Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on Friday expanded the crisis-hit island nation’s Cabinet to include nine more ministers, but is yet to appoint a Finance Minister.

Ministers who will helm various portfolios — including education, ports and shipping, health, justice, and trade — were sworn in, the President’s Office said, terming the current administration an “all-party government”.

Cabinet make up

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 have camped outside the President’s office as they relentlessly agitate, asking the president to step down.

Protests continue

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 Mahinda Rajapaksa, then Prime Minister and brother of President Gotabaya. The developments followed violent attacks, triggered by Rajapaksa supporters against peaceful protesters and consequent retaliation by incensed mobs who burned down properties of several ministers and government MPs, including some re-appointed to Cabinet on Friday.

A woman carries a filled domestic cooking gas cylinder after its distribution in Colombo

A woman carries a filled domestic cooking gas cylinder after its distribution in Colombo | Photo Credit: REUTERS

The new appointments have inspired little faith among protesters who continue protesting against the government and President Gotabaya, who they blame for the country’s worsening economic crisis.

People are facing acute shortages of fuel and 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.

IMF support

Sri Lanka has sought assistance from bilateral partners and is negotiating a programme with the International Monetary Fund, 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.

Humanitarian aid

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

(Meera Sreenivasan is The Hindu Correspondent in Colombo)