ECONOMYNEXT – The priorities of the people are the priorities of the government, Sri Lanka’s newly sworn-in Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa told reporters upon accepting his portfolio from his brother President Gotabaya Rajapaksa Thursday (08) morning.
“Though I may serve as a minister, the farmers, fisherfolk, labourers, professions, civil servants and others in this country should think that a colleague of theirs is the minister of finance,” he said.
Noting that Sri Lanka is in a grave situation, Rajapaksa made an open appeal to the media and all trade unions to help the government overcome the challenges the country is facing on multiple fronts in the ongoing COVID-19 crisis.
“We have faced more serious situations, however. We have overcome worse political challenges, mainly because of everyone who supported us,” he said.
“This is a difficult task. Let us all work together,” he added.
Rajapaksa also alluded to “unpleasant/bitter (අමිහිරි in Sinhala)” actions that might have to be taken, as a father would, though he did not elaborate.
“But those things will be done sincerely for the people,” he said.
News bulletins on broadcast media showed celebrations around the country organised by supporters of the government, with footage of firecrackers being lit in towns in various parts of the island and banners congratulating the new finance minister. Despite a COVID-19-related ban on protests and public meetings, small groups were seen shouting slogans in support of his appointment.
Rajapaksa then took oaths as a national list MP of the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), a young party he helped found and whose meteoric rise over the last few years can at least in part be attributed to his organising and campaigning skills.
He held the Economic Development portfolio in the 2010-15 Mahinda Rajapaksa administration and backbencher MPs of the present government have repeatedly called for his entry to parliament so the crisis-riddled economy could be salvaged almost single-handedly, the way — the MPs claimed — he had done in the heyday of the Mahinda Rajapaksa era.
Despite speculation that the Finance Ministry will not be given to Basil Rajapaksa — that portfolio until Thursday being held by his brother and current Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa — the president’s media division announced his appointment early in the day, preceded by a gazette notification announcing a newly created Economic Policies and Plan Implementation portfolio. This portfolio is now held by Prime Minister Rajapaksa, who was also sworn in before President Rajapaksa Thursday morning.
Thursday afternoon saw two more appointments before the president as the state ministry portfolios of Shasheendra Rajapaksa and Mohan de Silva were reshuffled. Sheeshandra, the son of the president’s brother Minister Chamal Rajapaksa, now holds possibly the longest ministry title in Sri Lanka’s history as State Minister of Promoting the Production & Regulating the Supply of Organic Fertilizer and Paddy & Grains, Organic Foods, Vegetables, Fruits, Chillies, Onion and Potato Cultivation Promoting, Seed Production and Advanced Technology Agriculture.
de Silva, meanwhile, was sworn in as State Minister of Coast Conservation and Low-Lying Lands Development.
Both state ministries were newly created, as published in another extraordinary gazette issued by the president Thursday amending the functions of a number of ministries.
According to the gazette, Selendiva Investments Ltd, a state-run firm controversially created to take over various state assets and act as the ‘investment arm’ of the government, will come under the purview of the State Ministry of Urban Development, Waste Disposal and Public Sanitation. The Marine Environment Protection Authority (MEPA), meanwhile, will be brought under Mohan de Silva’s State Ministry of Coast Conservation and Low-Lying Lands Development, while 10 institutions including the Public Utilities Commission of Sri Lanka (PUCSL) and the Department of Census & Statistics will come under the newly created Economic Policies and Plan Implementation Ministry.
Even as celebrations were taking place across the island, over 40 people were arrested on Thursday for engaging in protests that had little to do with the new ministerial appointments. A majority of these arrests were made at a protest held near parliament in Sri Jayawrdenapura, Kotte, against the proposed Kotelawala Defence University (KDU) bill.
News footage showed protestors, including older women, being frog-marched into police buses amid shrieks of protest from fellow activsits.
Thirty-one people including Sri Lanka Teachers’ Union General Secretary Joseph Stalin were arrested near the parliament roundabout. The protest was jointly organised by the Inter-University Students Federation (IUSF), the Sri Lanka Teachers’ Union and the Frontline Socialist Party.
The KDU bill, first presented in 2018 under the previous government, has been controversial, with left-leaning opposition parties including the Jantha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) alleging that it will pave the way for militarisation of higher education in Sri Lanka.
A Buddhist monk that was marched into one of the buses claimed that he and the protestors had been attacked. “If there are attempts to stop us, that won’t happen. No matter if Basil or whoever comes, this will not be stopped,” the monk said.
News footage also showed tense situations outside the Colombo magistrate court Thursday evening as police and bailed-out protestors who were to be sent to quarantine were seen shoving each other. At least one protestor was heard claiming he had been attacked. Another claimed they were being packed off to quarantine by force.
Meanwhile, the main opposition Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) held a protest near parliament Thursday morning against what it called the government’s suppression of the people’s right to protest.
Sri Lanka banned protests and public meetings until further notice on Tuesday (06) to prevent large gatherings and the further spread of COVID-19.
Responding to allegations that police were suppressing protests against the government using quarantine regulations, Public Security Minister Sarath Weerasekara told parliament Thursday afternoon that the arrests were in accordance with guidelines issued by Health Services Director General Dr Asela Gunawardena in an effort to contain the spread of the virus.
It was not at all politically motivated, he said. (Colombo/July09/2021)