How Sri Lankan elites in Colombo are handling the economic crisis

Dove: The streets of Colombo are dark at night and streetlights are turned off to save electricity. But sometimes a pool of light from a hotel, fancy restaurant, or high-rise building pierces the sheet of darkness. It’s a reminder that behind closed doors, the city still offers what it used to be – like casinos and clubs – for those who can afford them.

Colombo’s upper middle class and elite have remained largely untouched by Sri Lanka’s ongoing economic crisis – save for the power cuts. But even among the “affected”, not everyone suffers in the same way… Hotels and apartment buildings, which can afford it, have filled up with fuel to ensure the proper functioning of their generators and rescue.

At Cheers, an upscale pub in Colombo, people lower their voices to discuss certain people. ‘I can understand the man who steals to feed his children, not the man who steals to buy a bloody island in the Maldives,’ someone says, referring to how the Sri Lankan elite spend their money , even during an economic crisis. They don’t want others to know who they are talking about – in Sri Lanka today much of the anger is directed at the Rajapaksas and their closest supporters, but there is still fear of public bashing them.

“The upper middle class and elite are divided between those who support the Rajapaksa government and those who make money legitimately,” says Rehan Jayawickreme, vice president of Samagi Jana Balawegaya’s youth wing and former governor of the town of Weligama. “Most of the wealthy’s money is found abroad anyway. The upper middle class who are decent human beings feel a pinch because the lifestyles they are used to have obviously disappeared,” he adds.

People – including members of the upper echelons – are reluctant to flaunt their wealth during the current crisis. But life goes on as normal for those who can afford it. A brief search revealed several live events, performances and parties at nightclubs around the city, and luxury establishments like One Galle Face Mall remained open and active. Bars like Cheers have always been full for several nights in a row.


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Sri Lanka’s elite and casino tourism

While Sri Lanka has low poverty rates, income inequality has only grown. More than half of the island nation’s total household income goes to the top 20%. Some reports estimate that around 75% of the state budget is controlled by Rajapaksa cabinet ministers – until, of course, the cabinet resigned last week amid the ongoing political crisis.

Former government officials have alleged that the Rajapaksa family hid their multi-billion dollar fortune in bank accounts in Dubai, Seychelles and St. Maarten. For example, according to the Pandora Papers, Nirupama Rajapaksa (a family member and former parliamentarian) and her husband Thirukumar Nadesan, had amassed $18 million in offshore assets, including priceless art and property. At least eight members of the Rajapaksa family and their supporters have been charged with crimes, including embezzlement and corruption, and are being investigated by authorities.

The pandemic only exacerbated these inequalities – and as the economy heavily dependent on tourism took a hit, some monopolized companies were able to reap the benefits.

Inside Bally Casino, Colombo, Sri Lanka. | Photo credit: Vandana Menon/ThePrint

Casinos have remained open in Colombo throughout the heightened economic crisis of recent months, managing to operate 24 hours a day despite severe fuel shortages and frequent power cuts and resistance of the Buddhist clergy. Sri Lanka’s casinos have been a cash cow for the local economy, attracting hundreds of tourists every week, the majority of them from India. There are several casino packages that tourists can book, including airfare and hotel stays.

Bally’s Casino is one of Colombo’s top attractions. Inside, life goes on as normal. Huge tour groups mingle with a few high profile Sri Lankans. Ukrainian dancers provide entertainment throughout the night. Management knows many players personally – some of them are regulars, coming from all over India up to twice a month to play.

A group of Indian tourists told ThePrint that they were having a great time in Sri Lanka. “We were worried about coming when we heard about the situation here, but our travel agent told us not to worry,” said a visitor from Mumbai. “I’m glad we came, we’re having a good time and haven’t had any problems.”

A local businessman from another popular establishment, Marina’s Casino, seemed embarrassed to be there. “I feel bad, but what to do. I’m here for entertainment, I guess.


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weather the storm

However, casinos had to cool down to deal with soaring prices and fuel shortages. Bally’s, for example, currently only offers one tour package and cannot guarantee the full extent of luxury food and service they usually offer.

They are also clear that ever-changing prices should not affect their customers’ play. “We are not a currency exchange office. We accept different currencies,” says Telles Loy, deputy marketing manager at Bally’s. Next to him, a Chinese gentleman places his opening bet of Rs 1.5 lakh.

“We welcome foreigners and we don’t want them to be affected by what is happening outside. Regardless of what happens, we don’t want to give them a negative feeling,” adds Loy.

Bally’s reopened after the pandemic in December 2021 and has since averaged between 500 and 600 visitors per day. The number jumps to around 1,000 over the weekend, which includes tourists from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, China and the Middle East. It is open 24 hours a day and its generator requires 75 liters of fuel per hour to operate.

“Bally’s brings tourism to Sri Lanka,” says Managing Director Tony Macmillan. They’re used to being the only constant when crises come and go. When ThePrint asked Macmillan how Bally’s was handling the economic crisis, he asked “Which one?” »


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people pay attention

Casinos and clubs can contribute to the local economy, but the excesses of the rich are not – and Sri Lankans pay attention to it.

“When we talk about wealth in this country, we must also talk about politicians and their closest supporters,” says Saritha Irugalbandara, activist and consultant. “Even during the pandemic, the government has sided with big business to keep things open – putting people at risk to line their pockets.” Some of these billionaires thank President Gotabaya Rajapaksa for his choice to keep the economy going.

Inside Bally's Casino, Colombo, Sri Lanka.  |  Photo credit: Vandana Menon/ThePrint
Inside Bally’s Casino, Colombo, Sri Lanka. | Photo credit: Vandana Menon/ThePrint

For example, Bally’s casino is owned by Sri Lankan businessman Dhammika Perera, one of the island nation’s wealthiest men. It was in the race last week to be the new finance ministry secretary after Prime Minister Rajapaksa’s cabinet resigned. According to reports As of 2021, Perera’s Hayleys conglomerate earned nearly 90 billion Sri Lankan rupees, with a profit of 6.4 billion Sri Lankan rupees in the first quarter of 2021. Another conglomerate, LOLC, owned by the billionaire Sri Lankan Ishara Nanayakkara, earned 55 billion Sri Lankan rupees in 2021 with a profit of 4 billion rupees.

Senura Yapa Senadipathi, whose father Nissanka Senadhipathi is close to the Rajapaksas, posted a call on his Instagram stories to stop harassing him and his family. Senadhipathi is chairman of the influential Avant-Garde Company, a maritime security firm, and was recently accused by a Sri Lankan member of parliament of stealing public money. Family left the country for the Maldives earlier this week.

Others have already started planning their exit routes from Sri Lanka if necessary. In the meantime, mothers are planning play dates for their children to relieve stress, and well-to-do couples have booked getaways for entertainment.

But back at Cheers, the conversation continues in a low voice. One person says he has difficulty importing raw materials like tiles to build his house and sighs at the inflated prices. Someone else mentions that he donated his extra generator to his kids’ school. There is talk of attending a protest at Temple Trees, the official residence of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Everyone is aware of their privilege, but no one knows what to do with it.

This is the first part of Vandana Menon’s three-part “Paradise Lost” series on the impact of Sri Lanka’s economic crisis on citizens.

(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)

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