* Buddhist leaders, opposition renew protest against casino
* Packer's Crown Resorts won cabinet approval for projects
* President Rajapaksa says no hotel projects will have
* President's brother says: no tax concessions for casinos
By Shihar Aneez
COLOMBO, April 24 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 $400 million mixed-development project and two
similar projects, altogether worth more than $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
Currently, there are only a few, mostly small-scale, casinos
in Sri Lanka run by local businessmen.
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
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. Packer's
Sri Lankan partner Ravi Wijeratne owns two and Bally's owner
Dhammika Perera owns three, they have said.
Perera would use one of his licences for Queensbury, a $300
million resort near Packer's planned complex, and Sri Lanka's
top conglomerate John Keells Holdings has committed up
to $850 million for the Water Front mixed-development project,
which will also includes a casino.
(Additional reporting by Ranga Sirilal; Editing by Simon