Sirisena Sinks Sri Lankan Crown Casino Concept

Casino in Sri Lanka

The wind of change might have blown through the Sri Lankan political landscape but have they also blown any chance Packer had for a Casino out of the water?

It is an old political adage that you need to get behind someone to stab them in the back, your political opponents not always as dangerous as your supposed allies. The full frontal attacks of opposition parties are typically far easier to repel than the pincer movements and sneaky dawn raids of those that know you best. Down the years there are numerous examples from a plethora of nations where sitting leaders suddenly find themselves facing off not against foes but friends.

Crown Casino In Sri Lanka Scuppered
• New president, Sirisena, ‘disallows’ license
• $400 million project placed in doubt
• Local hardline Buddhists vocally disapprove

Brutus might be the famous one, and indeed perhaps one of the few to take stabbing someone in the back quite so literally, but it is a situation that has played out many times in many places, and just recently this age old storyline has hit the headlines once more, this time in Sri Lanka, and the effects have been quite profound, not least on certain people’s dreams of building a casino there, but is the change just cosmetic?

The defeat of President Mahinda Rajapaksa to, of all people, his closest ally, Malthripala Sirisena, was as shocking as the latter’s decision to run in the first place. Not that anyone knew he had until the very last minute. The somewhat unwieldy coalition of opposition parties that had come together prior to the election kept their figurehead’s name very much close to their chest until they sprung it on both the president and the electorate.

The scant win, he got 51.3% of the vote, squeezed out a leader that had been in power since 2005 and who faced criticism for both corruption and growing authoritarianism. Of course his backers claim he ended the civil war, boosted the economy and was stabbed in the back, and indeed state television wasted no time during the short campaign to rubbish Mr. Sirisena, but the result clearly showed that it wasn’t just muslim or tamil support he won.

Et Tu, Brute?

Some have pointed out that with the two men so closely allied prior to the election, the difference it will make which of them is in charge after the election is negligible. Sri Lanka’s brutal civil war still casts a grim shadow over the nation with divisions still evident and scabbed over wounds still sore. The two decade long insurgency by the Tamil tigers in the north of the country not quickly forgotten, and the alleged massacre of 40,000 mostly Tamil civilians by government troops in the final weeks of the war, still facing UN investigation.

Not that Mr. Sirisena seems that concerned with the ethnic tensions, he barely mentioned them in the campaign and was careful to avoid talking about minority rights, but did make it clear no political leader would be prosecuted for war crimes. Politicians always look after their own. He is far more willing to talk about other crimes, particularly alleging the former President had “plundered the country, government and natural wealth”, charges that perhaps have a little veracity to them.

Certainly the former President’s family did control vast swathes of key economic sectors, and he had just scrapped the constitutional limit on how many times you can be President so he could seek a third term, it’s not difficult to level accusations of corruption at people under those circumstances, but will this coalition be any different? Perhaps more importantly will it be able to hold together moving forward despite obvious and alarming political differences between its constituent members?

It is perhaps the “social conservative” nature of Mr. Sirisena, former Health minister, that might give hope for a different future, his need to appease his disparate supporters creating as much room for change as there is potential for disaster. Can he possibly live up to his campaign promises and manifesto commitments? Certainly he’ll be trying to, already, perhaps wryly promising “more mature” campaigns in future. But those manifesto commitments are already disappointing some.

Packer’s Plans Political Road Kill

James Packer had been in the gambling news on the morning after the election which was intended to be a healthy return of Rajapaksa to power, but the defeat left him facing a new president whose political party “The New Democratic Front” had already stated that it would “disallow” any license applications made by Packer’s proposed Crown Resorts mega-casino that he’d been about to start building with local developers John Keells Holdings.

Sirisena vs Rajapaksa Sri Lanka

The $400 million project had already run into a few problems, the sensible Sri Lankan gambling news aside, local conservatives, particularly the hardline Buddhists, had been very vocal in their opposition, and there was widespread irritation that Rajapaksa had agreed to tax concessions for the casino that the general populous couldn’t enjoy. The election campaign put the final nail in the project of the coffin as Sirisena tried to distance himself from the establishment and appeal to those important minority voters.

Packer, of course, misses out on developing a resort close to the large Indian market, but Crown have more than one iron in the fire, and despite the years of preparation walking away from Sri Lanka would be unlikely to damage their bottom line significantly. With expansion of it’s concerns in Perth, and a well spoken of bid for a new casino in Brisbane, Crown is by no means dependent upon the success of the Sri Lankan project, but it remains to be seen how easily Packer will pack up and fu…..find something else to do.

The 2010 regulation of gambling in Sri Lanka has led to there already being four casinos in the country, and they attract plenty of Indian gamblers, however this change of government means that for at least the foreseeable future that number is unlikely to increase. That said, Mr. Sirisena is famed for keeping his opinions mobile betting a moving target is harder to hit and with a shaky coalition facing an uncertain future Crown might just need to bide their time on this one.

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