Mr Wickremesinghe, who began his third term in office last month after former president Mahinda Rajapaksa lost the election, also hinted that Mr Packer’s cancelled casino licence was the subject of political favour.
The new government, led by Mr Rajapaksa’s former Health Minister and now President Maithripala Sirisena, promised to scrap three controversial casino licences, including Mr Packer’s Lake Leisure joint venture, during the election campaign in which it highlighted widespread corruption and crony capitalism within the former regime.
“We were the only country in the world where casino revenue wasn’t taxed. It became an issue for us also because all religious leaders opposed it,” Mr Wickremesinghe told The Australian .
“Mr James Packer decided to go ahead despite wide opposition because he felt his friendship with the Rajapaksa regime was sufficient and the Rajapaksa regime would be there forever. So you played politics, that’s all. There’s nothing to complain about.
“There will be inquiries into some of these business companies associated with corruption. In a truly capitalist system there can’t be corruption. There has to be genuine competition.”
When asked if he believed the Packer consortium was involved in corrupt activities, Mr Wickremesinghe replied: “Well, there are stories of how the licence was obtained.”
The Australian is not suggesting Mr Packer had any knowledge of any wrongdoing. A spokesman for Crown declined to comment.
Mr Packer was a guest of honour of the previous Rajapaksa government and keynote speaker at official business functions in October 2013 when Colombo controversially hosted the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting.
The former Mahinda Rajapaksa-appointed Board of Investment chairman Lakshman Jayaweera told The Australian at the time that he believed Mr Packer’s desire to invest in Sri Lanka would have something akin to an “Australian Warren Buffet effect”, drawing in other investors.
But by April the following year Mr Rajapaksa’s championing of casino projects had spelled the beginning of the end for the previously unassailable political leader, who lost the support of key conservative Buddhist allies opposed to gambling on moral grounds.
Mr Jayaweera, a Sri Lankan-Australian businessman, resigned from his post last month, one of many casualties of the new government’s reform agenda. “People in business were very excited about Packer coming because it was going to bring a new source of income into the country and change the economic landscape,” he told TheAustralian. “There are plenty of places that have casinos in civilised societies, including Australia. I think Packer walking away from Sri Lanka will really hamper foreign direct investment.”
But Mr Wickremesinghe said the door remained open to Australian investors who would find a newly open and transparent investment climate. “This whole business of crony capitalism, where only a few people got the permits, will be abolished,” he said. “We are putting a new investment regime in place. We want to encourage direct foreign investment in the real economy, in manufacturing, agriculture and the services sectors”, he said.(Courtesy: The Australian)