* Packer can operate casino using local partner's licence
* Religious leaders, opposition politicians oppose casinos
* Main opposition party says Sri Lanka has no real licences
* Government had earlier pledged not to allow casinos
By Ranga Sirilal and Shihar Aneez
COLOMBO, May 9 Sri Lanka will not oppose the
casino planned for a $400 million mixed-use resort being
developed by Australia's Crown Resorts Ltd if it is
operated using an existing license held by a local partner, a
top government official said on Thursday.
The government's latest stance on casinos is contrary to
what it said on April 25 when Australian gambling tycoon James
Packer's Crown project was approved by the country's parliament.
At that time the government said no casino would be allowed in
Opponents of casinos believe they will lead to a boom in
prostitution and damage religious values and culture in the
mainly Buddhist island nation.
But the gambling industry has been operating there in one
form or another since at least the 1980s when many five-star
hotels had their own in-house casinos featuring free drinks and
food as well as floorshows in addition to the blackjack and
Government spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella said casinos will
be restricted to D.R. Wijewardena Mawatha, the area where Crown
has planned the hotel and anybody can operate casinos in that
area if they have a licence held by a local partner.
Rambukwella declined to comment on which government agency
is authorised to issue casino licences and regulate the
Rambukwella said whether it was Crown or another developer
did not matter to the government as long as they worked with a
local, existing licence holder.
"There is no legal barrier for existing casino businesses
getting new partners. There are five licences issued and these
licence holders can have one casino per licence. So there'll be
five casinos." He added that there would be no new licences
Government officials have told Reuters that two Sri Lankan
entrepreneurs have five casino approvals between them. Packer's
Sri Lankan partner, Ravi Wijeratne, owns two, and local business
tycoon, Dhammika Perera, owns three.
Wijeratne and Perera could not be reached for comment.
Officials with Crown did not respond to requests for comment.
Packer, one of Australia's richest men, first obtained
cabinet approval for Crown's project in September, but the terms
were altered and it has been dogged by delays.
CHANGING GOVERNMENT TUNE
President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his coalition government's
changing stance on casinos has drawn criticism from Buddhist and
other religious leaders, opposition parties and even from within
its own ranks.
Stung by the criticism, the government had earlier amended
public documents to remove the word "gaming" for Crown's project
and two others being developed.
When the three projects were initially approved, both
Rajapaksa and Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa said
they would not allow casinos.
Sri Lanka's main opposition, the United National Party
(UNP), said the government is misleading foreign investors like
Packer and the general public.
"There are no casino licences existing in Sri Lanka. I
challenge Rambukwella to table these licences in the
parliament," Harsha de Silva, a UNP legislator, told Reuters.
"Those local casino operators have only receipts for paying
taxes for their casino operations. They are not licences. Still
nobody knows who is issuing casino licences and who will
regulate the business unlike specific licences in Singapore."
The other two projects being developed include a $300
million resort called Queensbury being built by Sri Lanka's
Vallibel One Plc, which is expected to include casino
near Packer's planned complex.
Sri Lanka's top conglomerate, John Keells Holdings Plc
, has committed up to $850 million for another project
called the Water Front, which will also include a casino.
Packer was most recently in the news on Friday when
Australian police fined the billionaire gaming mogul and his
friend, television executive David Gyngell, A$500 ($470) each
after a wild street brawl in Sydney's world-famous beachside
suburb of Bondi.
New South Wales state police said officers had issued a
46-year-old man and a 48-year-old man - identified by media as
Packer and Gyngell - with notices for "offensive behaviour" that
occurred on Sunday afternoon.
The fine will stand, but no criminal conviction will be
recorded if neither of the men contests the notice, police said.
A criminal conviction could complicate Packer's regional
Sri Lankan officials have said the fight has nothing to do
with Packer's Colombo investment.
(Additional reporting by Maggie Lu-YueYang in SYDNEY; Writing
by Shihar Aneez; Editing by Matt Driskill)