New Delhi: Dhammika Perera, one of Sri Lanka’s wealthiest men and a close associate of the Rajapaksa clan, is tipped to be the country’s new Minister of Technology and Investment Promotion.
Both the portfolio and Perera are brand new to parliament. The portfolio was created Thursday, and Perera is not yet a sitting member of parliament, having only joined the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) on 10 June.
The Sri Lankan business tycoon is the latest wild card entrant into parliament as the country weathers an economic and political crisis that has been going on since 2019. In May, after the Mahinda Rajapaksa government resigned, former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe took the reins for the fifth time despite his party — the United National Party — having only one seat in parliament.
Perera joined the SLPP on 10 June and accepted a parliamentary seat under the National List — one that was left vacant following the resignation of former finance minister Basil Rajapaksa on 9 June.
Former Minister of Youth and Sports Namal Rajapaksa told ThePrint that Basil had requested President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to fill in his vacancy with a capable person. “Dhammika Perera is a good choice because he can bring his corporate experience to government, and give his professional input to face the current crisis,” said Namal. “He’s a successful businessman and can bring in more opportunities for entrepreneurship. He has also shown a keen interest in administration,” he mentioned, adding that Perera was a successful chairman of the Board of Investment of Sri Lanka during President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s time.
Perera met with Prime Minister Wickremesinghe on 11 June, and government sources told ThePrint that he will most likely be sworn in as both an MP and the new Minister of Technology and Investment Promotion when parliament is next in session on 21 June.
The portfolio was one of two newly created ones on Thursday via an extraordinary gazette issued by President Gotabaya. The second is Minister for Women, Child Affairs and Social Empowerment.
Who is Dhammika Perera?
Dhammika Perera is one of the island nation’s wealthiest men. The biggest casino operator in the country, he also owns a monopoly in the country’s tile market and is a prominent shareholder in two banks: Sampath Bank and Pan Asia Bank. He’s also at the helm of financial companies like Vallibel Finance and LB Finance and served as the co-chairman and non-executive director of Hayleys, one of Sri Lanka’s largest and most diversified conglomerates. Perera owns around 51.01 per cent of Hayleys’ total shares: According to reports, the company earned almost 90 billion Sri Lankan rupees with a profit of 6.4 billion Sri Lankan rupees in the first quarter of 2021.
The business tycoon withdrew from the boards of several companies on 10 June, including Hayleys, as conjecture about him joining the SLPP became public. Perera has also reportedly harboured hopes of joining the Sri Lankan government — he was, most recently, in the running to be the Secretary to the Ministry of Finance after Prime Minister Mahinda’s cabinet resigned. His website also advertises an economic growth strategy and action plan for the country with ministry-specific goals and roadmaps.
“Dhammika Perera has had presidential ambitions for the past few years, and this is him gearing up for the next one,” said Rehan Jayawickreme, Vice Chairman of Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) youth wing and former mayor of Weligama.
Also read: Drink, gamble, plan the exit: How Sri Lankan elites in Colombo are handling economic crisis
Concerns over conflict of interest
Concerns have been raised about the quick succession of events. Dhammika Perera is known to be close to the Rajapaksa family, and the news of his entering parliament as a businessman with shares in several companies has led to concerns about potential conflicts of interest. On 12 June, protests took place outside Perera’s home, and riot police and army personnel were deployed.
“It’s somewhat strange that a leader who controls so many sectors should be in government. If he was honest about this, he should have sold his shares instead of just resigning from various boards,” said Jayawickreme.
While the gazette certifying Perera as MP was released by the Election Commission on 10 June, he is not yet announced as a Cabinet minister.
“He wasn’t a National List candidate when elections took place in 2020. Now he might be a Cabinet minister, Which is unconstitutional. That’s why we are protesting – there are also huge accusations against him for being a tax evader,” said activist Nuzly Hameem.
The Ministry of Technology and Investment Promotion is a brand new portfolio, and no other names are in the running. Fifteen institutions have been placed under the ministry, including the Telecommunication Regulatory Commission, the Board of Investment of Sri Lanka, the Colombo Port City Economic Commission and the Department of Immigration and Emigration.
“On the one hand, it is an understandable development because there are many examples of societies in economic crisis in which successful businessmen come forward as potential saviour-figures,” former diplomat Dayan Jayatilleka told ThePrint. “But on the other hand, this can generate considerable and understandable dissonance in the ranks of the ruling party, the SLPP, because he is an outsider,” he added. Jayatilleka pointed to the fact that the SLPP already has technocrats within its ranks, including some of the “original stalwarts of the Gotabaya camp”.
The Centre for Policy Alternatives, Sri Lanka, released a statement questioning the constitutional validity of Perera’s appointment under the National List. “Allowing political parties to appoint whomever they wish to fill vacancies that are engineered for the purpose undermines the value of the franchise of the people and unnecessarily and arbitrarily inflates the power of the leadership of political parties,” the statement reads.