Beleaguered Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on Monday appointed a new 17-member Cabinet that excluded his close relatives except Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, as he called for a "system change" amidst growing demand for his resignation over the worst economic crisis faced by the island nation.
Sri Lanka is grappling with unprecedented economic turmoil since independence from Britain in 1948. The crisis is caused in part by a lack of foreign currency, which has meant that the country cannot afford to pay for imports of staple foods and fuel, leading to acute shortages and very high prices.
Earlier this month, Sri Lanka's entire Cabinet -- aside from President Gotabaya and his elder brother, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa -- resigned from their posts after thousands of people defied a countrywide state of emergency and curfew and joined street protests denouncing the government.
The previous Cabinet had to make way for the president to form a unity cabinet with the Opposition members. The Opposition, however, has rejected the offer.
Rajapaksa, 72, swore in a 17-member Cabinet on Monday in addition to the three ministers he had earlier appointed.
That meant no place for the oldest member of the family Chamal Rajapaksa, Mahinda’s son Namal Rajapaksa, both of whom were Cabinet ministers and the nephew Shasheendra who was a state minister.
Both Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Mahinda Rajapaksa have separately addressed the nation in an apparent bid to placate the protesters. But calls for the president to resign have only grown louder.
Speaking to the new ministers, President Rajapaksa sought their support for an efficient, clean government.
He said that he expects honest, efficient, and untainted governance from the new Cabinet.
“Today, most of the government institutions are under serious economic difficulties and it is absolutely essential to rectify it,” Rajapaksa said, calling the crisis "an opportunity to bring about the system change that the people expected."
The President’s Media Division said that there were no changes to the ministerial positions held by the President, Prime Minister, External Affairs Minister G. L. Peiris, and Finance Minister Ali Sabry.
The Cabinet appointment came as the island-wide protests continued on Monday to force the resignation of the president and his powerful family for mishandling the economy, already hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The economic crisis also triggered a political turmoil in the island nation with citizens holding nationwide street protests for weeks over lengthy power cuts and shortage of fuel, food and other daily essentials and demanding the ouster of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
People continued to be in fuel and gas queues while the power cuts which were not imposed during the weekend on account of the traditional Sinhala and Tamil new year returned on Monday.
Last week, Sri Lanka said it would temporarily default on its foreign debts. A payment on some of those bond debts was due to be made on Monday, the day on which the government is to begin bailout talks with the International Monetary Fund.
The stock exchange has also been suspended for a week with effect from Monday.
The state power entity said there will be four and a half-hour power cuts on Monday.
Adding to public woes is the Lanka Indian oil company (LIOC) announcement of further price hikes for petrol and diesel with effect from Sunday midnight.
The LIOC raised fuel prices for the fourth time since February.
A spokesman for the LIOC said the price hike was necessary due to the depreciation of the Sri Lankan rupee.
Sri Lanka rupees had fallen by over 60 per cent till March 7 when the flexible exchange rate was announced.
The price of Octane 92 has been raised by over 10 per cent to a record high of 338 rupees per litre while diesel at 289 rupees per litre has seen a 35 per cent increase.