Sirisena reshuffles cabinet, swaps portfolios of Foreign and Finance Ministers

Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena.   | Photo Credit: AFP

“This Cabinet reshuffle will provide a new impetus to Sri Lanka’s development”, President Sirisena said in a statement.

In the first major cabinet reshuffle since he assumed office in 2015, Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena on Monday swapped the portfolios of his Foreign and Finance Ministers.

Mangala Samaraweera, who served as Foreign Minister from January 2015, took over the Finance and Media portfolios, while Ravi Karunanayake — who was Finance Minister – will now handle External Affairs, according to an official press release. “This Cabinet reshuffle will provide a new impetus to Sri Lanka’s development”, President Sirisena said in a statement, after revising nine Cabinet portfolios in his government.

Since early this year, political circles in Colombo were speculating on a likely Cabinet shakeup, amid apparent differences within Sri Lanka’s first national unity government, formed by the traditionally-rival Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the United National Party (UNP). Recently, President Sirisena signalled an imminent reshuffle, amid mounting political pressure from a breakaway faction of his party.

While the UNP and the SLFP continue holding the portfolios formerly with them, all eyes were on the switch between the Foreign and Finance Ministers.

Widely regarded a successful Foreign Minister, Mr. Samaraweera played an important role in renewing Colombo’s relations with key international actors, including Washington DC and New Delhi, following an evident pro-China tilt under ex-President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Mr. Samaraweera’s diplomatic outreach is said to have helped Sri Lanka obtain a politically crucial two-year extension for post-war reconciliation efforts, at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva in March. More recently, the European Union restored GSP + benefits to the island, something the government regards a  big  diplomatic victory.     

Given his high profile in government, some wonder if he might continue working on the human rights dimensions of foreign policy, said Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, executive director of the Colombo-based Centre for Policy Alternatives. “I suppose that can be worked out in terms of ensuring continuity in the Geneva process, perhaps through a committee,” he told  The Hindu. Observing that Minister Samaraweera heading the Media Ministry -- in addition to Finance -- could hold positive prospects for Constitutional reform, Dr. Saravanamuttu said: “He might ensure that the government takes more initiative to communicate policy to the public drawing upon his experience.”  

The new Finance Minister has the task of taking the IMF programme for Sri Lanka forward, according to Nisthar Cassim, editor of Colombo’s top business newspaper  The Daily Financial Times.  After bailing out Sri Lanka with a $1.5 billion-loan last year, the IMF said the island's economy had begun stabilising but the country needed to build its foreign reserves. “He [Minister] must accelerate the reform process to the extent that the Finance Ministry can,” Mr. Cassim said, adding that it must work in tandem with the Central Bank, without any serious rift as in the past,  and give more autonomy to institutions handling revenue. 

President Sirisena also removed former cricketer Arjuna Ranatunga from the Ports Ministry he was heading, and shifted him to the Petroleum Ministry. Mr. Ranatunga has voiced concern over the government’s move to ink a deal with China to develop a deep-sea port in the southern town of Hambantota. 

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