Portfolio changes for Kiriella and Hashim; Harsha, Ajith and Sujeewa likely as non-Cabinet ministers Amaraweera for Agriculture, Duminda gets Skills and Vocational Training, Premajayantha to move out Though coalition continues, disputes prevail with President often disposing of what Premier proposes President asserts authority, especially ineconomic matters; big projects on Tabs and Central Highway put on [...]


Political drama climax today; mainly reshuffle of same Ministers


  • Portfolio changes for Kiriella and Hashim; Harsha, Ajith and Sujeewa likely as non-Cabinet ministers

  • Amaraweera for Agriculture, Duminda gets Skills and Vocational Training, Premajayantha to move out

  • Though coalition continues, disputes prevail with President often disposing of what Premier proposes

  • President asserts authority, especially ineconomic matters; big projects on Tabs and Central Highway put on hold


The suspense for Sri Lankans, kept in the dark for two weeks over the political crisis triggered by results of the local polls, will end today.
The Presidential Secretariat on Friday informed new ministers to be present at a swearing-in ceremony at 11 this morning. The move signals the continuation of the SLFP-UNP coalition with most differences resolved, at least for the moment.

The past two weeks have seen President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe locked in a see-saw exercise. Sirisena has rejected, at least on three different occasions, some of the names forwarded by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe for Cabinet portfolios. They have also had a string of one-on-one meetings in this regard. Thus, the delay of a swearing-in as a periodically amended lists went back and forth. However, the final list was approved by Sirisena with one rejection – that of the controversial former military strongman Sarath Fonseka as Minister of Law and Order, a portfolio under which the Police Department comes.

Assisted by UNP Chairman Malik Samarawickrema, Premier Wickremesinghe has been devoting considerable time formulating his list of new ministers. The delay was because he was engaged in a consultation process before deciding on the nominees – a departure from previous UNP leaders. When the late Presidents J.R. Jayewardene and Ranasinghe Premadasa sought to name their Cabinet, the prospective ministers did not know what their subjects would be until they turned up for the swearing-in ceremony.

If all goes as planned, there will be a switch in the portfolios held by Lakshman Kiriella (Highways and Higher Education) and Kabir Hashim (Public Enterprise Development). Ravi Samaraweera, the Badulla District MP, is to be the new Minister for Sustainable Development and Wild Life. The present incumbent Gamini Jayawickrema Perera will remain as Minister of Buddha Sasana. Sagala Ratnayake is to be the Minister of Southern Development and National Policies. Other likely changes are a set of non-cabinet rank ministers. These independent portfolios are to be held by Harsha de Silva, Ajith Perera and Sujeeva Senasinghe. An SLFPer or two is also to be brought in as non-cabinet rank minister. President Sirisena has allowed the UNP to name a minister to be in charge of Samurdhi, a portfolio held by the SLFP earlier. This is in exchange for one now held by the UNP. Kurunegala district parliamentarian J.C. Alawathuwala will be a new Deputy Minister. Tourism Minister John Ameratunga had turned down a request to step down and take the portfolio of Senior Minister.

Ministers from SLFP
Among the changes likely on the SLFP side is the appointment of Mahinda Amaraweera as the Minister of Agriculture. The present incumbent Duminda Dissanayake is to be the Minister of Skills Development and Vocational Training.
Chandima Weerakkody who now holds that portfolio is to be the new Minister of Fisheries.

The political drama that played out for two weeks is not without some vile humour. Minister and United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) General Secretary Mahinda Amaraweera was one of two ministers who wrote to President Sirisena only last week. Pointing out that “our party cannot accept a situation where the Government continues to be managed by the Prime Minister based on the number of votes obtained by the UNP”, they requested Sirisena “to grant the SLFP and the UPFA this opportunity” to form “a new Government.” That move meant a new Prime Minister too, but it failed.

This week, the same Mahinda Amaraweera sang a different tune. He told Parliament that the “Government of National Unity” was still intact and would continue. He said they would keep to the Memorandum of Understanding which the SLFP had signed with the UNP. In reality this agreement for two years has lapsed in September last year. In saying so, Ameraweera was acknowledging that Wickremesinghe was the Prime Minister and would continue. In his call for change Amaraweera charged that the Government’s “economic management, is turning its back on good governance principles, and following a programme which was completely opposite to one which sought to protect the national interest.” No doubt it was a complete turnaround but in politics such desperate situations do occur. Some are strong enough to stick to their principles whilst others, for survival, have to change. The joke is when they expect the public to believe their remarks from their dual positions.

It is Minister SLFP General Secretary Duminda Dissanayake who had signed the MoU on behalf of his party with UNP General Secretary Kabir Hashim. However, it was Amaraweera who spoke in Parliament on the MoU. Dissanayake has been under a cloud since his open backing for the UNP after the local polls. He is reportedly ill and had undergone surgery.

The Amaraweera episode highlighted the chaos and confusion in the Presidency. Every now and then, their position seems to shift underscoring the fact that President Sirisena is unable to make up his mind. The delay was costly not only in economic terms but with Sri Lankans being kept completely in the dark about the goings on. In fairness, it was only Premier Wickremesinghe who chaired a news conference to assert that he cannot be removed by the President. Sirisena made many approaches to the leadership of the ‘Joint Opposition.’ There were talks between the two sides but the swearing-in today puts an end to them. Seems he was left with little choice and time was running out.

Sirisena’s angry mood since the local poll results were announced was reflected even at last Tuesday’s meeting of the National Economic Council (NEC), the apex body for all matters related to economic development and related activity. At the meeting, Premier Wickremesinghe gave a discourse on plans for future development at the macroeconomic level. Among those present were Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera, Special Assignments Minister Sarath Amunugama, and Secretaries to key ministries.

Sirisena was more concerned about the cost of living, a key factor which he believes caused the party’s loss at local polls. Mata oya jathiyanthara deval oney nehe. Kiyanna kohomada buth packet ekey mila adu karanney kiyala, he said. I am not interested in those international matters. Tell me how we could reduce the price of a packet of rice (and curry), he exhorted. In what seemed a move against the Premier, Sirisena directed that in future all decisions of the Cabinet Committee on Economic Management (CCEM) should first be referred to the National Economic Council (NEC) before they are presented to the Cabinet of Ministers. Wickremesinghe chairs the CCEM which was once likened to a parallel Cabinet. It had only UNP Ministers and pro-UNP advisers in it. This was on the grounds that their decisions, contained briefly in their minutes, were forwarded for Cabinet approval. SLFP ministers alleged that one of their UNP counterparts had his projects approved at the CCEM.

Sirisena-Ranil meetings
The new developments began last Sunday. Sirisena had a meeting with Premier Wickremesinghe. Accompanying the latter were Speaker Karu Jayasuriya, UNP Chairman Malik Samarawickrema and General Secretary Kabir Hashim. There were some tense moments when Sirisena declared that he proposed to prorogue Parliament. He gave no reason. A senior SLFPer disclosed that the exercise would have given the President time to get over the current political impasse. Others opined that he was planning to thwart a possible impeachment motion though there was no such move. Speaker Jayasuriya was to assure nothing untoward would happen. Both Wickremesinghe and Jayasuriya strongly opposed a prorogation and declared it was inadvisable. They said they could guarantee it. Wickremesinghe and the UNP have been victims of such a move when the then President Chandrika Kumaratunga despite a written assurance she will not dissolve Parliament, did exactly that in 2004. Jayasuriya was also to say that he was in favour of Wickremesinghe being Prime Minister in a new Cabinet. His presence was to demonstrate support to Wickremesinghe in the wake of calls to him to take over as Premier.

During the conversation that ensued, Sirisena spoke about the mistakes made by the Government. That included ignoring the mounting cost of living and the long delay in the distribution of fertilizer to paddy farmers. Wickremesinghe was to admit that there were quite a few lapses. Eventually, there was agreement that the coalition would continue.

After the brief meeting, Wickremesinghe drove to ‘Temple Trees’ for a meeting of leaders of the United National Front (UNF). Regrettably, it was erroneously reported last week that it was a dinner for a group of SLFP ministers. Wickremesinghe declared there was no need for any affidavits since “we trust our members.” The UNF leaders were entertained to a meal of hoppers, seeni sambol, katta sambol and different curries. Naturally, it sparked jokes among participants. One of them told another “now don’t go back and join the other side.” They were alluding to an episode where Maithripala Sirisena went to ‘Temple Trees’ when former President Rajapaksa was in office. There he ate hoppers and the next day announced his candidature for the presidency to contest Rajapaksa.

A more serious development came on Monday. For the first time Sirisena disclosed to his SLFP Parliamentary Group that the Attorney General has advised him that under the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, he has no power to remove the Prime Minister. He appealed to his party MPs to give him one month’s time to put things right. He said those willing to serve in a new Cabinet could do so whilst others were free to decide what they wanted to do. Minister Susil Premajayantha indicated that he would quit his Cabinet post. He said files with him were being returned to the Ministry. Premjayantha is due to leave for Japan today. Sirisena’s speech was to give rise to speculation that a ministerial re-shuffle would get under way on Wednesday, but it did not materialise. The UNP list was going to and fro.

Sirisena asserts his authority
At the weekly Cabinet meeting on Tuesday, Sirisena was more assertive. He reversed a Cabinet decision adopted last week to spend five billion rupees to issue electronic tablets to students. This is how the matter was reported exclusively in these columns last week: “….The cost of the entire exercise was five billion rupees. Sirisena declared that it was a large amount of money. He asked whether it would not be advisable to spend a billion rupees first on a pilot project and later expand it. This was because there were several schools in the country without tables and chairs. Others lacked buildings and other amenities.

ickremesinghe was not in favour. He declared somewhat tersely that the necessary funds for the purpose have been allocated in the 2018 budget and he had made personal pledges that such a project would be implemented. Sirisena then gave in saying if the Premier insisted he had no option, said a Minister present.” This week, however, Sirisena did a complete about-turn and insisted that the decision be reversed and the matter put on hold.

Sirisena also put on hold for a week another recommendation by Premier Wickremesinghe (on behalf of Highways Minister Kiriella) a Japanese 100 billion Yen (US$ 936 million) proposal for the Section 3 of the Central Expressway. This was after a heated exchange between Minister Patali Champika Ranawaka and Highways Minister Lakshman Kiriella. Minister Ranawaka complained that even before the signing of the loan negotiated for this purpose, there was a recommendation to award the tender to Taisei Corporation of Japan. He said that the recommendation to begin “immediate implementation of the project with the selected contractor using their own funds on the basis of reimbursement of relevant costs” was irregular.

Ranawaka also pointed out that major projects costing millions of dollars or billions of rupees should comply with the national physical plan. That was to ensure that projects are undertaken on pre identified priorities instead of being ad hoc. Moreover, the Colombo-Kandy Highway has been found to be going through a fragile area. He noted that land acquisition alone would cost Rs 200 billion and a third had to be borne by the Sri Lanka Government. If this project were to be accepted, he warned, we would have to cut costs from all other projects. A sarcastic comment on Government inaction over the matter came from Minister Anura Priyadarshana Yapa who declared “this looks like Nero playing the fiddle whilst Rome was burning.” Sirisena has put off the decision by a week. By this time, a source close to him said, there may be a new Minister in charge of highways. The matter is to be reviewed thereafter, the source added.

On the other hand, Minister Kiriella who is to switch his portfolio of Higher Education and Housing with Kabir Hashim’s Public Enterprises sought to bring under his purview the Central Expressway Project. This has, however, not been successful. Premier Wickremesinghe, in his memorandum as Minister of National Policies and Economic Affairs, among other matters, to the Cabinet said that:

“The Bank of Tokyo Mitsubishi UNJ (BTMU) has been appointed by the Government as the Mandated Lead Arranger (MLA) for making financing arrangements for the construction of CEP III Project through a syndicated yen loan from Japanese banks, together with Nippon Export and Investment Insurance (NEXI) as the Export Credit Agency of the facility.

“As directed by the Cabinet of Ministers on 20th July 2016 for issuing mandate letter to BTMU, the Department of External Resources negotiated the terms and conditions of the facility and finally agreed that the terms and other obligations of the GOSL (Government of Sri Lanka) relating to the facility as follows:
“Facility Amount JPY 100 billion (Note: $ 936 million)

“Six months JPY Tibor plus 0.95 per cent. Arrangement Fee: 0.8 flat of the facility Amount at the execution of General Loan Agreement and 0.37 flat of the amount of each Individual Loan Agreement; Commercial Fee 0.25 per annum; Agency Fee US $ 30,000/US $ annual, thereafter. 25 years including four years Availability period plus two years Grace period plus 9 years Repayment period; NEXI insurance – maximum 10.7 % flat, upfront of each tranches of the facility; ESDD Consultant JPY 30 million (to be paid by the Government of Sri Lanka) and Legal Counsels NEXI/BTMU Us $ 201,312 to be paid by the Government of Sri Lanka.

“Therefore the Effective Interest Rate (AIR) of the above facility is about 2.7 per annum inclusive of all related costs. According to the indicated time plan agreed with the financier, the GLA (General Loan Agreement) is expected to be signed in April 2018. Considering the above progress of the facility arrangement, the Ministry of Highways and Higher Education and RDA have proposed to deploy the contractor to start the project subject to the finalisation of the above loan with the Bank of Tokyo Mitsubishi UFJ of Japan.

“The following arrangement has been made by the Ministry of Highways and Higher Education in the contract agreements in view of the awarding the contract and commence the work prior to the execution of GLA, avoiding the possible documentation delays of facility arrangement with financiers.
“As per the bidding condition, contractor shall continue with the works with their own funds until the loan is activated. Further, in the event of the Loan Agreement is not signed on or before 365 calendar days from the date of signing Contract Agreement, the Contract shall automatically stand terminated. Further, as per negotiations concluded with Taisei Corporation, the Employer (RDA) shall pay the contractor, only for the works done using their own funds including the financing cost incurred by the contractor.”

Since the construction of Phase III of the Central Expressway from Potuhera to Galagedera via Rambukkana, is costing almost a billion dollars, it does raise questions on whether it is a high priority one. This is particularly in the light of a number of other projects which have been labelled as high priority but lie without funds. Raising a serious question is how a move is being made to hurriedly commence a project even before a loan agreement is in place. This again is a snub on Premier Wickremesinghe, just after overturning the tablets for student’s project and insisting that all decisions of the CCEM be directed to the Cabinet only through the National Economic Council (NEC). These were indicators that even in the event of the coalition Government choosing to continue in office, the relationship between the two leaders could be acrimonious. “What the Prime Minister proposes the President disposes”, said a Minister. That brings one to the all-important question of how long they could continue together if things are to remain this way. In this regard, answers given by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa to questions posed by the Sunday Times are of relevance. See box story on this page.

Rishad-Malik encounter
On the subject of a ‘major’ cabinet reshuffle, which President Sirisena sought, there were delays with some candidates for portfolios not getting his approval. The process has not been without dramas. One was when Minister Malik Samarawickrema met Commerce Minister Rishad Bathiuddin at ‘Temple Trees’ to tell him that Sirisena was not happy with his performance. Hence, he planned a change in his portfolio. In the alternative, he said, he may lose some institutions like the Food Department and the Consumer Affairs Authority. This was on the grounds that he had not done enough on the rising cost of living. Bathiuddin asked how this could be when President Sirisena had asked to support him saying he would get additional subjects. He had politely turned down that request.

An infuriated Bathiuddin sought a meeting with Sirisena thereafter. He told the President he could not be accused of being responsible for the rising cost of living. There were floods, drought and the pricies of some commodities were high. It was Minister Samarawickrema who headed the Cabinet Sub Committee on the Cost of Living. The Mannar District parliamentarian Bathiuddin asked Sirisena whether he had sought to make changes in his portfolio. He said it has been conveyed to him by Samarawickrema. Sirisena was angry. He got Samarawickrema on the telephone and asked “ai ek ekkanawa maath ekka kotawanney” why are you pitting others against me? Samarawickrema denied the charge and said Bathiuddin’s portfolio would remain intact. Sirisena then handed over the telephone receiver to Bathiuddin. Samarawickrema repeated the same assurance. Evidently the move to shift Bathiuddin failed.

Needless to say, that even partners in the UNP led United National Front (UNF) have expressed concerns over recent political developments. Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) leader and Minister Patali Champika Ranawaka told the Sunday Times, “The people’s verdict is very clear. We have not addressed the economic necessities whilst in power. The steep rise in the cost of living has not been addressed. We failed in the distribution of fertilizer. There is no development projects in the villages. How are we going to pay our debts?

“No one is punished for wrongdoings. Take the Meetotamulla Avurudhu tragedy at the garbage dump. We have not taken any action against those responsible for the deaths of innocent people. Power blackouts have taken place. No one has been punished. Fuel shortages have occurred. No one has been dealt with. Cases linked to large scale corruption have been ignored. We need to re-brand and re-structure our Government. Those in the SLFP and the UNP should give the correct leadership. Otherwise we will be in trouble.”

There is soul searching now by both the SLFP and the UNP leadership who want to give a new face to a Government almost three years old. Many a statement about the new measures and changes are now in the public domain. There is still suspense over who will take what portfolio. And a nation has been kept in the dark for the past two weeks. The next phase is the second innings of the coalition. The question is whether the situation will change for the better or remain the same in the minds of most Sri Lankans. That, one might say, is politics in Sri Lanka.

People know the reality now: Mahinda Rajapaksa

Mahinda Rajapaksa

Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, now the de facto leader of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna, which swept the local polls, spoke to the Sunday Times. Here are edited excerpts of the Q & A:

ON PRESIDENT SIRISENA’S REQUEST TO THE ‘JOINT OPPOSITON’ TO JOIN HIS GOVERNMENT: They asked us so they may get their numbers. We were willing to support them and prevent the defeat of a new Government in Parliament. However, we did place some conditions. Among them: there should be no privatisation of state enterprises, to change the Government stance on the resolution on Sri Lanka at the UN Human Rights Council. It is somebody else’s resolution which Sri Lanka has co-sponsored. The offer of help was entirely based on the situation in the country. The economy is in a worst state. The stock market has crashed. The Sri Lanka rupee is sliding vis-à-vis the dollar. State sector officials are reluctant to take decisions. All this is due to the current political stalemate. Our people are confused whether President Sirisena is serious about our proposals.

THE SLPP VICTORY: We are very happy about it. People know the reality now. This victory came within a few months after forming a new party. When the late S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike left the UNP, he did not have this overwhelming support at the beginning. We are now the single largest party. Our victory shows that the Government has failed. Gonai Mee Harakai ekata yanna beha or the bull and the buffalo cannot go together. The bull would veer towards the land whilst the buffalo would want to wallow in mud and water. Let the Government identify one thing it has achieved.

ON INVESTIGATIONS AND CASES AGAINST MEMBERS OF THE RAJAPAKSA FAMILY: We understand they want to remand us by filing cases within one month. This is nothing but political revenge. They are trying to fix us with the help of selected Police officers. They are trying to select Judges also. This is what Minister Rajitha Senaratne has been saying. He is even delivering the verdict. I hope they do not go to that level. We have appointed a Committee to look into complaints about Police harassment, political harassment among other matters. We have received complaints even of Judges. We will look into them and obtain the facts. Those involved will have to face the consequences in the future.

It is those in the Government who are involved in robbery. They are corrupt. This has been said by none other than the President during the local election campaign. He said that persons in his own Government are corrupt. Earlier they accused me and my family. Some said I would be forced to wear jumpers and remain in prison. The people’s verdict shows that it is they who would have to wear jumpers. The voters acknowledged what President Sirisena said. The people’s verdict delivered a message which the Government has not understood.

The President is helpless. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe is so shrewd he is attacking the Rajapaksas. He (Wickremesinghe) has shown he is more powerful than the President. It is like the Sinhala adage Nangi pennala Akka dunna or showing the younger sister and giving the eldest (in marriage). Sirisena was taken for a ride during the formulation of the 19th Amendment. He is the victim. He has now found his feathers cut.

ON SIRISENA’S ATTEMPTS TO REMOVE THE PRIME MINISTER: I would only look at the interests of the country at large in such a situation. I would have sacked the Prime Minister. Let them go to courts. I would have picked the Prime Minister I want. If this was done, Sirisena would have got the majority MPs backing him. This is by demonstrating that he is not a weak leader but a strong one. Trying to place a political decision before the Supreme Court would even embarrass the judiciary. Whatever ruling it gives, one party or the other will blame it. Should the SC be subjected to that?

FUTURE OF THE GOVERNMENT; If the two leaders (President Sirisena and Premier Wickremesinghe) cannot get along, cannot work together, the stability of the country will become weaker. This is the reason we said we will support a new Government from outside. At present an SLFP-SLPP Committee is going into all aspects.

Me horunta licence denava vagey or giving licence to rogues. He was referring to the Active Liability Management Bill presented in Parliament. It will authorse the Prime Minister to raise loans in or outside Sri Lanka for the purpose of Active Liability Management to improve public debt management in Sri Lanka.

Share This Post


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked.
Comments should be within 80 words. *


Post Comment

Advertising Rates

Please contact the advertising office on 011 - 2479521 for the advertising rates.