By the Political Editor of “Sunday Times”
One of the main tasks for President Maithripala Sirisena, who returned yesterday from an official visit to the Russian Federation, will be to re-shuffle the Cabinet of Ministers.
Ahead of his departure to Moscow, Sirisena had discussed the issue at length with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe on more than one occasion. The focus at these discussions has been on the portfolios allotted to ministers representing the United National Party (UNP). The performance of these ministers whose portfolios await changes had figured in the talks. Sirisena is learnt to have told Wickremesinghe he would not take away the subjects assigned to the UNP but expects Wickremesinghe to name the ministers whom he has identified and intimate it to him.
Besides Premier Wickremesinghe, there are 27 UNP members in the Cabinet of Ministers. The performance of some of these ministers who have been identified for their poor performance, controversial actions and those who face allegations of misconduct, the Sunday Times learnt, has been raised by Sirisena with the Prime Minister. Although Wickremesinghe had earlier insisted that no changes be made, he has now consented to them, it is learnt. Initially, the latter had defended the roles of some UNP ministers who are at the centre of serious controversy.
Sirisena has also made an assessment of the performance of SLFP ministers. Whilst changing the portfolios of some, it has now become clear, he will give greater responsibility to a few who hold less important positions now. This is the first time Sirisena is set to re-shuffle the Cabinet. On two previous occasions, one after the presidential election (January 2015) and the other after parliamentary elections (May 2015), he swore in ministers to the Cabinet. Sirisena has come in for bitter criticism over the role of some ministers from both the SLFP and the UNP. Some of his confidants have pointed out that he was being blamed by the people for the current situation. He had acknowledged the situation and told them he would act.
With the proposed changes in the Cabinet, Sirisena is also gearing to set in motion measures to ensure that the alliance’s outstanding election pledges are fulfilled.
One such area is the investigations into some high profile cases of bribery, corruption and other issues. Already some state investigative arms have gone into high gear making arrests and more importantly publicising them. That is not only in the mainstream media but also in the social media. The idea is to demonstrate that even after two long years, their machinery is still active and investigations have taken time. Some heads of corporations and statutory bodies are also to be replaced. The ‘new look’ Cabinet of Ministers is also to be told to contribute to develop the economy, particularly in the light of the deepening debt crisis. Raising money to shore up foreign reserves has become a top priority. The reserves that stood at US$ 8.5 billion are said to have dropped to US$ 5.2 billion with only three months of imports possible.
This serious debt repayment crisis was the reason why President Sirisena chaired a high-level meeting at his residence last Sunday night. It related to at least one of the urgent measures to be adopted. Also associated with him was Prime Minister Wickremesinghe. The SLFP was represented by Sarath Amunugama, Anura Priyadarashana Yapa, Susil Premajayantha, Dilan Perera and Mahinda Samarasinghe. The UNP was represented by Mangala Samaraweera, Malik Samarawickrema, Akila Viraj Kariyawasam, Thalatha Athukorale and Kabir Hashim. Also present was Nishantha Muthuhettigama, acting Minister of Ports and Shipping.
Time constraints at the weekly meeting of the Cabinet of Ministers, sometimes lead to the postponement of decisions. This is until the subject matter is closely studied by ministers. Usually, the minister in charge of the subject is also required to be present when a matter under his or her purview is discussed. To facilitate a discussion and immediate conclusion, the meeting at Sirisena’s residence on Sunday night examined the Hambantota Port City project. They discussed a Cabinet memorandum from the Special Assignments Minister Sarath Amunugama that encompassed the Concession Agreement, just before the next morning’s ministerial meeting. All ministers were informed on Monday that their presence at the weekly ministerial meeting on Tuesday was essential. Foreign Minister Samaraweera cancelled his departure to Moscow to be on hand to receive Sirisena.
Instead, he flew with the Presidential entourage. Fisheries Minister and UPFA General Secretary Mahinda Amaraweera was away in the United States. The UNP ministers were particularly keen that the project should be approved the next day.On that hinged the receipt of US$ 1.1 billion from the Chinese company, much needed funds to cope overcome at least partly the debt crisis. This was after the Chinese company is satisfied that provisions in the Concession Agreement, to be signed, meet its requirements. There was also another reason for the hurry. The company, China Merchants Port Holdings Company (CMPort) is having its annual general meeting of shareholders on March 29 in Hong Kong.
Some of the participants did raise strong objections over key provisions of the Concession Agreement. It transpired at the discussion that the urgency over the project was in view of current financial crisis. Funds were urgently needed. Sirisena was to note that both the Ports and Shipping Minister Arjuna Ranatunga and his brother Sanjiva Ranatunga, Chairman of the Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA) were away from the country. Minister Ranatunga had gone on a ten-day trip to Morocco. When the discussion on the Hambantota Port project ended, Foreign Minister Samaraweera gave a briefing on the ongoing sessions of the UN Human Rights Council.
One minister remarked to a colleague after the meeting ended that the onetime President J.R. Jayewardene’s move to give the Trincomalee Port to a United States business concern, angered the then Indian Premier, the late Indira Gandhi. She gave succour thereafter to the Tamil militant groups. That saw the birth of a bloody separatist insurgency in Sri Lanka. Another, in response to his colleague cited the neighbouring Maldives where there were public protests over the reported sale of an island to the Saudi royal family and another to China. The objections at the ministerial meeting notwithstanding, it was decided to go ahead with the project.