By Muhammed Fazl –
“The best throw of the dice is to throw them away” – English Proverb
Though Mahinda Rajapaksa (MR) regime was defeated by a coalition of different political parties, the United National Party (UNP) seems to be in the driving seat for now. And for major changes to take effect, it would be only fair to give them a reasonable time frame. But when detrimental-to-society economic policies of the previous regime are being camouflaged and re-presented, I find myself being forced to write again interrupting my self-imposed hiatus.
Casinos and betting on horses, two deadly sins that had been a curse to thousands of my countrymen for decades, has been given approval to operate once again by the very same regime that campaigned on the promise of eradicating the ‘casino culture/economy’.
The moneyed and the powerful, strange bedfellows they make. It is no secret that Minister of Housing Mr. Sajith Premadasa’s friendship with the owner of Stardust/Marina Casinos Mr. Ravi Wijeratne dates back to the eighties. Knowing well the ‘permanent interests’ philosophy of Sir Winston Churchill, as much as close acolytes of MR they are, Mr. Wijeratne and Mr. Dhammika Perera of Ballagio/Ballys fame maintained a strong bond simultaneously with Mr. Premadasa and other top UNPers respectively. Having supported both sides during the recently concluded Presidential elections, it is now obvious that both Mr. Dhammika Perera’s and Ravi Wijeratne’s gaming empires would remain intact and unscathed, even from firebrand socialists and ‘holier-than-thou’ critics such as Mr. Patali Champika Ranwaka, Rev. Athureliya Rathana Thero of Hela Urumaya and Mr. Anura Kumara Dissanayake of JVP. While the stoic silence of Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe (RW) aligned prominent Muslim politicians and Buddhist monks seems to be adding insult to injury, serious questions may be raised should they decide to play a political/religious role in their respective communities in the future.
Casinos, state sponsored lotteries & betting on horses
Casinos – Introduced by the UNP government of Late J.R. Jayewardene and closed down by the Late R. Premadasa in the early nineties, only for it to be re-opened again by the Late D.B. Wijetunge in 1993, along came prostitution (local and foreign), alcoholism, drug addiction, crimes, immorality, financial ruin etc.
Lotteries – State sponsored and in essence, a poor man’s method of indulgence in gambling with only a handful out of millions striking it big.
Betting on horses & sporting events – I always wondered why this business of betting that are monopolized by Mr. Thilanga Sumathipala of Sporting Star fame and by Mr. Lakshman Balasuriya of Sporting Times never caught the attention of no Finance Minister from no government in power in the last 3 decades when imposing taxes on gambling. With Yaha Palanaya at play, I was hoping that at least the new Minister of Finance Mr. Ravi Karunanayake would be intelligent enough to understand that even betting on horse races and sporting events is considered gambling.
Legislations & questions to Minister of Finance as per http://www.ird.gov.lk/bgl.html,
To begin with, NO CASINO LICENSE is in existence nor was one ever issued. And whatever legislation there is, it need not be surprising to see that instead of amending laws for the economy and society to benefit, the casino mafia has been the source of influence in drafting legislation which favored them from every government in power. At least now, I sincerely hope the following will get the attention of our new Minister of Finance Mr. Ravi Karunanayake,
- The Commissioner General of Inland Revenue (CGIR) is the concerned authority to collect any form of taxes from the Gaming and Betting industry.
- As per the Betting and Gaming Levy Act, No.40 of 1988, has the CGIR collected 1,000,000/- per annum for the period between 1988 to 2001 from Mr. Ravi Wijeratne owned Stardust Casino, Mr. Dhammika Perera owned MGM/Ballagio/Ballys Clubs, Mr. Lucky/Nalin Fonseka owned Ritz Club, Mrs. Neththicumara owned Salaka Club and from Mr. Hiran Witchackshana owned King 8 Club? Apparently, Mr. Witchackshana also happens to be living right behind Sirikotha in Kotte.
As per the Betting and Gaming Levy Act, No.7 of 2001, has the CGIR collected 25,000,000/-per annum for the period between 2001 to 2002 from Mr. Ravi Wijeratne owned Stardust Casino, Mr. Dhammika Perera owned MGM/Ballagio/Ballys Clubs, Mr. Nalin Fonseka owned Ritz Club, Mrs. Neththicumara owned Salaka Club and from Mr. Hiran Witchackshana owned King 8 Club?
- As per the Betting and Gaming Levy Act, No.23 of 2003, has the CGIR collected 12,000,000/- per annum for the period between 2002 to 2005 from Mr. Ravi Wijeratne owned Stardust Casino, Mr. Dhammika Perera owned MGM/Ballagio/Ballys Clubs, Mr. Nalin Fonseka owned Ritz Club, Mrs. Neththicumara owned Salaka Club and from Mr. Hiran Witchackshana owned King 8 Club?
- As per the Betting and Gaming Levy Act, No.9 of 2005, has the CGIR collected Rs. 50,000,000/- per annum for the period between 2005 to 2013 from Mr. Ravi Wijeratne owned Stardust Casino, Mr. Dhammika Perera owned MGM/Ballagio/Ballys Clubs, Mr. Nalin Fonseka owned Ritz Club, Mrs. Neththicumara owned Salaka Club and from Mr. Hiran Witchackshana owned Red Star Club?
- As per the Betting and Gaming Levy Act, 19 of 2013 has the CGIR collected Rs. 100,000,000/- per annum for the period between 2013 to 2015 from Mr. Ravi Wijeratne owned Stardust Casino and Marina Club, Mr. Dhammika Perera owned MGM/Ballagio/Ballys Clubs, Mrs. Neththicumara owned Salaka Club and from Mr. Hiran Witchackshana owned Red Star Club?
- In addition to the above levy, has the CGIR collected the VAT Tax of 12% from the year 2002 to 2013 from Mr. Ravi Wijeratne owned Stardust Casino, Mr. Dhammika Perera owned MGM/Ballagio/Ballys Clubs, Mr. Nalin Fonseka owned Ritz Club, Mrs. Neththicumara owned Salaka Club and from Mr. Hiran Witchackshana owned Red Star/Kings 8 Clubs?
- In addition to the above levies and taxes, has the CGIR collected the Nation Building Tax of 3% from the year 2009 to 2013 from Mr. Ravi Wijeratne owned Stardust Casino, Mr. Dhammika Perera owned MGM/Ballagio/Ballys Clubs, Mr. Nalin Fonseka owned Ritz Club, Mrs. Neththicumara owned Salaka Club and from Mr. Hiran Witchackshana owned Red Star Club?
As per the Betting and Gaming Levy Act, No.19 of 2013, In addition to the above levies and taxes, from the years 2013 to date, has the CGIR collected an amount equivalent to 5% of the gross collection from Mr. Ravi Wijeratne owned Stardust Casino and Marina Club, Mr. Dhammika Perera owned MGM/Ballagio Club/Ballys Clubs, Mrs. Neththicumara owned Salaka Club and from Mr. Hiran Witchackshana owned Red Star Club?
- Based on reliable insider information, while the net profit figure seems to be in the region of Rs. 100 million a month in each of the casinos owned by Mr. Wijeratne and Mr. Perera, has either of them paid any Corporate Taxes ever in relation to the casino income in addition to the Gaming Levies and Taxes?
- As per all Betting and Gaming Acts of Sri Lanka, has the CGIR collected all funds due in the last 3 decades from almost 500 horse race Betting Centers and Bookies belonging to the Sumathipala family (Sporting Star), the Balasuriyas (Sporting Times) and to a lesser extent, from that which belongs to Mr. Ravi Balasuriya, MD/Chairman of Delmon Holdings and who also held the position of Economic Adviser to MR.
- Knowing well the manipulative nature of concerned operators and owners, in the event of non-payment of required levies and taxes continuously and consistently, would the present government file criminal charges and/or make genuine attempts in recovering all past dues with minimum delay?
- Please explain the media circus in highlighting the exit of Mr. James Packer from the gaming scene. Please also explain the advantages and difference when locals operate casinos in Sri Lanka as against Mr. James Packer’s presence.
- In order for them to save Rs. 1000 million for each location, would it not be the same if Mr. Perera or Mr. Wijeratne expands a current single location in to a mega size casino that can accommodate 5 times the existing capacity and on par with casinos found in Las Vegas or Macau as against having multiple and smaller locations? Does it also not exist the possibility for a foreign investor (possibly Mr. Packer again) to buy a stake in the existing but expanded and refurbished casino?
- Is it not true that the budgetary proposal to charge ‘existing casino owners’ Rs. 1000 million as a one-time fee were custom-made for Mr. Wijeratne and Mr. Perera and in order to prevent a third player coming in to the market?
- In the absence of an oversight authority or a regulatory body, would it not arise the issue of money-laundering?
- In comparison to the previous tax of Rs. 100 million per annum per casino, wouldn’t the new and the one-time tax of Rs. 1000 million equal 10 years of tax and a free ride afterwards? Is it not a short-sighted economic policy which was imposed to sustain the freebies offered in the interim budget just prior to a major election and to attract votes from the ordinary masses?
- If re-assigning of 16,000 plus employees of the now-defunct Divi Neguma project of Mr. Basil Rajapaksa can be undertaken by the present government, would it be really hard to provide employment to 3,000 plus employees in the event of a closure of all casinos and betting centers?
- In the absence of a regulatory body, would it not continue the common practice of laying down of unfair-to-punter gaming laws by the casino management and the physical harm unleashed by security personnel on gamblers who are sometimes out of line and intoxicated after losing it all?
Food for thought
- Slot Machines – Not regulated in Sri Lanka (SL) and paying out small ‘wins’ at psychologically administered intervals to keep one interested and hopeful. It is engineered to addict people by producing a mesmerizing experience of sound, lights and repetitive motion that makes both time and money vanish.
- A Canadian study that finds that the 75% of casino customers who play only occasionally provide only 4% of casino revenues. It’s the problem gambler who keeps the casino in business.
- Gamblers living within 10 miles of a casino exhibit double the rate of problem gambling. Unsurprisingly, such communities also suffer higher rates of economic distress and domestic violence.
- Alcohol impairs one’s ability to think rationally. Local casinos giving free liquor with unlimited number of servings has resulted in gamblers losing it all more often than not.
- Only a handful of tourists frequent casinos in SL and the few tourists who do play with a couple of hundred Dollars usually come out as winners. Hence the LOSS of foreign exchange. Even if casinos are restricted to tourists only, it would still be contrary to the teaching of Lord Buddha, Prophet Muhammed (P.B.U.H) and Prophet Jesus (p.b.u.h) among others. Nor would it be morally correct to seek an income while destroying the life of another human being, be they white, black or colored.
- The only tourists SL casinos managed attract are prostitutes from Russia, Thailand and China… and that too only to attract potential high rollers. Sometimes the Thai and Chinese prostitutes are gamblers themselves, usually playing with money earned from selling their bodies. Then there is also the Chinese Mafia lending money to Chinese prostitutes to gamble demanding a return of 20% per week by holding their passports as collateral. There are few Chinese businessman who also engages illegally in retail trades in SL in order to sustain their gambling habits.
- Gambling is an addiction just like drug abuse and alcoholism. But much worse since families, friends and co-workers connected to addicts losing money as well due to borrowings.
- Families break up, jobs lost, professional careers and education interrupted, reputation destroyed and lives lost due to suicides and murder… all due to love of money or due to foolish hopes of recovering overnight that which was lost over a period of time.
- Gamblers resorting to white collar and violent crimes when regular and legal sources of income runs dry.
The ‘house always wins’ and it would be next to impossible to find an owner of a casino gambling anywhere ever. Being exposed to the evils of gambling behind the glitz and glamour, from Las Vegas to Macau, from Piccadilly to the Genting Highlands, in a span of two decades, Dollar millionaires have been reduced to down-and-outs in no time with quite a few ending deeply in red. Some of them have even resorted to white collar crimes in order to sustain the habit. Thank God for there is a lesson for all of us to learn from and now with a new government in power, we finally have a chance to take preventive measures in protecting the present and future generations.
Also, it is a case of irony seeing members of the Sumathipala family (Sporting Star fame) holding important positions in the powerful All Ceylon Buddhist Congress of Sri Lanka. Then again I assumed questions of integrity of the flag bearers of Buddhism considering their lack of conscience and respect is not applicable when one is rich or powerful. SL predominantly being a nation of Buddhists, I believe relying on casinos to sustain the economy is akin to resorting to prostitution to make ends meet. It is indeed regretful and makes a mockery of the constitution when ruling party politicians themselves promote gambling in the form of lotteries in addition to allowing casinos and betting on horses/sporting events when Buddhism is supposed to be protected by the very same government they represent.
By firing an initial salvo against the present government of Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe, it is highly likely that I might be heading on a collision course. Either case, there will be NO COMPROMISE on my stance against the existence or the continuation of casinos, horse racing betting centers and bookies. And it would be in the best interest of the UNP led government to heed to my humble request and shut it all down for good and without delay.
*The writer is an independent social/political activist and can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org and through FB (Fazl Muhammed Nizar)