By Kusal Perera –
This land of Gauthama Buddha, as the saffron clad owners of Buddhist “religion” claim, is not without organised and legal gambling. Last August, the National Lotteries Board celebrated 50 years of State organised gambling with the launch of a new lottery they call, “Mega Fifty”. Fifty years after, there are over a dozen State owned lotteries in the streets every where, sold especially to the poor.
There was much resentment in then Ceylon too, when the first State owned lottery was launched, that replaced the “Hospital Lottery” by an Act passed in parliament. In the absence of internet and social networking in cyber world, in the absence of TV, FM radio channels, smart phones and android tabs, protests against initiating a State owned lottery in then Ceylon, probably did not have the colour, the vogue and the hype as in present day Sri Lanka. Nevertheless in its own way, the government was pressured by Buddhist clergy and some sections of the puritanical Sinhala middle class society to “stop official gambling” as they called it.
Arguments were not very different. Buddhism does not approve and allow gambling they said. Its a bad example for children, poor people are those who get lured in to buying lotteries and they would get addicted going in search of big money, were popular arguments against the lottery. There was a political argument too that said, the government being inefficient in raising money for services and development, is trying to ‘pick the pockets’ of the poor to collect money indirectly, with an extremely high probability of winning the lottery. Since then, accepted without any grumbling it is the poor Sinhala Buddhists in millions who buy the larger number of these lotteries.
The National Lotteries Board Act passed in parliament was very specific. It said under Clause 14, “No national lottery shall be conducted in connection with any horse-race or any other form of racing.” It was horse betting and such form of racing that was not legally accepted. Today, even that form of gambling is legally allowed and back door bookies that were raided by police in the “good old days”, turned into “Turf Accountants” and “Sporting Centres”. Its no more on the sly, people bet on horses. The Act also said, “prizes be paid in money”.
In Sri Lanka, there are enough high class casinos around Colombo for the elite and the new rich who launder black money. Most owners of these casinos are part and parcel of this regime. All that legal casinos for the rich kept apart, the larger Sinhala society, the ordinary Sinhala citizen is into gambling almost every day. One often glances over news paper reports that say, the police raided a gambling den in some remote (Sinhala) village. Sinhala news reports would say “booru pola” raided. There was once a report that said, a “booru pola” raided somewhere close to Colombo was run by a group of women. My own experience in Hambantota district is of funeral houses mostly in the interior being turned into gambling spots for many days by “Mudalalies” who take over funeral arrangements with all expenses paid in very poor villages. Their assumption is, the police don’t raid funeral houses. This land of Gauthama Buddha is already leased out for gamblers of many shades, many sizes and many qualities.
What then is this big cry against Packer and his Crown Resorts ? Why is the JHU, a subservient ally of the Rajapaksa regime and the Sinhala racist JVP that went all out for war, opposed to Packer and his casino resort ? The JVP has no political difference with this Sinhala authoritarian regime. First it was corruption and now its Packer. They need Packer and his casino on a Sinhala puritanical stage to say they are different to the Rajapaksas. That in turn compels the JHU to stand up, fearing if they do not, the JVP would run away with the Sinhala Buddhist vote. The two together has now made the UNP also to take an anti casino stand, again to woe Sinhala Buddhist votes.
There is definitely a very parochial approach to life that promotes all protests in the larger South on religious sentiments and then tie them to Sinhala thinking. It is more formed and structured now than in the 60’s. More because this Rajapaksa regime positioned its war against the LTTE, on a very strong Sinhala platform and in the South, there is no Sinhala, without Buddhism. The war in the Vanni was not just a military campaign against the LTTE. It was a political campaign in the South, first. It was the Sinhala political campaign that justified a military intervention, over negotiations and power sharing.
What made this Sinhala platform the major electoral plank of presidential candidate Rajapaksa in 2005 was the absence of anything else to oppose the then UNP of Wickremesinghe. The SLFP led UPFA consisting of rag tag “Left” parties and the UNP don’t have any difference between them on economics and development. They both want to live and eat out of this corroding and decaying neo liberal economy. May be the only difference is in how they eat it to a finish.
The Rajapaksa campaign therefore had to use the other most important issue, the Tamil ethnic conflict turned a separatist war as their rallying call for vote catching. Ranil thus came to be opposed at this presidential election for his liberal stand on Tamil politics; cease fire, negotiations and acceptance of a federal system of governance as spelled out in the 2002 December, Oslo Declaration. This anti cease fire, anti devolution and for a unitary State politics brought together all shades of Sinhala political groups including the JVP, on Rajapaksa’s platform. It was this collection of Sinhala politics on a single presidential election platform that thereafter pushed for an outright war. It was this Sinhala politics that galvanised support in the South to wage war and justified all excesses, all violations. Justified to the extent of demanding that the Sinhala South foregoes its right to democracy, to defeat “Tamil separatism”. A heavy cost, the South is still demanded to bear.
This war cry was always Sinhala and Buddhist. The two could never exist apart and separately. Sinhala in the South is a historical hybrid of Buddhism. This came in the open when Sinhala chauvinist lawyer Gunasekera was to be appointed the JHU national list MP in 2000. His appointment was opposed by Athuraliye Rathana, Champika and the JHU hardcore on the basis, he was a “non Buddhist”, a Christian. He being an avowed Sinhalese who believes in and campaigns for a unitary State under Sinhala supremacy and he being vehemently opposed to Tamil separatism, power sharing and everything political in “Tamil”, did not qualify him to be named a JHU national list MP. The role of many non Buddhists turned Sinhala fanatics goes to prove they have hacked out for themselves a path for easy social mobility by being more Sinhala Buddhist than the Sinhala born Buddhists themselves.
It is in that Sinhala society that we talk of Packer, his Crown company and his 350 US dollar casino resort, fondly forgetting that there is a Sri Lankan company also, bidding the same. John Keels Holding (PLC) would invest 650 million US dollars in an identically similar casino resort to be built in Glennie Street, Slave Island. So what now ?
In the absence of any alternative in socio political life in the Sinhala South, with no attractive “Left idealism” and a constructive Opposition, how issues come to be defined and explained rests on Sinhala Buddhism. The JHU and the JVP are addicts in that. The UNP has also come to think they can compete with the Rajapaksa regime, if they can prove they are a better Rajapaksa brand than Rajapaksa himself. Economics and socio development strategies have thus been long forgotten and dropped without serious discussion.
What should be discussed is not Sinhala Buddhist purity, but the model of development this Rajapaksa regime is constructing that gives preference to casinos, shopping malls and hotels. Not Packer and his casino on puritanical glib talk. What should be asked is, does the Rajapaksa regime honestly expect anything out of them ? One would certainly say, “huge commissions” and lets say “yes”. Gamini Dissanayake was also accused of big commissions when he handled Mahaweli development. But “commissions” is not the only issue. Despite commissions talked of, Mahaweli development had good grounds to be argued for and justified in terms of rural development adding to the national economy. Could this casino resort based economy add to development ? Basil Rajapaksa quoted in the MoD website had said tourism can be a development component and there are countries that used tourism to alleviate poverty. What type of tourism was that is another question, if he is right.
These Colombo centred mega casino resorts certainly would not play that role in poverty alleviation and national development. Nivad Cabral as Central Bank Governor went on record at the Professional Bankers’ 25th Anniversary celebrations saying Sri Lanka is now enjoying a per capita income of 2,900 US dollars (LKR 382,800 @ Rs. 132 a Dollar and LKR 31,900 per month). He bragged about SL being a middle income country in a short period of time. Poverty down to 06 per cent, unemployment down to 04 per cent and inflation down to a single digit, he said. What he did not say is, Sri Lanka’s 12 million wage labour population that includes the public, local government, State corporation, co-operative and the private sector, does not earn half that per capita income.
A graduate teacher, on the administrative circular 6/2006 is placed at an initial salary of Rs. 15,395 per month and has to slog for 30 years to achieve the per capita income that Cabral is proud of. The starting salary in the public sector including the cost of living index is only Rs. 17,500 and they are now denied the State insurance claim with the Treasury going bankrupt. In the apparel sector almost 30 days of sweat and toil gives a take home pay of about Rs. 12,000 to 14,000 to most women employees. After the new Collective Agreement signed in April this year, a tea plantation sector labourer can earn Rs. 15,500, only if they have 25 days of work per month. I am not talking of private bus conductors and drivers. Not talking of 3wheeler drivers and not talking of insecure contract labour hired through manpower agencies.
In SL, the poverty line is drawn at a Rs. 3,774 income for a person in a month which then comes to a monthly family income of Rs.15,096 for a family of four. The Census and Statistics Department from a survey carried out in 2009/10 titled “Household Income & Expenditure” computes a minimum cost of Rs.16,121 for food alone for a family of four in Colombo district. This obviously is the most expensive district, while in Jaffna district, a family of four would need a minimum of Rs. 14,787 for food. It is then said, the food bill is only 35 per cent of the total family expenditure that invariably includes, rent, electricity/fuel, health/medicine, transport, clothing and cost of education for two children. This does not include any cost for recreation and leisure, a cultured family would need. Yet the total monthly cost for a frugal life on minimum nutrition comes to Rs. 44,500, higher than the per capita income of 2,900 US dollars that Cabral brags about.
Rural poverty is far more severe than the 06 per cent Cabral says. The latest UN Report on Sri Lanka – 2013 talks of a 74 per cent multi dimensional poverty among a rural population of 81 per cent in Sri Lanka. Its not just the money that is earned which decides poverty as Cabral would want us to accept. Its access to important and necessary services such as health, education, transportation, drinkable water, sanitation that has to be looked into, when poverty is talked about.
These are all factors that we should lay on the table when we ask, will Crown Resorts and JKH (PLC) help us improve the lives of all those 12 million plus wage earners and the 74 per cent rural poor ? Packer had been talking of exploiting the growing Asian middle class for Sri Lanka’s advantage. He would enjoy a 10 year tax concession for his total project with 400 luxury rooms. Who ever he lures to spend big money in his resort, it is his Crown Resort that would enjoy the advantage of enlarged profits from tax concessions. How much of it would trickle down to Debaravewa or Sooriyavewa ? To Kebithigollewa or Pitabeddara ?
Its time we talk not of Packer alone, but Packer and JKH as the major development component proposed by this Rajapaksa regime. Talk of them within our development needs and aspirations for a democratic, plural and a secular society. It is time we leave these Sinhala Buddhist puritanical tongue wagging and turn out as reasonable and serious citizens, talking sense to demand a secure and a comfortable future for the 21 million people here in Sri Lanka.