| by Tisaranee Gunasekara

“The moronic inferno”.
Saul Bellow (The Dean’s December)

( October 25, 2013, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) In Ulla, Pottuvil, fishermen are protesting against a government plan to construct a multi-storey tourist-facility in a land traditionally used for fisheries purposes1.

In Batakettara, Piliyandala, poisonous gases emanating from a soap-powder manufacturing factory have caused havoc. 72 people were hospitalised with breathing difficulties; animals and vegetations are sickening; and villagers cannot use well-water.

The water-issue in Weliweriya and the carcinogenic-fume issue in Dorape remain unresolved.

The absolute majority of the victims of these land-grabbing/environmental-degradation issues are Sinhala-Buddhists. But the self-anointed saviours of Sinhala race and Buddhism – from Mahinda and Gotabhaya Rajapaksa to the JHU and the BBS – have scant interest in either these health/livelihood crises or their very Sinhala and very Buddhist victims.

Earlier this month, the BBS declared war on the Archaeological Department, accusing it of permitting a granite-quarry in a site containing the embalmed body of Sugaladevi, a Queen-Regnant of the Ruhunu Kingdom2. The presence of a Tamil overseer was used to give the entire operation an ethno-religious twist, an anti-Sinhala conspiratorial slant. The BBS worthies inflicted the area, accused the Archaeological Department of criminal negligence and demanded that the Defence Ministry replace the archaeologists3 (Incidentally entrusting archaeological-sites to the Defence Ministry would be akin to mandating the fox to protect the chickens, officially. In May 2012, the people of Villachchiya in Anuradhapura apprehended some treasure hunters - who turned out to be STF personnel; the police, instead of arresting the suspects, set them free4)

The factories causing havoc in Weliweriya, Dorape and Batakettara are not rogue operations. All have requisite permission from the Central Environment Authority (CEA). Clearly the CEA is either too inefficient or too corrupt to perform its duties satisfactorily. But the BBS – or any other Sinhala-Buddhist supremacist outfit – is yet to utter a word of criticism of the CEA.

The conclusion is obvious. The BBS – and others of its ilk – will champion an issue only if it can be used to demonise this or that minority community.

The BBS-attempt to use the ‘Sugaladevi’ issue to whip up Sinhala-Buddhist anger failed when Prof. Raj Somadeva confirmed that no ancient artefact had been discovered from the quarry-site and dismissed the presence of a mummy as a myth: “When someone repeats the same thing, then it will be treated as truth by the people. The cinema, literature or art promote myths in the same way”5.

The JHU’s attempt to launch an ‘anti-government war’ on Minister Sarath Amunugama for advocating the legalising and levying of locally-distilled liquor became a damp squib6.

The JHU-BBS effort to demonise the newly formed Northern PC and its Chief Minister failed to convince.

Anti-Halal campaign is the last resort of the hate-cum-fear-mongers.

Halal for Casinos

This week the BBS recommenced the anti-Halal campaign, with a vehicle parade from Colombo to Kandy. The regime which banned a vehicle parade by the afflicted people of Weliweriya gave the BBS permission and protection.

The BBS ended its parade by proclaiming a ‘Year against Halal’.

The Rajapaksas are facing potentially serious problems on several fronts. The SLFP old guard is clearly unhappy with the Sibling-regimen and the Siblings seem unnerved by the presence of Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga. Their rapid and harsh response to the micro-mini rebellion in the North-Western and Central Provincial Councils is a signal to disaffected SLFPers that any act of dissidence will be met with zero-tolerance. The Rajapaksas are reportedly preparing a “code of ethics for SLFP MPs and ministers in a move to dissuade internal rebellion” and might even present to the SLFP Central Committee “a list of names of government ministers, who maintain a close rapport with former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga”7.

Weliweriya is a challenge to the Rajapaksa hegemony in the Sinhala-South, a warning that socio-economics will cause fissures in the patriotic façade.

The Siblings suffered an unaccustomed and unexpected setback over the Casino issue. The UNP and the JVP acted commendably in exposing the reality of the Rajapaksa-Packer agreement. Described by Australian paper, ‘The Age’ as ‘an extraordinarily sweetheart deal’, this agreement gave the Packer-project “a decades long tax holiday, exempting it from paying at least 10 taxes and levies”8. Mr. Packer is to invest US$400 million in a 36 storey casino-resort in Colombo. According to Inland Revenue sources, “the tax breaks could be more than US$1 billon foregone from the Sri Lankan budget over the next decade”9

(Incidentally, James Packer has close business ties with China; during the previous Labour administration he publicly slammed Australia for being ‘ungrateful’ to China10. Not so incidentally, Mr. Packer’s most recent mammoth project, the ‘Fontainebleau’ casino-resort in Las Vegas, has drowned in a mire of scandal and bankruptcy; the Australian tycoon reportedly lost US$250 million in consequence11. He is also facing a related court case in Nevada for hiding ‘cost overruns’12.)

The focus of limelight on James Packer has cast a protective-shadow over the man whose plans include not one but three gargantuan casino-resorts in Colombo - Dhammika Perera, business tycoon and the Secretary to the Ministry of Transport. Mr. Perera, a most-favoured-Rajapaksa-acolyte, holds three licenses; he plans to build ‘Queensbury’, a 40 storey casino resort in DR Wijewardane Mawatha, a Waterfront casino-resort with JKH Holdings and a third mega-structure with a US or Asian gaming brand13. So Dhammika Perera represents a casino-menace of far greater order than even James Packer! And his involvement indicates that the multiplication of giant casinos is visceral to the overall Rajapaksa political project.

Little wonder then the BBS dismissed the threat from casinos and presented ‘Halal’ as the greater threat by far: “….we believe that compared with the Halal issue in the country the casino issue is a minor one”14.

So reignite the anti-Halal campaign, divide Sinhala and Muslim opponents of the casino menace and divert Sinhala-attention from the casino threat with the ‘Muslim threat’.

The Australian experience with casino-focused development has some warnings to offer to Sri Lanka. “In 2009-10, casino visitors lost over $3.5 billion in Australia. Most gamblers are locals with international visitors making up just 5% of customers at Australian casinos”15. A comment made by an Australian journalist, Adele Horn, about James Packer’s pose as everyman’s economic-saviour is applicable to the Lankan situation as well: “What is good for Packer is not good for the rest of us. No one should be fooled by Packer’s stance as saviour of the ailing tourist industry. Packer may need high rollers from China, but whether Australia does is another question”16.

The Rajapaksas are planning to present a ‘restructured’ Casino bill within the year. Whether the Australian Casino King and the Lankan Casino King will agree to be taxed, whether they will consent to laws banning locals from casinos and other circumscribing measures are doubtful. James Packer and Dhammika Perera want an El Dorado in a laissez-faire landscape.

So the regime might do an 18th Amendment – pretend to compromise, use the anti-Halal campaign to muddy oppositional-waters and hurl the Casino Bill through parliament like a thunderbolt.

Why else would the Rajapaksas take the risk of marring their Big Fat Commonwealth Wedding with an outbreak of anti-Muslim violence?

1 http://www.srilankamirror.lk/news/11313-bbs-declares-year-against-halal
2 http://www.ceylontoday.lk/16-45206-news-detail-sugaladevis-tomb-is-a-myth.html
3 http://www.dailymirror.lk/news/37272-bbs-wants-defence-ministry-to-take-over-archaeological-department.html
4 Daily Mirror – 2.5.2012
5 http://www.ceylontoday.lk/16-45206-news-detail-sugaladevis-tomb-is-a-myth.html
6 http://www.srilankamirror.lk/news/11033-jhu-in-an-anti-governmental-war
7 http://www.ceylontoday.lk/16-45300-news-detail-govt-preparing-list-of-chandrikas-slfp-buddies.html
8 http://www.theage.com.au/national/packer-wins-sri-lankan-taxbreak-deal-20130707-2pk5f.html
9 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/130714/business-times/packers-350-mln-casino-investment-52231.html
10 http://www.afr.com/p/national/politics/stokes_and_packer_we_need_to_bow_oAMt4oFWo4pC0k21xZ53EL
11 http://www.smh.com.au/business/packers-us-casino-gamble-in-250m-loss-20090610-c3mi.html
12 http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-05-17/packer-must-face-lenders-las-vegas-lawsuit-court-says.html
13 http://www.ft.lk/2013/09/16/dhammika-gears-up-for-gaming-kingship/
14 https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/anti-halal-campaign-more-important-than-casinos-bbs/
15 http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/comment/what-are-the-odds-new-casinos-lead-to-social-harm-20131015-2vkmf.html
16 https://newmatilda.com/2012/10/25/packers-casino-game