Nov 01, Colombo: Sri Lanka's main opposition United National Party (UNP) parliamentarian, Economist Dr. Harsha de Silva has challenged Investment Promotion Minister Lakshman Yapa Abeywardena for an open debate on the government's casino issue.
At a media briefing today Dr. de Silva said the government and the Minister were hiding the truth about setting up casinos in Colombo.
He said the government is claiming that the proposed casino bill is to legalize and regulate the illegal gambling centers in the country but the truth is the government is attempting to provide tax concessions for Australian gaming tycoon James Packer's "illegal casino".
Packer has agreed to invest US$350 million to build a 36-story skyscraper which will be known as 'Crown Colombo' in the heart of Colombo for a casino and gaming enterprise to be opened in 2016. The large scale casino project, which is identified as a mixed development project, has been categorized under the Strategic Development Projects Act.
The project has been granted a 10-year exemption from income tax in addition to a further concessionary 6 percent tax rate for 12 years among other tax concessions.
The opposition parliamentarian charged that the claim by Abeywardena and Media Minister Keheliya Rambukwella that no new casino licenses have been issued for the new development projects was false.
He said the government is making many inaccurate interpretations regarding casinos in the country and that the government is saying that casino legislations were in force in the country since 1988.
He stressed that the only time legislations were prepared to legalize casinos was in 2010, by the Rajapaksa government under the 'Casino Business Regulation Act No. 17 of 2010' and in no time a UNP government has tried to legalize casinos.
According to Dr. de Silva, the law legalizing casinos was adopted in November 2010 and although licenses had to be issued to casino operators by January 1, 2012, licenses have not been issued.
He charged that the government allowed the illegal casino operators over a year between the adoption of legislation and issuing license to benefit from their illegal operations.
Dr. de Silva pointed out that none of the casinos operating at present obtained licenses and there was no way to transfer a non-existing license.
He has added that the law also stated that legal action should be initiated against any person who operates a casino without licenses and so far action has only been taken against village level gaming dens.
The MP said James Packer addressing the annual conference of his Crown Casino in Australia, had said that he is confident that Sri Lankan parliament will approve tax benefits for him.
"That means the Sri Lanka Parliament is not being controlled by the Mahinda Rajapaksa government but by the Casino King in Australia, James Packer."
He said by inviting people like Packer, the government is trying to create another government within it.
Dr. de Silva said what the Ministers Lakshman Yapa Abeywardena and Keheliya Rambukwella and also the President are now saying is that casinos already exist in the country since 1988, they have licenses and two such existing casinos will be shut down and shifted to these multistoried casinos.
Minister Abeywardena last month said that the government has taken measures to shift all existing gambling operations which are maintaining improperly in the Colombo city into a special gambling zone.
The Minister said that there are four gambling centers within the Sri Lankan capital and some are close to schools and a religious place. The government is planning to move them to a special gambling zone.
Claiming that the government and the Minister are making false statements to mislead the public, the MP challenged the Investment Promotion Minister for a debate on the issue.