Sri Lanka President ruffles feathers in cabinet make over

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka President Maithripala Sirisena appealed for friendship and unity among his cabinet of ministers after his long-awaited reshuffle, which left both sides of the unity government bitter and may have undermined the entire administration.

Despite Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s resistance, Sirisena had his way in removing Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake and replacing him with Mangala Samaraweera, a liberal who had earned praise for his diplomatic skills.

"This Cabinet reshuffle will provide a new impetus to Sri Lanka’s development,” the president said while calling his ministers to show friendship to one another and work to uphold collective responsibility. "Commit yourself to ensure the progress of the country,” he told the ministers according to a statement issued by his office.

There was no comment from Prime Minister Wickremesinghe or his United National Party (UNP).

Political observers said neither the president’s side nor the prime minister’s camp could claim victory from Monday’s reshuffle. Both appeared to have been forced into a compromise. The two power centres are in a deadlock with neither able to demonstrate superiority.

"There are some UNP ministers that the president clearly wanted to shift, but could not," a source close to the administration said.  "The reshuffle has also not helped the president to tighten his grip on the SLFP."

The swearing in ceremony at the sea-front Presidential Secretariat was off limits for the media, but footage released by Sirisena’s office showed glum faces except for Karunanayake who forced a smile as he received his new letter of appointment as Foreign minister.

Samaraweera had publicly declared that finance was a subject that was foreign to him and expressed a desire to remain in the foreign affairs portfolio.  However, he was given a sweetener by way of attaching a second portfolio, Media, placing him in charge of the government propaganda machine  .

The senior partner in the government, the United National Party of Premier Wickremesinghe, is clearly unhappy with the reshuffle they believe was instigated by the junior partner, the Sirisena faction of the SLFP.

For three months, Wickremesinghe managed to put off the changes, but insiders say it had become a prestige battle after Sirisena declared he would make drastic changes in the administration after Vesak, the full moon day of May.

In a sop to the UNP, Sirisena removed Ports Minister Arjuna Ranatunga who had been blocking the government’s plan to enter into a partnership with China to develop the loss-making Hambantota port.

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Ranatunga, who contested under the UNP ticket but considered a SLFP politician , has objected to the proposed lease agreement with China delaying the government securing the $1.1 billion deal.

The other SLFP minister who was demoted was Chandima Weerakkody from Petroleum to Vocational Training.

Weerakkody was accused of instigating petroleum workers to stage a strike this month over government plans  for a joint venture to develop the World War II-era oil storage tanks corroding away  in Trincomalee. He also had reservations about any deal with the Indian oil giant IOC.

Ranatunga now takes over Petroleum.

Ranatunga appointing one of his elder brothers as the Managing Director of the Sri Lanka Ports Authority had been criticised, but he insisted he trusted his brother Dhammika.

Ranatunga’s job goes to Mahinda Samarasinghe, another member of parliament nominated on the SLFP national list by President Sirisena.

Another SLFP Minister John Seneviratne who had publicly asked to be relieved of his labour ministry was given the additional responsibility of trade union relations.

A surprise reinstatement to the cabinet was that of Tilak Marapana , former  Justice minister and a UNP national list MP. This time he enters the cabinet as minister of Development Assignments. 

It is not clear what exactly this ministry would do, but Marapana was forced to step down last time after he defended the controversial Avant Garde company at the centre of a corruption scandal involving former defence secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa.

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