Don’t Gamble With Sri Lanka

| Editorial - Sunday Times, Colombo

( April 27, 2014, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) A rose by any other name smells as sweet, and as far as the Government is concerned, a casino by any other name is expected to rake in the shekels.

This week, the Government passed in Parliament the Gazette notifications legalising casinos, all the while insisting that it was only enabling ‘associated facilities’ within three mega integrated leisure projects — without specifying what they are.

The President assured editors of national newspapers that no new casinos would be permitted, but at least one of the prospective investors in Australia, a questionable casino owner, has gone on record that his project in Sri Lanka is nothing but a high-end casino. Testing the President’s word further was the deed by the Government in rejecting an Opposition demand that the Gazette specifically state that the ‘associated facilities’ will exclude casinos and prostitution.

The Government is clearly pulling the wool over the public’s eyes by the use of semantics.

That the Government has already pledged to the would-be casino moguls plots of land in downtown Colombo and advances taken is now public knowledge.

We have seen that this Government has the gambling streak in it. This week, the Auditor General’s report made the stunning revelation that the EPF (Employees Provident Fund), the virtual pensions fund for private sector employees, has squandered more than Rs. 11 billion in 2011 alone by playing in the Stock Market. The news has sent shivers down the spines of millions of people who were, and still are, forced to subscribe to this Fund by law.

The fact that the Maha Nayake Theras have protested against the bid to start mega-casinos in Sri Lanka seems to be water on a duck’s back to this Government.

Yet, if they turn the searchlight inward, Government leaders would see that despite cracking the Parliamentary whip demanding all its MPs vote for these Gazette regulations, the scorecard for the Aussie casino read only 109 votes in favour (less than a Parliamentary majority in a 225-seat House) and 115 did not vote for the Gazette. This included 51 UPFA MPs. Going by the logic propounded by the External Affairs Minister after the Geneva UNHRC vote, as 44 voted against the Gazette and there were 71 absent during voting, so the regulations were defeated.

Those who absented themselves from the vote included Cabinet Ministers. They seemed to muster a modicum of courage to keep away but only one among them could summon the guts to vote according to his conscience and oppose a move that would alter the traditional socio-cultural fabric of this country and plunge it into the vices that plague some other modern societies. This must nevertheless send a signal to the Government hierarchy that what it is doing does not have the support or indeed approval of all the people.

In our editorials of August 4, 2013 (“Casinos may turn tables on Lanka”) and October 20, 2013 (“Casinos; Cusp of a new era”) we said that when the ill-effects of large-scale casinos start making themselves felt – as they inevitably will, the country would know whom to blame. The Treasury Secretary said not long ago that laws would be promulgated to regulate this industry — like in Singapore. We see no such regulations, or regulator, and we probably never will.

Casinos are always associated with corruption and organised crime syndicates worldwide. This country had a brush with it in the 1990s, and Government leaders, the then President of the country no less, learnt a bitter lesson. But how many learn from history?

The internet is awash with links between gaming, money laundering, tax evasion, drugs, prostitution, crime etc., but the Government has chosen to overlook all this in its eagerness to quadruple tourist arrivals with all the hotels coming up in Colombo. The powers that be feel this is a golden money and employment spinner.

Yet, the tax concessions given to attract the investors belittle some of the projections of revenue collection. In any case, it is known that these operations are remote-controlled from safe havens overseas, and precious little revenue would, in fact, trickle into the State’s coffers. Government Ministers speak of the high-spending Chinese tourists who would patronise these euphemistically called ‘leisure centres’. On the other hand, the cases making the headlines are of tourists getting murdered and their assailants being granted bail; of women with tattoos of the Buddha getting lugged to detention centres attracting travel warnings from countries where the bulk of the tourists have long been coming.

While a Government sponsored ‘Mathata Thitha’ programme discourages alcohol consumption and the anti-tobacco lobby wants graphic pictorial warnings on 80% of cigarette packs, Sri Lanka is fast becoming a narcotics centre and now, a gambling den.
Quo vadis O Lanka?

Are we prepared for air, sea disasters?

The still missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 and the sinking of the Sewol Ferry off South Korea have turned the spotlight on glaring deficiencies in Sri Lanka’s own maritime disaster management capabilities (please see our INSIGHT report on page 10). In the event of similar tragedies occurring within this country’s Flight Information Region (Colombo FIR) or Maritime Rescue Zone (MRZ), Sri Lanka’s search and rescue capabilities are weak; have low-level preparedness and bare-bones resources to deploy; that too, within limited range of the shoreline.

When it was estimated that MH370 might be at the bottom of the Southern Indian Ocean, international authorities asked Sri Lanka’s permission to conduct the search in part of its FIR. The Government gave the consent for foreign aircraft to enter the country’s airspace. As it transpired, the search never came this far. But it brought home the point that, should a disaster occur at sea within the Colombo FIR, Sri Lanka has no air and naval craft to conduct or assist a rescue operation in keeping with its international obligations.

Worldwide, FIRs are demarcated by the International Civil Aviation Organisation. Aircraft entering these zones pay a fee for a range of services including air traffic control, communications and, crucially, emergency services. To conduct search and rescue operations within the area of its FIR, Sri Lanka needs high-endurance aircraft. At present, the Air Force has just one of these. Naval capabilities are only slightly better.

After the tsunami, Sri Lankans woke up to the need for disaster management on the ground. But much needs to be done by way of disaster management at sea, particular in an island nation like ours. A Search and Rescue Coordinating Centre was almost defunct until the MH370 catastrophe jerked the authorities awake. Much needs to be done to safeguard the lives and interests of those who place their safety in the hands of our civil aviation authorities.

The Government seems to be rushing pell-mell to promote tourism, air travel and heightened traffic at airports. Surely then, it must seriously take cognizance of its responsibilities towards those very people it is wooing.