Government says it will legalise casinos because they are illegal in the country now. Even prostitution is illegal, so does that mean the Government will legalise that also”? UNP Gampaha District MP Joseph Michael Perera asked.

DNA Colombo district MP Sunil Handunetti also criticised the Bill, saying that, it was not Mahinda Chintanaya that is in operation now, but the “Las Vegas Chintanaya. “Now we will have a new minister in charge of casinos as well,” he said.

It’s not clear why Leader of the House Nimal Siripala De Silva went into the historical origins of gambling, but he told the House that it started with the Chinese, then adopted by the Greeks and the Europeans, and then trickled down to this part of the world. It ended with the Minister lambasting the UNP for being the first party to legalise gambling, by introducing the Betting and Gaming Levy Act of 1988. As with most other things among many within the Government, two wrongs always seem to make a right, especially, when the first wrong has been committed by an Opposition party.

Parliament will meet again on Tuesday (16) for a special meeting to pass several other Bills, which were to be taken up last Thursday and Friday, but postponed due to the floods.

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