COLOMBO (REUTERS) - Hundreds of Sri Lankan opposition party members marched in protest in Colombo on Thursday to pressure the government to stop Australian gambling tycoon James Packer from opening casinos in hotel projects planned by his Crown Resorts Ltd.
The protest was held as parliament began debating whether to approve Crown's US$400 million (S$503 million) mixed-development project and two similar projects, altogether worth more than US$1.3 billion.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa's coalition government holds a two-thirds majority in parliament, but its stance on casinos has drawn flak from Buddhist and other religious leaders, opposition parties and even from within its own ranks.
Stung by criticism, the government amended late last year gazette notifications on Crown's three projects and deleted the word "gaming".
Currently, there are only a few, mostly small-scale, casinos in Sri Lanka run by local businessmen.
Mr Packer, one of Australia's richest men, first obtained cabinet approval for Crown's projects in September, but the terms were altered and it has been dogged by delays.
While the government has said it will not allow casinos in Crown's proposed hotel projects, opponents suspect it is little more than double-talk as the government had earlier proposed designating an exclusive gaming zone in the capital. The president was quoted by local media on Thursday as saying that "new hotel projects will not have any casinos."
However, his brother and economic development minister Basil Rajapaksa told parliament during the debate that "there won't any tax concessions for casinos through this order (under gazette)."
Members of the opposition United National Party (UNP) chanted "say no to casino-prostitution bill' at the site of proposed hotel project, which Crown is building with its local partner, Rank Entertainment Holdings Pvt Ltd.
Opponents of casinos believe they will lead to a boom in prostitution and damage religious values and culture in the mainly Buddhist island nation.
The protest march ended with a sit-in outside Bally's Casino, owned by a Sri Lankan entrepreneur who also has plans multi-million dollar expansion plans. "If the government is saying casinos are not allowed for these projects, why can't government include that clearly and mention in the gazette that these projects will not be permitted to operate casinos?" Harsha de Silva, a UNP legislator told the media at the protest.
Government officials say that while the policy is not to issue new casino licences, existing approvals to operate will be accepted. Officials have told Reuters that two Sri Lankan entrepreneurs have five casino approvals among them. Mr Packer's Sri Lankan partner Ravi Wijeratne owns two and Bally's owner Dhammika Perera owns three, they have said.
Mr Perera would use one of his licences for Queensbury, a US$300 million resort near Packer's planned complex, and Sri Lanka's top conglomerate John Keells Holdings has committed up to US$850 million for the Water Front mixed-development project, which will also includes a casino.