A new season begins

For the superstitious-minded, the heavens opening up on Wednesday night with a deluge that flooded Colombo and its environs, inundating the Parliament complex as well (forcing the Honourable Members of Parliament to use armour protected vehicles) may have been seen as an ill omen, having something to do with the passage of the Casinos (Special Provisions ) Law permitting the operation of casinos in the country.

That it happened only hours after the bill saw safe passage to law had tongues wagging. But such talk is best left to those who believe in superstition, and indeed there are many in the Government who do.

This new law which will veritably turn Sri Lanka into a 'Las Sri Lanka' at the whim of a Minister is supposedly to boost tourism. Or so we are told by the Government's front -benchers who had to justify their introduction. True, casinos and gambling dens exist in Colombo and throughout the island in various shapes and forms, but they were considered as operating on the fringe of the law. With the passage of this legislation, they can come out in the open and become legitimate businesses.

Whether the country's tourism sector asked for these casinos to boost their industry is not publicly known. One can understand a country, or a city like Las Vegas in the US that has little else to show off to foreign tourists opening up casinos. But whether Sri Lanka, with its impressive natural beauty- the beaches, the hills, the wildlife, not to mention its historic cities and so much more is so desperate, is another matter.

There may be ambitious moves afoot to rake in the big bucks of the gambling world from the roll of the dice or picking the right card, but none of the Government Ministers told Parliament this week of these plans. For that one has to go real big time, no half-measures, and turn Sri Lanka into a Monte Carlo. Today's casinos in Sri Lanka, especially in Colombo exist cheek by jowl with schools and places of religious worship. They display a 'Foreigners Only' board outside but 75 per cent of those inside are ones whose income is in LKR (Sri Lankan rupees) which the cashier is happy to accept.

With the gambling business one has to expect the attendant 'spin off' - money laundering; the proliferation of drugs and underworld crime which includes violent business rivalry. Earlier this week, there were reports that the Inland Revenue Department was unable to rake in billions in taxes due to them. If only their officers can visit some of these casinos and not take a bribe to erase their files, the Government would have half its problems in revenue collection sorted out.

If this is going to be Government fiscal policy for the future, there would naturally have to be the opening up of a secondary 'night economy' in Sri Lanka much on the lines of Thailand; once the shutters come down in the offices and shops, those of the night clubs go up; and life goes on till morning. But even Thailand has resisted the lure of opening casinos.

With flimsy reasons given for the leave to proceed with the opening of these gambling dens, the Ministers were quick to engage in their favourite pastime, accusing the Opposition UNP of introducing casinos to the country.

That, however, is a fact. With the advent of the UNP Government in 1977, and the introduction of the 'open economy' came the good and the bad of such a move. The then 'tombola' operators graduated to the casino table. It is also a fact that most of them were financiers of the UNP.

President R. Premadasa also permitted this flourishing business to continue - in five star hotels. The foreigners who gambled paid their money to a centre in Singapore, and if they had any earnings, they were given a chit which they could encash in Singapore on their return. This was outside the country's foreign exchange systems. Then, President Premadasa one night, in one fell swoop, closed all of them down. In a public show he had the media cover steamrollers crushing the jack-pot machines and roulette tables. Something must have worried President Premadasa.

The casino operators have returned, slowly but surely, one inch at a time and now have gone the full distance of having their business legalized by the Government of the day. They will be part and parcel of the Sri Lankan economy - and society. People will have to live with it, like it or not and get used to maybe having a casino next door.

Critics ask what of the timing considering the fact that not only is Sri Lanka building the biggest International Buddhist Centre in the world, but preparing enthusiastically to celebrate the 2600 Sambodhi Jayanti, the first sermon after the Enlightenment of the Buddha at Saranath, India.

The people have to live with the facts of life of the real world, probably. Next week we will witness the elaborate plans unfolding for what is virtually the 'coronation' of the President. Around the world, many are bemused that a President was elected, but takes his oath as much as 10 months later. But what they don't understand is that Sri Lanka is a special country where special things happen.

Until our conquest by colonial powers, the people were accustomed to a monarchy. We have a long tradition of monarchs and a hierarchic society where all powers flowed from the King. The Executive Presidency with all its wide powers conferred on an Executive President tends to bestow grandeur on the holder of that office. President J.R. Jayewardene wanted to address the people from the Pathirippuwa (Octagon) at the Sri Dalada Maligawa, and President Premadasa made for himself a Sinhasanaya ( throne like that was used by ancient Kings).

While many sing hosannas to the 'king', in this day and age, especially in a country like Sri Lanka, jobs, education, health, food security and the like matter most. The pomp and pageantry are only temporary, like political life itself. For a people's President, still enjoying mass popularity experienced and wise in the ways of public perception, why one would want to elevate one's self to cult status is a mystery.

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