Sri Lanka Cabinet members swap portfolios – Washington Times


Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena announced a Cabinet reshuffle on May 22. This is the first Cabinet shakeup since Mr. Sirisena assumed the presidency in January 2015.

The most significant aspect of these changes deals with the ministries of finance and foreign affairs. The island nation’s previous foreign minister, Mangala Samaraweera, now heads the ministry of finance. Interestingly, Mr. Samaraweera will concurrently serve as the minister of parliamentary reforms and mass media. Ravi Karunanayake, the former finance minister, now leads the ministry of foreign affairs.

This reorganization probably doesn’t mean very much; it’s important to understand why.

Mr. Samaraweera is a smooth political operator. Over the past two years, he’s done an excellent job of helping Sri Lanka reset relations with a host of Western nations, especially the United States. (These diplomatic ties had become very strained during the presidency of Mahinda Rajapaksa, the country’s previous president who governed in an increasingly autocratic fashion and moved the country closer to China.) In that sense, Mr. Karunanayake has big shoes to fill. That said, Sri Lanka is not expected to be pressed that much over delicate matters such as human rights in the coming years.

It’s not clear how quickly Mr. Samaraweera will be able to hit the ground running in terms of the finance ministry, which is a significant portfolio (though considered less important than foreign affairs), particularly since the country has major economic problems, which require immediate attention. That said, his appointment to head the mass media ministry is arguably more intriguing.

There’s a broad sense, both domestically and internationally, that Sri Lanka’s messaging and communications — in terms of explaining its sweeping reform agenda to the public — has been horrible.

Moreover, Mr. Samaraweera is deeply committed to improved governance, Colombo’s purported transitional justice agenda and healing the wounds of a civil war that was fought between 1983 and 2009. Could he use his new job at mass media to promote transitional justice or other aspects of a reform plan, which remain largely unfulfilled? Perhaps, although this may just be wishful thinking.

Sri Lanka’s coalition government is still comprised of an uneasy power-sharing arrangement; the United National Party and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party are historical rivals. Furthermore, Colombo’s messaging has been poor principally because the government is insincere about reform. The government has, at times, told the international community one thing (embracing a range of proposed changes ranging from constitution-building to transitional justice), and yet the government’s domestic audience frequently hears something quite different, particularly when it comes to war-related issues.

As long as this remains a weak government — something that’s not expected to change in the coming years — and as long Mr. Rajapaksa remains a political force to be reckoned with in the run-up to the next presidential and parliamentary elections (a likely scenario), Mr. Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe probably aren’t going to champion bold changes.

So, for now, let’s not read too deeply into this political shake-up. At this juncture, a wholehearted embrace of the reform program would require a significant display of political courage. Mr. Sirisena — a former Cabinet minister in Mr. Rajapaksa’s administration — exhibited bravery in November 2014, when he announced that he’d be challenging Mr. Rajapaksa for the presidency. Since he’s become president, however, such boldness has been in short supply.

• Taylor Dibbert, a Washington, D.C.-based writer, is affiliated with the Pacific Forum at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The views expressed here are his own.

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