James Packer should have got his fists out sooner. Less than a week after the Crown Resorts boss got into a very public brawl with Nine Network CEO David Gyngell, the government of Sri Lanka has reversed last month’s public proclamation that Crown’s proposed $400m resort project in Colombo would not be allowed to host a casino.
News of the Crown Sri Lanka project – and the two other resort casino projects planned for Colombo’s new designated gaming zone – had met with fierce opposition from the country’s Buddhist groups, which claimed the addition of large-scale gaming joints would be accompanied by a surge in prostitution and other vices. The government apparently caved to these protests a couple weeks ago by removing the word ‘gaming’ from the documents approving the resort projects.
But the government has always been pretty deliberate with its wording, insisting that no ‘new’ casino licenses would be issued, leaving open the possibility that the two Sri Lankan businessmen – Ravi Wijeratne and Dhammika Perera – who hold the country’s existing five casino licenses might choose to transfer licenses from their current dinky casinos to the flashy new resort properties.
On Thursday, Reuters quoted government spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella saying there was “no legal barrier for existing casino businesses getting new partners.” Crown has partnered with Wijeratne on its Colombo project, while Perera’s Valibel One Plc is behind the $300m Queensbury development. The third project, the $850m behemoth planned by Sri Lanka’s largest conglomerate John Keells Holdings, has yet to identify who will supply its casino license.
Gambling opponents insist that the government has never actually issued any formal casino licenses, but Rambukwella told the Sunday Times this was likely due to “a procedural or technical error” that could easily be rectified. Regardless, Rambukwella said “circumstances have proved beyond the iota of a doubt” that the annual tax currently levied on the casino operators “was meant to serve as a licence.”
The government’s latest statement will surely infuriate opposition politicians and cause those permanently cranky Buddhists to get their anti-casino placards out of storage. But the government appears to believe Packer packs a more powerful punch. Australian police recently announced that Packer and Gyngell would face criminal infringement notices for their public brawl. The infraction carries a maximum penalty of $500. Small price to pay if it got Packer his $400m Sri Lankan casino.