Ravi K wants string of subjects unrelated to Foreign Affairs KabirHashim threatens to quit President Sirisena asks Ministers to ‘manage’ with given vehicles for now By Our Political Editor Last Wednesday’s swearing in of four State Ministers and three Deputies, like the Cabinet reshuffle, was not without tense behind-the-scenes political drama. In this one, Enterprise [...]


Officials, Ministers wait in suspense as President mulls over allocation of subjects after mini Cabinet reshuffle


  • Ravi K wants string of subjects unrelated to Foreign Affairs
  • KabirHashim threatens
  • to quit President Sirisena asks Ministers to ‘manage’ with given vehicles for now

By Our Political Editor

Last Wednesday’s swearing in of four State Ministers and three Deputies, like the Cabinet reshuffle, was not without tense behind-the-scenes political drama.
In this one, Enterprise Development Minister and General Secretary of the United National Party (UNP), Kabir Hashim threatened to resign both positions. He called off the move only after President Maithripala Sirisena gave him an assurance that his demand not to appoint Lakshman Yapa Abeywardena as his State Minister would be heeded. After being sworn in, at least technically, he now remains Minister of State.
It was not because Hashim had issues, either political or personal, with Abeywardena. It is also not because there was a spat when Abeywardena went to the offices of the Public Enterprises Development Ministry at levels 13 and 37 at the World Trade Centre to commence work. He complained that he turned back after he found only six rooms had been assigned to him. This was in contrast to nine rooms assigned to the previous number two, he said. Hence, he has refused to use the offices.

The real issue appears to be a culmination of other factors – the result of Minister Hashim and his ministerial colleague Development Strategies and International Trade Minister (also Chairman of the UNP) Malik Samarawickrema – engaging in shuttle diplomacy between President Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe for months now. As reported periodically in these columns, their mission related to a then impending Cabinet reshuffle, who should take what portfolio and when it should be carried out. It is only now more details of what went on are unfolding.

President Maithripala Sirisena swore in five Ministers of State and three Deputy Ministers on Wednesday. Thereafter, he made an exception in taking part in ceremonies associated with Mahinda Amaraweera, State Minister for Mahaweli Development assuming duties at his office in Hyde Park. Mr. Amaraweera is also the General Secretary of the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA)

Both Hashim and Samarawickrema at first tried hard to convince Sirisena that the ideal time for a reshuffle would be August this year. This is on the grounds that the coalition would have completed two years by then. This calculation is on the basis of the formation of the SLFP-UNP alliance after the parliamentary elections on August 17. However, President Sirisena rejected the request and insisted that the reshuffle should get under way as soon as their dialogue is concluded. The UNP duo met Premier Wickremesinghe and briefed him of the position. That saw the intensification of the shuttle diplomacy by the two ministers. The focus was on which Ministers in the UNP should have their portfolios shifted.

Minister Samarawickrema talked to then Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera telling him that Ravi Karunanayake was being considered for his portfolio. He said he was being offered the Finance portfolio (later the media was added on). It was Samarawickrema’s view that the new portfolio would be a “promotion” for Samaraweera and he had the capability to do the new job. He made no secret of the fact that he was acting as emissary to Premier Wickremesinghe. These talks were in March, just ahead of President Sirisena’s departure for a visit to Russia. Samaraweera who was also accompanying Sirisena (since he was asked to be present for a Cabinet meeting) was advised to convey his decision ahead of his departure to the Premier. He did. The answer was a “yes,” he would take over the finance portfolio. A member of Sirisena’s entourage to Moscow recalled him asking Samaraweera rather casually, in the presence of others, whether he had made up his mind. He nodded but those around could not then figure out what it was all about.

It was Premier Wickremesinghe who spoke to Ravi Karunanayake. The then Finance Minister made clear he was strongly opposed to him being shifted. He had in fact wanted to know the reason why he was being ‘targeted.’ That refusal made clear he would stay put forcing those seeking changes to remove him. Wickremesinghe told both Hashim and Samarawickrama that Karunanayake was not willing to give up his portfolio. Both reported this to President Sirisena during a meeting. Later, Sirisena was to telephone Karunanayake. He told him that changes are being made not to demean him in any way. It was to tap the best talent in a person and get them to do a better job. He also made clear it was in no way meant to dilute his power or downplay his importance. He was a recognised and respected politician and should therefore extend his co-operation for the proposed changes.

That saw another meeting between Wickremesinghe and Karunanayake. It soon transpired that Karunanayake was now willing to accept the Foreign Affairs portfolio as long as his request for additional institutions is heeded. Among them were the Securities Exchange, SriLankan Airlines, Sri Lanka Insurance Corporation, Bank of Ceylon and plantation companies. This had been conveyed to Sirisena by the two ministers. One source familiar with the developments said the President was willing to consider them. However, SLFP ministers were of a different view. They opined that the President would not add any additional subject. It is in this backdrop that the ministers concerned took their oaths.

Like the last straw that broke the camel’s back, Wednesday’s swearing-in of State and Deputy Ministers came heavily on Public Enterprises Development Minister Hashim. President Sirisena who flew on a two day state visit to Australia did not gazette the subjects of the ministers he swore in on May 22. Upon his return, he has been mulling over this issue and until yesterday no Gazette notification has been issued.
Is he awaiting the return of Premier Wickremesinghe, who is now in New York on a private visit for medical reasons? It is two weeks since a reshuffle of selected ministries were carried out by President Sirisena.
Ahead of his departure to United States, Wickremesinghe met with Sirisena in the company of Ministers Hashim and Samarawickrema. One of the matters that came up for discussion was the additional subjects for Karunanayake.

Minister Hashim, a UNP source said yesterday realized that any new subjects to be assigned to Karunanayake would be deleted from his Ministry. To add to that, the source said, he also realized that the new State Minister would also have to be assigned a subject or more leaving him with an emaciated Ministry. Now, like the predator becoming the prey, it was one of the UNP negotiator’s who had to negotiate on his own behalf. Hashim told UNP Chairman Samarawickrema if this issue is not resolved, he would resign as Minister and as General Secretary of the UNP. Samarawickrema, who turned out to be an influential power broker, rang President Sirisena to inform him of the position. Later Sirisena telephoned Hashim and asked him to be patient.

The source said Hashim then had a meeting with Sirisena and explained matters. He said he was willing to ‘sacrifice’ some of his subjects but cannot suffer the ‘indignity’ of an emaciated Ministry. Sirisena admitted to him that there would be a deficiency. He is learnt to have told Hashim “Oyata Pathal Haaranta venney” or you will have to dig mines.
Hashim’s complaint was that he was the General Secretary of the UNP. In that position he would end up heading a pruned down ministry with little or no functions. Though under his Ministry, he could not appoint persons to differet jobs coming under it. The source said Sirisena said he was now considering appointing Lakshman Yapa Abeywardena as his Chief of Staff and nominating another person as Hashim’s number two. He said Yapa would co-ordinate his work. Sirisena is taking a lesson from Premier Wickremesinghe who has named Minister Sagala Ratnayake as his Chief of Staff. This is emulating a practice in Britain. Hashim did not respond to calls made by the Sunday Times.

Minister Karunanayake told the Sunday Times he was ousted from the portfolio of Finance by ‘black sheep’ in his party. He said they were led by a person who could not come to Parliament through a popular vote but through the National List. He said “each political party has their own black sheep. The United National Party (UNP) is not devoid of that. There are certain people who have not come through the popular vote. They have been nominated through the National List and try to run the UNP to the detriment of the party. And we have one of them who thinks he can do anything and everything. I strongly believe it is time to call a spade a spade. You cannot compromise people’s integrity, hard work and commitment to take the country and the people way forward. One person and his cohorts are standing in the way.” See box story on this page.
It is in this backdrop that President Sirisena told his ministers at last Tuesday’s weekly cabinet meeting that they should manage with the vehicles they have for this year. Thus, the import of vehicles for Ministers, Deputies, State Ministers and MPs have been put on hold for this year. This is particularly in view of the vast destruction to life and property during the torrential rains last week. The President also directed that all foreign funds coming from abroad on account of flood relief should be pooled into one account in the Treasury. This should be utilised to construct houses. The task is to be given to the Sri Lanka Army. Houses which have been affected on a number of occasions, Sirisena said, should be relocated.

The behind-the-scenes goings on both ahead of the Cabinet reshuffle and the swearing in of Deputy and State Ministers have clearly brought to the fore the sharper differences between the SLFP and the UNP, the two main partners in the Government – and some infighting within the UNP hierarchy. With two months to go for their second anniversary, with a growing debt crisis, mounting crime and rising cost of living – among matters causing public discontent – how the Government will tackle the issues remains an important question.

UNP ‘black sheep’ who have not come through popular vote ousted meForeign Minister Ravi Karunanayake has accused “black sheep in the United National Party (UNP)” of ousting him from the Finance portfolio and charged “they have not even come through the popular vote.”
He said he had raised the matter with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and declared that his good performance to revive the economy had irritated his detractors in the party. Even President Maithripala Sirisena had said a month ago that the economy was doing very well.

Karunanayake answered questions posed to him at an interview at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It was interrupted by the continued ringing of his mobile phone. He was forced to respond. The new Foreign Minister exclaimed “How wonderful. Very good, Very good!! That is superb. How long will you take to come here (the Foreign Ministry). I asked why all the excitement. He replied that a second in command to his Ministry has been appointed. That was Wasantha Senanayake, a UNP parliamentarian from the Polonnaruwa District.
Here is Karunanayake’s response to the questions posed to him:

Wife Mela serves the new Foreign Minister Ravi Karunanayake at a ceremony after he assumed duties at the Ministry. Ministers, MPs and well wishers were present on the occasion where kiribath was served. Pic by Amila Gamage

Q: You may perhaps feel disappointed or even let down upon being removed as Finance Minister. What do you think were the reasons?
A: I won’t say I am disappointed. At least it is an elevation if one looks at political stature. Yet, it was rather surprising that such changes did take place. I think when you look at it no post is permanently yours. However, it was the manner in which it was done, that was both surprising and mysterious.

Q: Why do you say that? Was there any allegations or have you been faulted for mishandling the economy?
A: It was quite the contrary. Our public debt was reduced. Even our President (Maithripala Sirisena) declared a month ago that the economy is doing very well. That makes the change even more intriguing. Is it due to my success that these things happened? Our economy is definitely in better shape. There is no question about it. The economy we inherited in 2015 from the previous Government was akin to a grenade with the firing pin removed. We have managed to neutralise it. We have steered it clear. The revenue, which was 10% of the GDP is now almost 15% Prices of major items have not changed since 2015 leaving the Cost of Living at a manageable level. We brought in a sense of financial discipline. International donors were happy. These are some of the positive sides. The economy that was downgraded was given a positive outlook.

Q: Can you elaborate. What do you think in your view could be the reason?
A: I think there is nothing surprising to those who are aware of what has been going on. Each political party has their own black sheep. The United National Party (UNP) is not devoid of that. There are certain people who have not come through the popular vote. They have been nominated through the National List and try to run the UNP to the detriment of the party. And we have one of them who thinks he can do anything and everything. I strongly believe it is time to call a spade a spade. You cannot compromise people’s integrity, hard work and commitment to take the country and the people way forward. One person and his cohorts are standing in the way.

I believe President Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe trusted and gave me the Finance portfolio after the presidential election on January 8 2015. I was re-appointed again after the May 2015 parliamentary elections. We stood firmly against corruption. There was no nonsense. It sure would have irritated some. That is why we are facing this type of situation. This has become the norm. It should not happen to people who have proved their ability. This has been acknowledged both locally as internationally.

Q: Are you saying that within the UNP, your own party, there are person or persons trying to undermine your achievements?
A: Oh yes! Oh yes!! Absolutely. I have no qualms about it. I know that both the President and the Premier did their very best to navigate this difficult situation. They (those behind his ouster) seem to have over-ridden that. That shows the sinister pattern that has come to light. There was an ulterior motive which is quite surprising.
Otherwise, how come Ministers like Arjuna Ranatunga and Chandima Weerakkody become targets like me? The same vested interests were at work. One person is leading the effort. I will expose them as well as their actions in due course.

Q: Have you raised this with the Premier Wickremesinghe who is the leader of your party?
A: I have done so. I have been a person who has stood by the party and represented it in Parliament for 24 years and made many sacrifices. I have all the right to raise this. The question I posed is if this could be done to us, what happens to other people who try to emulate the same? Loyalty and efficiency are aspects always recognised by our party. I have the courage and the wherewithal to speak out, to say this nonsense should be stopped.

Q: You were in the forefront of the UNP presidential and parliamentary election campaigns in 2015. Reports spoke of your being considered for a top slot when changes are made in the party. Would you accept that?
A: I am a team player. We find solitary guys who are always on the fence trying to derail the team effort. Fighting is not the answer. Exposing their heinous acts will have to be done. This is not a playground for a singleton and his mates. It behoves on us to have this sense of good governance in the party. Our supporters expect that and it will do well to the country too.

Q: What about foreign investment?
A: The investment drives are there. This is an area where greater attention is needed. Who is heading investment coming to the country today? Why are they not performing? We have managed to get a few things done. They were spill over from the previous regime.

Q: Do you believe if you continued as Finance Minister, it would have been able to bring about a greater turn around in the economy?
A: My successor (Mangala Samaraweera) is embarking on the same journey as I did. I hope the same robustness will continue.

Q: Coalition politics prevented you from implementing your budget proposals. Was it because they were considered bad?
A: If it is bad, it would not have been approved on more than three different occasions.

Q: The ‘populist packages’ like the pay rise of Rs 10,000, reduction in fuel prices etc – were they hurting the economy? The Government had to raise funds to meet shortfalls.
A: None of them had an impact. The credit for that should go to the President and the Prime Minister.

Q: On seeking IMF bailout packages:
A: We have withstood pressure that came from the IMF. I don’t believe they can prescribe to this country what we know better. We know what was going on. We are a knowledgeable Government. There were certain issues on which we took a tougher stance. That toughness also earned us respect. Certainly there were taxes and benefits withdrawn. I was a vocal critic of that.

Q: On the subject of corruption, there is public criticism that the promises you made during elections to deal with corruption have been forgotten. You were also one of those who made several public statements about dealing strongly with the corrupt. What is the position?
A: I guess the best is to ask the people who handle it. There is a kind of speed and efficiency in the way of handling. I can only say there is a lot of discussion but better ask those who are handling it.

Q: On claims that you are linked to former Central Bank Governor Arjuna Mahendran’s family. Can you comment?
A: This is ludicrous. We have been family friends for years. His son-in-law and my grandfather were known to each other. Arjuna’s father was a diplomat. The family are also good friends of Premier Wickremesinghe. I cannot see why any insinuation has to be made. The Treasury bond issue has nothing to do with the Finance Ministry. It was something completely outside. It is incumbent on me to defend the Prime Minister when something wrong is said of him. They alleged that I colluded with Raj Rajaratnam (the stock broker who is now jailed in the United States for insider trading). The person who worked for him is the head of the Central Bank. He is a good person. The point I am making is that they wrongfully accuse others. If you are swimming along with the corrupt, it is okay. When you oppose it, you become a target.

Q: You have made commercial diplomacy as your main focus. Can you explain?
A: Yes, that will no doubt be the main focus. But we have not abandoned human rights. We are also committed to non-alignment. Human rights issues came due to the aberrations of the separatist war. My predecessor did a superb job. We have to work on other aspects – re-organising our diplomatic missions, the quality of the people going in, and the service that is being rendered. We have to increase our export potential. Both the President and the Premier told me that is is the Foreign Ministry that can unite Sri Lanka with the outside world.

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