Sri Lanka expands Cabinet without Finance Minister 

Protests continue despite making nine new appointments

Updated - May 20, 2022 10:24 pm IST

Published - May 20, 2022 09:19 pm IST - COLOMBO

A soldier stands guard ahead of cooking gas distribution in Colombo on Friday.

A soldier stands guard ahead of cooking gas distribution in Colombo on Friday. | Photo Credit: Reuters

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on Friday expanded Sri Lanka’s Cabinet to include nine more Ministers, but he is yet to appoint a Finance Minister to handle the crisis-hit island nation’s economic affairs.

A group of Ministers to helm portfolios including education, ports and shipping, health, justice, trade was sworn in, the President’s office said, terming the current administration an “all party government”.

Defying their party’s position, two lawmakers from Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB), the main Opposition, broke ranks to join the new government, invoking disciplinary action from the party. One legislator from the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, which had earlier pledged conditional support, was also sworn in.

Other Opposition parties, including those representing Tamils and Muslims, and the leftist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, have refused to be part of the Rajapaksa government, citing the popular demand of ongoing citizens’ protests that President Gotabaya must “go home”. For 42 days now, anti-government demonstrators are camping outside the President’s office, in tents set up nearby, as they relentlessly agitate, asking Mr. Gotabaya to step down.

Friday’s Cabinet appointments — following the appointment of four Ministers on May 14 — come amid a series of political challenges for the Rajapaksa administration, heightened by the May 9 resignation of former PM Mahinda Rajapaksa that led to the former Cabinet getting dissolved. The developments followed violent attacks, triggered by Rajapaksa supporters against peaceful protesters, and consequent retaliation by incensed mobs who burned down property of several Ministers and government MPs, including some re-appointed to the Cabinet on Friday. The new appointments have inspired little faith among protesters. They continue protesting against the government and President Gotabaya, who they blame for the country’s now-worsening economic crisis.

People are facing acute shortages of fuel, cooking gas and a sharp increase in prices of essential food items. Over the last few days, queues on Sri Lankan roads got longer — some motorists spent upto 10 hours in line before getting petrol — even as angry citizens in several locations blocked roads using empty LPG cylinders.

Aid to the country

Sri Lanka has sought assistance from bilateral partners and is negotiating a programme with the IMF, but the agreement cannot be finalised unless a Finance Minister is appointed, Central Bank Governor Nandalal Weerasinghe has said. The new Prime Minister’s office told AFP that a Finance Minister “would be appointed next week”. PM Wickremesinghe on Thursday appointed Speaker and ex-President of the Maldives Mohamed Nasheed as “coordinator” for foreign aid to Sri Lanka.

India, which has extended nearly $ 3.5 billion in aid since January, on Friday said that fresh humanitarian assistance from India worth $ 16 million was expected to arrive on May 22. The consignment, sent by Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M.K. Stalin, consists of 9,000 MT of rice, 50 MT of milk powder and more than 25 MT of drugs and other medical supplies, and will be handed over by High Commissioner Gopal Baglay to the senior leadership of Government of Sri Lanka, the Indian High Commission said in a statement.

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