COLOMBO: Sri Lanka President Ranil Wickremesinghe appointed on Friday a new Cabinet comprising allies of the country’s ousted leader Gotabaya Rajapaksa, despite earlier promises to form a unity government with opposition members.
Former president Rajapaksa fled to the Maldives and then Singapore last week to escape a months’-long popular uprising over the role his family played in the country’s worst economic meltdown since independence from Britain in 1948.
Wickremesinghe, a former prime minister holding the finance portfolio under Rajapaksa, won a vote in parliament to complete the ex-leader’s term and was sworn in on Thursday, amid protests which were violently dispersed by security forces on Friday night.
The violence overshadowed a Friday morning ceremony during which he appointed Dinesh Gunawardena as his successor to the premiership.
Wickremesinghe’s former classmate at Royal College in Colombo, Gunawardena is a lawmaker from the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna party led by the Rajapaksa family, and is seen as the right-hand man of the ex-president’s most prominent brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was forced to resign from the premiership in May when anti-government demonstrations turned deadly.
Hours after Gunawardena’s appointment, the new 18-member Cabinet was sworn in.
“The new interim Cabinet of Ministers was sworn in before President Ranil Wickremesinghe today. The swearing-in ceremony took place at the Prime Minister’s Office on Flower Road, Colombo,” the presidential office said in a statement.
While Wickremesinghe last week urged all parties in parliament to come to a “common consensus on the establishment of an all-party interim government,” previous ministers were retained in his new Cabinet, except for former Justice Minister Ali Sabry, who was appointed as foreign minister.
Wickremesinghe retained his portfolio as finance minister.
Both the new president and his Cabinet have been rejected by protesters who since March have been taking to the streets of Colombo and across the country despite continuous announcements of a state of emergency and the deployment of troops to secure order.
“The new Cabinet has no meaning, the only change is the new foreign minister Ali Sabry who was also a former justice minister,” Namal Jayaweera, leader of the protest movement, told Arab News.
“Ranil (Wickremesinghe) spoke about the all-party government and unity government and finally ended up with the old group of ministers who are allies of the Rajapaksa family, their cronies and persons who were notorious for corruption and nepotism.”
Senaka Perera, a lawyer representing the protesters, said that they had seen Wickremesinghe from the beginning as a “henchman” of the Rajapaksa family.
“We will continue our fight to oust Ranil (Wickremesinghe), as we did to expel Gotabaya from office,” he told Arab News from a protest site at the Galle Face Green park in Colombo.
Protests have continued in the Sri Lankan capital since March and have spread across the country as people struggle with daily power cuts and shortages of basic commodities such as fuel, food and medicines.
Sri Lanka has run out of foreign currency reserves, leaving it unable to pay for imports.
In May, the island nation of 22 million people officially defaulted on its debt and is seeking a $3 billion bailout from the International Monetary Fund to put its public finances back on track.