18 June, 2021

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The Die Is Cast: Buddhist Sri Lanka Faces A Casino Choice

By Marwaan Macan-Markar

Marwaan Macan-Markar

One word — tourism — glows on the horizon of hope for Sri Lanka. It is reflected in the surfeit of reportage and advertisements in the local press, where the talk of new city hotels in the capital and planned boutique hotels in exotic, tropical settings dominate.

This sentiment is understandable given the manner the South Asian nation is being promoted by the trend-setters for globe trotters. Lonely Planet, the bible of backpackers, rewarded the island with a glowing tribute, declaring it the Number 1 destination for its low-budget flock for 2013. Travellers on the other end, the well-heeled jet-setters, have been encouraged likewise by the up-market press. Such globally renowned glossies as Conde Nast and National Geographic and broadsheets like the New York Times have ranked the country among the top five tourism hotspots over the past three years.

That these words are being heeded is amplified in the tourist arrivals. Last year saw a record one million holidaymakers fly in to explore a country that had, till May 2009, endured a nearly 30-year-long civil war, pitting government troops against the Tamil Tiger armed separatists.

The military victory for the government, following a brutal final phase, has resulted in vast stretches of the country hitherto closed for the tourist trade open up. So, in addition to visiting the country’s historic Sinhalese kingdoms, its mist-covered mountains where tea is grown and beaches along the southwest coast, foreign guests have a longer list to choose from. The new trails offer dolphin and whale watching (including the prized blue), surfing and snorkeling, and exploring game reserves famed for their wild elephants and leopards.

Yet it appears that the reported 1.3 billion U.S. dollars tourism brought to the national coffers from showcasing the country’s cultural and natural wealth is not enough for the government. The administration of President Mahinda Rajapaksa wants to tap another rich vein to rake in what some analysts here say could earn the country close to one billion U.S. dollars annually: Indians with deep pockets and a taste for gambling, who are being eyed as the main draw for the planned expansion of casino tables in the capital. Colombo, the argument goes, will be a shorter distance, a more convenient location and a culturally familiar setting for these high rollers from the subcontinent than Singapore or Macau, where many now fly to for some high-stakes fun.

A marquee venture, consequently, is enjoying a blaze of publicity. In the spotlight is Australian casino mogul James Packer, whose renowned Crown Group has been given a “sweetheart deal” of up to 10 tax breaks to build a 36-storey entertainment complex in the Sri Lankan capital. The stake in the estimated 350 million U.S. dollar venture, to house a 430-room hotel and a sprawling casino, will be shared by Packer (45 percent), his local partner Ravi Wijeratne (45 percent) and a still undisclosed Singapore-based body. Construction is due to start in November and the casino is expected to open its doors in 2016, the year the Sri Lankan government has targeted to see its in-bound tourism traffic hit 2.5 million arrivals.

The “Crown Complex,” as it is now being promoted, will be located on the banks of Colombo’s most storied body of water – the Beira Lake. The contours of the country’s colonial and post-colonial economy are still visible around the lake. Warehouses that store Sri Lanka’s famous export, tea, are located here. And now a casino strip is on the cards as a sign of the new direction the post-war economy is taking. In addition to Crown’s latest money spinner, Colombo’s already existing, albeit smaller, gaming establishments are to be re-located to an area that punters here call the “Colombo casino zone.” Among these eight, which have been around for over two decades, are a cluster owned by Wijeratne, Packer’s partner and a veteran in the trade. Casinos with names such as Marina Colombo, Stardust or Ballys have thrived on a flow of South Asian, East Asian and local punters.

But now the promise of a jackpot economy is heading into troubled waters. Hardly impressed by this new turn in the tourism industry are respected members of the clergy in this predominantly Theravada Buddhist country. “It is not for the public good,” warned Venerable Udugama Sri Buddharakkitha Thera, the chief monk of the Asgiriya Buddhist order, Sri Lanka’s preeminent network of priests. “Foreigners don’t come here to go to casinos. We are completely against this.”

His verbal salvo broadcast on television has put the government on notice. “I have no political affiliations, but if this business is started, we will take to the streets against whoever supports it, be it government, ministers, parliamentarians or anybody else,” he asserted. “We will take to the streets against them all.”

Even an influential ally of Rajapaksa’s governing coalition in the parliament has echoed similar concerns during a debate in the legislature. Sri Lanka does not need casinos to promote tourism given the country’s natural and cultural heritage, argued Patali Champika Ranawaka, general secretary of the Jathika Hela Urumaya, a political party led by Buddhist monks. Casinos, the minister for technology, research and atomic energy reminded the government, “goes against the state religion of Buddhism.”

A challenge to the casino trade has also been posed by the Bodu Bala Sena (Buddhist Power Force), which has, till now, been generating newspaper headlines for campaigns led by its monks targeting the country’s religious minorities – the Muslims and Christians. It was against “all (gambling) entities, not just Packer,” a spokesman told the media.

They are views that cannot be taken lightly, given the political role Buddhist monks have played in Sri Lankan democracy since the country gained independence from the British in 1948. The weight of the clergy was pivotal during the 1956 general elections, which saw a party the monks endorsed win. The voice of the clergy also shaped government policy during the three-decade long conflict – they often supported tougher measures against the Tamil Tigers rebels and groups sympathetic to the Tamil minority cause. Such an overt role is rooted in the country’s history, where Buddhist monks were recognized for their political role as advisors to Sinhalese kings of the past.

The recent religious opposition is, in fact, a rare challenge to Rajapaksa, whose credentials as a political hero for the majority Sinhalese and a defender of Buddhism have rarely been challenged since he was first elected to power in 2005. And to limit the political fallout – yet keep the Packer casino venture on track – ministers have been rolled out to calm the religious waters by offering an innovative twist. The government “would not issue any new licenses to operate casinos,” Minister of Economic Development Lakshman Yapa Abeywardane told the Daily News, a mouthpiece for the state. The casino at Packer’s “Crown Complex” would be integrated into an already existing, licensed gaming house owned by Wijeratne.

This Buddhist opposition, consequently, has generated a values debate in some quarters. “It has been argued that the licensing of gaming resorts would serve to corrupt the morals of the Sri Lankan people,” stated the Pathfinder Foundation, a think tank, in a commentary published in The Island, an independently-owned, English-language daily. “This is difficult to sustain given the multitude of gambling centres (for horse racers run overseas), legal and illicit, that already exist in every nook and corner of urban and rural Sri Lanka.”

It is a discussion with precedence. The last time was when the country’s 2002 tourism master plan was unveiled and there were moves to rid Colombo of its 24-hour casinos located in popular shopping neighbourhoods. There was a lobby to create a ‘Casino City’ in Bentota, a popular beach front along the country’s southwestern coast.

“This time it is different, because of the large foreign investment involving Packer,” says a Sri Lankan punter, speaking on condition of anonymity. “The government will have to strike a balance, and it seems to be saying the right thing for now.”

Moderate Buddhist voices with an eye on the economy are calling for more understanding by pointing to the easy co-existence that continues at the All Ceylon Buddhist Congress, one of the country’s oldest and respected Buddhist organisations. Its recent presidents, they say, hail from a family that continues to make its fortunes from bookmaking.

*Marwaan Macan-Markar, a Sri Lankan journalist, is a foreign correspondent who has been reporting from Southeast Asia since 2001, following a posting in Mexico City. This dispatch was published in the August issue of The Irrawaddy, www.irrawaddy.org, a magazine and website based in Myanmar.

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Latest comments

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    Marker,

    This is a Sinhala Buddhist country. We decide what we need and what we don’t need. Your opinion, especially Muslims is not needed. You came to this country to beg. And now you claim the country.
    Sinhalese people decide what is needed or not. You don’t have to worry about Buddhist teaching or wheatear casino is in line with Buddhism or not. Keep shut and mind your own business.

    best thing all illegal Muslims can do is to migrate to another Muslim country they chose. Pakistan, Afghanistan, Malaysia etc.. You have a lot. If you are staying in this county you have to stay as 3ed class citizens and do as what we need. Especially keep shut because we don’t want to listen to any of the stupid Muslims.

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      I am also a Sinhala Buddhist. This country is a Sri Lankan country. All Sri Lankans are citizens. If Moors should leave Sri Lanka, then Sinhalese should leave to Bengal from where they came. If Muslims should leave to Arabia, then Buddhists should leave to Nepal, where Buddha is from.

      This liberalization is going to corrupt Buddhism. You should be thanking this Muslim. This culture will spread a lot of prostitution and Sinhalese losing money. It will help Muslims anyway as Sinhala youth are corrupted.

    • 0
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      All peace loving Buddhists / Hindus / Muslims will join the rest of the world to keep vultures like the Sinhellists (BBS/JHU/SR) from destroying their country. You may chose to live in a delusional world until it destroys you and your kind sooner than later. The wheels of justice is in motion and your kind will disappear.

      The Law of Nature defines, The fear of survival turning into an obsession to survive by destructive means is quicker extinction of a species.

    • 0
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      You are an idiot.

      Religous choice is not illegal in Sri Lanka.

      Why don’t you go after the members of the Government who go around begging for aid to fund their extra large ministerial retinues.

    • 0
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      You are one of the uneducated ( bath parcel voter )person like you must cremate in life.

    • 0
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      I am speaking as a Sinhala Buddhist. This country belongs to all Sri Lankans. I do not like this arrogance. Remember 30 years of war where Sinhalese lived in fear. We must remember that we are a majority in this tiny country but a minority in the world. The Muslims outnumber Sinhala Buddhists nearly 100 to 1. Over confidence and arrogance will lead to our downfall.

      This country belongs to every human born in this island. Sinhalese came from Bengal and Buddhism from Nepal. Remember that.

      • 0
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        You people are using your birth rights to destroy the majority culture and the civilization in Sri Lanka and to establish the foreign cultures of Christianity and Islam as the dominant cultures.

        Tamils are trying the same thing with respect to the language.

        Politicians are greedy and some of them are former christians, so they are silent.

        Another reason is they simply don’t know what to or how to do anything.

        They are just dead beats.

        • 0
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          Jim Not So Softly

          This is what you say

          “You people are using your birth rights to destroy the majority culture and the civilization in Sri Lanka”

          01. Muslims are NOT allowed to gamble. Those who do are ostracized by society. So why blame Muslims for your woes?
          02. Does Buddhism allow Gambling? It it does, there’s little the minorities can do to prevent it. If it doesn’t then lets get together at least now,because we have common ground to fight it

          03. Social evil is beyond religion. So drop your jaundiced view of the minorities and think how we as Sri Lankans should approach this menace

        • 0
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          Jim softy,

          you should read this!!!!!!!!!!!!! Where is your racism exist?

          https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/women-in-sweden-wear-headscarves-after-muslim-woman-is-assaulted/

    • 0
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      I don’t understand why people are commenting to this foolish! you can point it out about his knowledge and education based on his comment and the language proficiency. We should ignore such people here.

    • 0
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      CT readers..Please do not feed this troll..He is just there to distract the readers into a different arguement..

    • 0
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      Baby Dude, keep your idiotic notions to yourself. This country belongs to all Sri Lankans. Get lost and migrate to some other country since you consider yourself a third-class citizen!

    • 0
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      @babydoll.
      Find yourself a paedophile , in true karava sinhala buddhist style , and enjoy the ride.
      fogla

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      To the rest of us,

      People are often unreasonable and self-centered. Forgive them anyway.
      If you are kind, people may accuse you of ulterior motives. Be kind anyway.
      If you are honest, people may cheat you. Be honest anyway.
      If you find happiness, people may be jealous. Be happy anyway.
      The good you do today may be forgotten tomorrow. Do good anyway.
      Give the world the best you have and it may never be enough. Give your best anyway.
      For you see, in the end, it is between you and God. It was never between you and them anyway. – Mother Teresa

      • 0
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        Well said Marwan!!! If people would practice their faiths instead of arguing about the theory the world would be a happier place. But it is always easier to point out the faults of others.

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      It is idiotic and narrow-minded bigots like you who are responsible for most of the problems in Sri Lanka. You are a disgrace to the Sinhala and Buddhist people. People like you should be drowned in the southern seas. This country belongs to all Sri Lankan citizens irrespective of language, ethnicity or religion. Don’t try to cut your nose to spite your face. This country will prosper only when it is rid of bigots like you.

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      Baby Doll

      you’re a racist, your comment shows how big your brain, you still living in the middle ages,please make time that your small brain could learn from the modern world, dont live like a frog in the well. since independence the country has been ruled by Singhalise Buddists not by the minoritys and take the writer as a Journalist.

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      Dear Baby Doll

      Excellent idea let start with first in first order, we singhalese came first so, let us find a place in Banghaladesh to resettle then, the followers will follow us soon……

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      “This is a Sinhala Buddhist country. We decide what we need and what we don’t need. Your opinion, especially Muslims is not needed. You came to this country to beg. And now you claim the country.”

      But, the Vijaya clan are kallath thonis. They were from a lion ancestry. So, they are partial animals. They were from a brother – sister origin. So, they are out of incest. They were chucked in sea to get lost. So, they were outcast. Then, they went to the island and got married with the local women for convenience. Then, they went to Pandya kingdom to get their partners. So, they are half Tamils. Good luck on lecturing other people.

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        You are a fool to comment like this .First of all look at your self you are [Edited out] your self

    • 0
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      [Edited out]

  • 0
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    Understandably the govt is on some kind express mode to develop the country. Once James Packer gets a foot hold the guy will want a casino license. This must be resisted. Casino is good money at the cost of human suffering. Whoever wants a degenerate Casino experience should go to Macau or Hong Kong. Those who want a mindful decent holiday rich with cultural experiences should visit Sri Lanka.

    • 0
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      Well Said, Vibhushana. Casinos are not for real tourists, they look for something they cannot find anywhere else. Why sit in a stnking smoke filled room, when the golden sands and misty mountains beckon from outside! Casinos are artificial venues that can be found everywhere in the Western World. Our Buddhist Culture and the simple lifestyle of our people cannot be found anywhere else.

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      Local brothels will do well. The pimps and kudu mudalalis will rule the country. Welcome to Sinhala Buddhist Republic of Sri Lanka.

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    Along with the casino’s will come more crime in our already crime infested country. There will be prostitution around the casino’s, loan sharks, con men, drug lords, and more people in debt. This is the most anti Buddhist move by the government in the name of tourism, and it goes against the image they have so far tried to pretend we have. It should leave all Sri Lankans wondering who benefits from this grand plan to make Sri Lanka a country of seedy casino’s and a party town. What would Lord Buddha say?

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    well from what i can see from the 1st post the Sinhala Buddhists of SL dont need any enemies from other religions or the so called western world as they themselves are detroying themselves pretty well and doing a damm good job too
    Well done chaps clap clap clap clap!

  • 0
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    The true buddhist,hindu,christian,and muslim citizens cannot be enticed by any casino.
    This is so,in all locations where casinos exist.
    This is a financial venture & will attract rich tourists who will leave their cash behind,some of which will filter down – I hope – to benefit heath & social services.

  • 0
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    with Casino will come prostitution, drugs, violence and international money laundering.
    Perhaps all these a day in the life of our current politicians and BBS and it’s a norm for them.

  • 0
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    Marwaan Macan-Markar :

    When it comes to Problems it is the Sinhala – buddhists or Buddhist Sri Lanka. when it comes to other things it is a Multicultural and multi -every thing country.

    Sri Lanka also has a problem of killing animals for food. Who is responsible and who are the butchers ? muslims.

    Only the buddhists talk about co-existence and they just wait patiently until things go right. Politicians are greedy bunch and they sell even the buddhism for their benefit.

    Christians and muslims are ONLY interested in establishing the foreign cultures in Sri Lanka and destroying the Sinhala-buddhist culture and the civilization. Many are supporting it.

  • 0
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    This is as good as it gets. The social impacts of Casino gaming could be a high drop-out rate among school students, increase in problem gambling and crime, increased demand for counseling services and public health treatment, deteriorating quality of life and finally the difficulties of many small and medium-sized businesses in competing with the larger casino businesses. The end results indicate that the challenges outweigh the benefits. Although it is generally perceived to have a positive impact on employment, and a general improvement in the quality of life in terms of socio and economic well-being, it is also perceived to decreased interest in their sense of community, quality time towards family and a strictly regimented life style.

  • 0
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    From a Governmental Perspective this is a socio-economic issue not a religous issue. Personally we may consider it from a religous standpoint and voice our opinion, but Govt may decide if it is going to proceed or not. Sri Lanka is a Democratic Socialist republic not a Buddhist Republic or Islamic Republic.

    These casinos are already in operation as are bars, pubs, brothels etc. Govt earns revenue from such activities and we indirectly are the beneficiaries. The tourist culture tends to promote such activities. Tourist dont all come here merely to sit in the sun or see our ancient sites.

  • 0
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    what is the probelem with us having Church , mosque, temple and Kovil. worshippers are going there and worship, are they doing any wrong illegal things like sex, gambeling, drinking arrack etc there ? why the BBS getting irritation about mosque? please someone tell me ?

  • 0
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    hmm … so the old casinos were ok for the priest . its only the new one he is against , and how about the lottery ? how about the clubs and bars . just because there is a Casino or a Bar you dont have to go there !

    • 0
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      If human beings had so much as a wee bit of self control, we would be godlike!

      01. Those who visit casinos think they can beat the odds and make a fortune. Except the operators and their backers others end up in the dumps.

      02. Young girls from poverty stricken villages are the most vulnerable- they would be lured by traffickers with stories of a better life as hostess. With it comes drug addiction, Sexually Transmitted Disease and prostitution.

      03. More youth will get exposed to porn, drug addiction, Sexually Transmitted Disease and prostitution as these will become widespread.

      04. The type of clientele a casino attracts can be described as seedy. What is spent is Black-money; usually drug related earnings and kickbacks from corrupt practices.

      05. Because it is tax free, owned and operated by foreigners even ill gotten wealth doesn’t stay within the country

      06. Singapore does not allow casinos on her soil. Singaporean authorities approve cruise ships to operate casinos outside Singapore to avoid the evils of gambling

      So its up to all citizens to resist it, irrespective of religious beliefs

      • 0
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        this is idiotic nonsense . why werent you trying to stop the existing casinos ? only the new ones. why are you afraid some poor people will find work in this place and make a decent living .

  • 0
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    When did Macan Maakkar become a Theravada Buddhist follower?

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      Sumanasekera, Nobody needs to be a follower of Theravada Buddhism. Their Way of Life and Adherence to Honesty and Compassion does not need a label! Think about it.

    • 0
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      Is it Theravada or TERROR-WAR-DA? Because, we don’t see anything but Terror in Theravada.

  • 0
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    macau is also a bhuddhist country.More than 90% of its revenue is earned from casinos.It’s per capita GDP on a purchasing power parity basis is 80000 while ours is 6000 USD.Macau is only 28 Sq.Km,while colombo is more than 1000 sq.km.Good for colombo to start giving the macau a fight.

    Thats what international competition is all about.We have to compete and take others market shares otherwise we will be left behind.We cannot be listening to people who are spewing out outdated theories and also have to survive in this highly competitive world and give a good standard of living to our people.If we have any natural attributes that give us a comparative advantage over other countries then we have to exploit them fully otherwise a small country like ours can kiss good bye to a high standard of living for our people.

    The monks get everything free so they won’t understand what is is to earn a living and feed a family and bring them up in this hard world.

    • 0
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      absolutely .

  • 0
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    Abhaya is spot on.

    Why so late? There has been strip tease in exclusive night clubs for the elite.Its there and has been there.The young ones are sporting these night clubs come friday after school through the week end.
    nothing new about opening casinos.Another form of gambling,hooch and more.
    Its a pity to see that the budhist priests are getting more involved in these racketeering than doing their preaching in temples.
    How about the 1.million the guy paid to get on the boat to AU with several others-Illicit human trafficking by Namal and Yosidha is another form of gambling.This time with human lives worse than playing the game in a casino.

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    I’m no gambler, but Colombo is already so corrupt the addition of another casino will make no difference.

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    shankar, what rubbish you write, and with what ignorance abhaya and hannah rajaratnam follow you.

    On the one hand you call Macau a Buddhist country, it is Mahayana; and compare it with Sri Lanka which is Theravada and completely different.

    You say Macau is only 28 Sq.Km,while Colombo is more than 1000 sq.km forgetting that Macau is part of the Peoples Republic of China, which controls most (but not all) of it’s affairs.

    You say 90% of Macau’s revenue is from casinos while it is really 50% (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gambling_in_Macau)

    Is it worth bothering to reply to your posts?

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      taraki,I give below an excerpt from your own link as you scroll down

      “At this moment, according to official statistics, gambling taxes form 70% of Macau’s government income.[5]”

      If you add the tourism that gambling brings in the revenue will be easily 90%.Also don’t forget the unofficial economy which benefits greatly from gambling and which is not added to the official statistics.

      When you go around macau you will see that there is hardly anything but casinos and the related tourism.They have a high standard of living.That is why i said that there is a lot of potential in casinos.

      However to get the benefits the government has to start charging a monthly rental from casinos,like what macau does.Taxing the profits is unreliable because i doubt they will disclose the true profits.

      • 0
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        Shankar, a High Standard of ‘Living’ but a Low Standard of Quality of Life and Morality! Is this what you want for the Sinhala Buddhist People of Sri Lanka, or for that matter all ordinary Sri Lankans, irrespective of Ethnic or Religious Labels?

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          “Low Standard of Quality of Life and Morality! Is this what you want for the Sinhala Buddhist People of Sri Lanka,”

          sanjay,isn’t that what is already there at the moment.You have to only read the daily newspapers to realise the quality of life and moraliy that the country has descended into even with all the bleatings about bhuddhism.What difference will casinos make to this because it cannot descend any further.Lets face it sanjay,more than 99% of sinhala bhuddhists are bhuddhists by birth only.maybe only about 1% truly practice bhuddhism.That is why they find it incomprehensible when some others like the muslims truly try to practice what their religion preaches and start imagining all kinds of ulterior motives for their actions.

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