Sri Lankan President appoints new Cabinet amid escalating protests

Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa dropped two of his brothers and a nephew from his Cabinet. PHOTO: AFP

BANGALORE – Sri Lanka’s President appointed another 17 ministers on Monday (April 18) but his elder brother stays as prime minister, even as protests in Colombo’s seaside over the government’s economic mismanagement entered the 11th day.

To placate the angry public, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa appointed more younger members to the new Cabinet and included only four experienced ministers. He left out his brothers Chamal and Basil, who were previously irrigation and finance ministers respectively.

Mr Mahinda Rajapaksa remains as Prime Minister, but his son Namal, who held the sports portfolio previously, was not included in the new Cabinet. 

However, protesters, civil society groups and opposition leaders criticised the new 21-member Cabinet, which is smaller than the previous one with 26 members, as “useless” and “yet another reshuffle”. 

Some also pointed out that the list issued was only in Sinhala, although official documents are to be issued in three languages, including in Tamil and English. Part of the protesters’ criticism of the Rajapaksa government has been its Sinhala Buddhist majoritarianism that sidelined Tamils and Muslims over language and religion. Only the Tamil and Muslim ministers’ names were mentioned in English. 

The new ministers were sworn in as the country is suffering its most painful economic crisis, spiralling food prices and debilitating fuel shortages.

After a brief respite during the Sinhala and Tamil new year last week, 13-hour power cuts are back. With only around US$500 million (S$680 million) left in foreign exchange reserves, imports of food and medicine have stalled. 

From standing in long lines for cooking gas, many in the hinterlands have shifted to using firewood. Middle-class and poor residents in Colombo high-rises are burning coconut shells to fashion a makeshift stove. 

“I have to choose between going to work and earning a wage or standing in queue for gas I can’t afford. I chose to come to work,” said Mrs Rayeesa Ahamed, 57, who sells cold drinks near the Galle Face beach close to the “Gota Go Gama”, a site where thousands of anti-government protesters had  gathered.

Holding placards in front of the Presidential Secretariat and chanting cheeky slogans, the protesters have been demanding that President Rajapaksa, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, their relatives and all their supporters quit the government, and make way for younger, less corrupt politicians. 

On April 3, the entire Cabinet except the President and the Prime Minister had resigned, as thousands of people defied a countrywide state of emergency and curfew to gather in the streets denouncing the Rajapaksa government.

The President then invited opposition members to join a “unity Cabinet”, but they refused, calling it “nonsensical”.

“We will not be joining a government with no credibility. The Rajapaksa family must step down,” said Mr Eran Wickramaratne of the main opposition Samagi Jana Balawegaya party.

As the President dithered about the next steps, protests escalated across the island, with women in Jaffna in the north, farmers in the deep south, tea plantation workers from the central hills, and citizens at the tourist hub of Galle gathering in solidarity with the largely middle-class Colombo protesters. 

A stable government is crucial for Sri Lanka, as a delegation including Finance Minister Ali Sabry, central bank governor Nandalal Weerasinghe and other officials seek a bailout from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in Washington DC this week.

The government had announced its decision to default on its US$51 billion foreign loans, until it can restructure its debt with help from IMF and shore up more dollars through exports and bilateral grants.

Meanwhile, Lanka IOC, a key fuel retailer, raised fuel prices by 35 per cent, citing the 60 per cent devaluation of the local currency in the past month as the reason. Diesel is now priced at 327 rupees (S$1.36) and petrol at 367 rupees per litre. 

State-run Ceylon Petroleum Corporation that accounts for two-thirds of fuel supply did not raise prices but imposed fuel rationing last week. Cars can fill fuel only up to 5,000 rupees, while tuk-tuks can fill up to only 1,500 rupees. 

Petrol prices have increased by 90 per cent and diesel by 138 per cent since January. 

The Parliament is scheduled to meet on Tuesday, and the opposition has announced that it will move a no-confidence vote in the coming weeks.

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