Gotabaya Rajapaksa
Sri Lanka President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

Lankan crisis: Gotabaya sacks FinMin brother; central bank head quits  

Sri Lanka's Cabinet of Ministers resigned

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Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on Monday (April 4) sacked his brother and Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa from his post amidst a severe economic crisis in the island country.

Basil has been replaced by former Minister of Justice Ali Sabry. The former finance minister had negotiated the Indian Economic Relief package to help Sri Lanka tackle the current foreign exchange crisis.

Basil was scheduled to leave for the US to meet with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a possible bailout package to get over the unprecedented economic crisis. He was at the centre of anger within the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) coalition. Last month, at least two ministers were sacked from the Cabinet as they publicly criticised Basil.

On Monday, Ajith Nivard Cabraal, Sri Lanka’s Central Bank Governor, who had resisted calls for an IMP bailout, also put in his papers amid escalating protests over the economic crisis.

Cabraal, 67, announced his resignation in a Twitter post, after being elevated to this position less than seven months ago.

The developments come a day after the entire cabinet of 26 ministers resigned over the economic crisis.

At least three other ministers were named after the resignation.

G L Peiris has been sworn in as the Foreign Minister while Dinesh Gunawardena is the new Education Minister. Johnston Fernando has been made the new Minister of Highways. The new appointments came after President Gotabaya invited all political parties to join a unity Cabinet as part of the governments bid to tackle the raging public anger against the ongoing hardships caused by the island nation’s worst economic crisis. There have been mass public agitations against the ruling Rajapaksa family for its mishandling of the economic situation triggered by the foreign exchange crisis and the balance of payment issues.

On Sunday night, all 26 ministers, except President Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, resigned.

Education Minister and Leader of the House, Dinesh Gunawardena said the Cabinet Ministers handed over their resignations to the prime minister. He proffered no reason for the mass resignation.

However, political experts said the ministers came under intense pressure from the public over the government’s alleged “mishandling” of the economic crisis, triggered by the shortage in the foreign exchange reserve.

Widespread public protests were seen throughout the evening in spite of the imposition of curfew which ended on Monday morning. The enraged public has been demanding the resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

The government declared a state of emergency after an angry mob surrounded the private residence of Rajapaksa on March 31. A planned social media-triggered mass protest was scheduled for Sunday. However, the government responded by imposing a 36-hour curfew.

Also read: Sri Lankan forces use tear gas, water cannons to disperse protesters

Since evening, rumours have been floating to the effect that Rajapaksa may opt for an interim government to handle the economic crisis.

Disturbing scenes were seen across the island. Sri Lankan police fired tear gas and water cannons at hundreds of university students during a protest in the central province. The protest was held despite the curfew.

The government’s poor handling of the economic crisis where people currently endure long hours of power outages and scarcity of essentials has angered the public which planned country-wide protests on Sunday.

The government ordered internet service providers to restrict social media access, tightening curbs to prevent planned demonstrations calling for President Rajapaksa’s ouster over soaring living costs and a foreign exchange crisis. The social media curbs were lifted in the second half of Sunday.

Defying curfew orders, lawmakers from Sri Lanka’s principal opposition party Samagi Jana Balawegaya staged an anti-government protest in Colombo against President Rajapaksa’s move to impose a state of emergency and other restrictions.

“We will protect democracy in Sri Lanka, opposition legislator Harsha de Silva said.

The Opposition lawmakers marched towards Colombo’s Independence Square, chanting slogans and carrying placards that read: ‘Stop Suppression and Gota go home’.

Police officials set up barricades leading up to the Independence Square, which was built to commemorate Sri Lanka’s independence in 1948.

In Central Province, hundreds of students from the University of Peradeniya took to the streets to protest against the present state of affairs in the country. However, police installed barricades close to the university.

University students accompanied by their lecturers proceeded towards the Galaha Junction, and tensions boiled over when they attempted to remove the barricades set up by the police, News 1st channel reported. Police and riot police used water cannons to disperse the crowd and thereafter fired tear gas, it said, adding that the situation is tense in the region.

In Western Province, a total of 664 people were arrested for violating the curfew and trying to stage an anti-government rally.

Opposition lawmakers, led by their leader Sajith Premadasa, had set off on a march towards the iconic Independence Square in Colombo, defying a weekend curfew imposed by the government on Saturday, ahead of the planned protest for Sunday.

“We are protesting the government’s abuse of the public security ordinance to deny the publics right to protest, he said.

The protest was organised by social media activists against the ongoing economic crisis and hardships heaped on people due to shortages of essentials.

A 53-year old man, who was protesting outside the private residence of President Rajapaksa over the long power cuts in the country due to the ongoing economic crisis, got electrocuted after he climbed a electricity pole, police said.

Namal Rajapaksa, the sports minister and President Rajapaksa’s nephew, told reporters that the social media blockade was useless as many people would use Virtual Private Network (VPN) to access social media sites.

The move was aimed at preventing masses from gathering in Colombo to protest the government’s failure to provide relief to the public suffering from shortages of food, essentials, fuel and medicine amidst hours-long power cuts, the Colombo Page newspaper reported.

Later, the government lifted the ban it had imposed on social media platforms after declaring a nationwide public emergency.

The services of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, TokTok, Snapchat, WhatsApp, Viber, Telegram, and Facebook Messenger were restored after 15 hours, according to an official.

Meanwhile, former minister Wimal Weerawansa called for appointment of an all-party interim government to address the crisis. He said the proposal has been presented to the President and the Prime Minister, and they received a positive response from both.

Weerawansa said that he along with former minister Udaya Gammanpila, Vasudeva Nanayakkara, and Tiran Alles attended the meetings with the President and the Prime Minister.

Given the present situation in the country, we believe that the existing Cabinet of Ministers cannot function to address these crises. Therefore, we call for the Cabinet to be disbanded and reach for an all-party or multi-party agreement for an interim government, he told reporters.

Former cricket skipper Mahela Jayawardena said that certain people controlling the economy of Sri Lanka have lost the people’s confidence and must stand down. In a statement, he said these problems are man-made and can be fixed by the right, qualified people.

“We then need a good team to give the country confidence and belief. There is no time to waste. It is time to be humble, not make excuses and to do the right thing,” he said.

Sri Lanka is currently experiencing its worst economic crisis in history. With long lines for fuel, cooking gas, essentials in short supply and long hours of power cuts the public has been suffering for weeks.

Rajapaksa has defended his government’s actions, saying the foreign exchange crisis was not his making and the economic downturn was largely pandemic driven where the islands tourism revenue and inward remittances waning.

(With inputs from agencies)

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