11/24/2005, 00.00
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New Sri Lanka cabinet appointed

Sri Lanka's newly-elected president has named his new cabinet leaving out its allies from the Marxist People's Liberation Front and the (Buddhist) National Heritage Party. Analysts expect this to lead to early elections. Ratnasiri Wickremanayake, who backs the feared Act for the Protection of Religious Freedom, becomes Prime Minister.

Colombo (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Newly-elected Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa appointed his new 25-member cabinet. None of the new ministers are from the two extremist parties representing the Sinhalese and Buddhist majority even though they are important allies of the president, who was elected on November 17.

The Marxist People's Liberation Front (Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna or JVP) said that it was offered five portfolios but disagreements over them led the party to turn down the offer. The Buddhist monk-based National Heritage Party (Jathika Hela Urumaya or JHU) said it had not expected any posts and would still support the government.

"We are not joining the government but will support it as long as the president implements his manifesto," JHU spokesman Udaya Gammanpila said.

"I am sad about the JVP that was in the forefront of the presidential campaign not getting powerful cabinet portfolios," said JVP leader Sripathy Sooriyarachchi said.

Appointed Employment Minister, he quit soon after being sworn in, saying the non-cabinet rank job he was given was beneath his qualifications.

The JVP had quit the previous government in June after falling out with the then-president Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga over proposals to share tsunami aid with Tamil Tiger rebels.

For some political analysts, this cabinet signals early parliamentary elections to give President Rajapakse a chance to bolster his own Sri Lanka Freedom Party and limit his reliance on JVP support.

In the current 225-member parliament that was elected in April 2004 for a six-year mandate the JVP holds 39 seats in the legislature, but the President has the power to call new elections.

Ratnasiri Wickremanayake, 73, was sworn in on Monday as the new Prime Minister. He is considered a hard-liner in the conflict opposing the central government to Tamil separatists in the country's north and north-east.

He has opposed concessions to the Tamil Tigers and in the past has not shied away from urging the Buddhist majority to have more babies to better fight the separatists.

Since 1972 the war between government forces and Tamil Tiger rebels has cost the lives of 60,000 people. A cease-fire has been in place since 2002, but this has not stopped the killing.

When he was Buddhist Affairs Minister, Mr Wickremanayake introduced in parliament the Act for the Protection of Religious Freedom, a bill that intends to ban all conversions and punish offenders with seven-year jail sentences and heavy fines. The bill would even set up separate Buddhist tribunals— Sanghadhikarana—presided by Buddhist monks with the power to rule on charges brought forward independent of the police and regular state courts.

Under Sri Lanka's current constitution, the President serves as head of state, head of government and commander in chief of the armed forces. Rajapakse is also Finance Minister. No one has been appointed to the post of Deputy Defence Minister.

Anura Bandaranaike, brother to the outgoing President Kumaratunga and former Foreign Minister, was given the Tourism Minister.

Mangala Samaraweera, a crony of the new president and coordinator of his election campaign, becomes the new Foreign Minister whilst retaining the post of Minister of Ports and Aviation, which he held in the previous administration.

The new President's first speech to parliament is expected tomorrow when the house resumes sitting.

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