- He was neither allowed to raise issues of Muslim minority nor could address the Parliament
By Jai Kumar Verma
New Delhi. 04 March 2021. Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan Niazi paid a two day visit to Si Lanka recently. The visiting Prime Minister was received by Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa at the Bandaranaike International Airport Colombo and was also presented a guard of honour. However, if the ceremonial warm welcome and fanfare is separated, there was not much concrete in the visit to please Imran Khan as well as to the Pakistani public.
The scheduled address of Sri Lankan Parliament by Imran Khan was unexpectedly cancelled on the flimsy ground of spread of COVID-19. According to reports Khan’s address to parliament was included in his itinerary on the request of Pakistan government and Sri Lanka government back-pedalled its decision. Sri Lankan government officially mentioned that the parliament address was cancelled because of ‘scheduling issues’ as well as to safeguard with corona pandemic. Nevertheless, according to reports some influential people in Sri Lankan government were opposed to Imran Khan’s address to Sri Lankan Parliament as they speculated that Khan would raise Kashmir issue in his address, and it will further strain India Sri Lanka relations. The relations between India and Sri Lanka are already tense because Sri Lanka has unilaterally terminated a 2019 contract with India and Japan to develop the strategic East Container Terminal in Colombo port. Sri Lankan government does not want strained relations with India as at present it is falling under Chinese debt-trap while India’s prestige is enhancing in world because of it successful dissemination of COVID-19 vaccines.
Sri Lankan was also apprehensive that Khan may raise the issue of ill-treatment of Muslim minority in Sri Lanka. At present Sri Lanka is already facing a controversy about forced cremations of Muslims who die because of COVID-19. Amnesty International and other human right groups are already opposing the forced cremations. In fact, Amnesty International wrote a letter to Imran Khan to raise the issue of forced cremations of Muslims at the highest level during his visit. Sometimes back Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa stated in parliament that burials would be allowed to Muslims soon, but the announcement could not be implemented because of stringent opposition by majority Buddhists.
Imran Khan congratulated Sri Lanka for this decision as he is also under pressure from fundamentalists in Pakistan to raise this issue during his tour to Sri Lanka. The Islamic world is also outraged because of forced cremations of Muslims and is extremely critical of Sri Lanka and consider it as the blatant persecution of Muslims who are more than 10 percent of the Sri Lankan population. First Sri Lankan government had not allowed 15 Muslim Sri Lankan parliamentarians to meet Imran Khan under the pretext of security as it would have infuriated majority Buddhists, however later the Muslim parliamentarians met Imran Khan and they demanded that government should restore the burial of Muslims. Khan also met Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and held extensive discussion on bilateral relations.
There were also communal riots between Muslims and Christians as well as between Muslims and Buddhists after the Easter suicide bombings in April 2019 in which about 269 persons including eight suicide bombers were killed.
Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi also accompanied the Prime Minister in the visit. Pakistan is the second largest trading partner of Sri Lanka after India hence a large trade and commercial delegation also accompanied Khan. Both the countries also agreed to revive a joint Working Group (JWG) so that the technical issues can be resolved amicably. Both countries inked a free trade agreement in 2005. Pakistan is projecting its ancient Buddhist connections so that cultural ties with Sri Lanka are strengthened and religious tourism enhances.
Besides trade ties the defence relationship between both the countries is much stronger. Pakistan helped Sri Lanka when its forces were fighting with the Liberation Tiges of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) a separatist group which was fighting for an independent country for Tamils in North Eastern Sri Lanka. Although India shared intelligence with Sri Lanka but refused to supply arms and ammunition, nevertheless Pakistan took advantage of the situation and supplied not only weapons and ammunition but also gave training to Sri Lankan forces including fighter pilots. Sri Lankan defence secretary also visited Pakistan in 2008 and requested for supply of armaments.
According to unconfirmed reports Pakistani Air Force pilots also helped Sri Lankan Air Force. Sri Lankan defence officers are also getting training in Pakistan military academies. Sri Lankan naval officers also took part in multinational maritime exercise Aman 2021 held in Pakistan in February 2021. The defence ties between both the counties are so strong that Pakistan’s High Commissioner in Sri Lanka and Sri Lankan envoy in Pakistan were mostly former military officers. During 1971 Sri Lanka over-ruled India’s objection and allowed Pakistani Air Force planes to refuel its planes in Sri Lanka.
Imran Khan also announced a new $ 50 million defence line of credit (LOC) facility for Sri Lanka to increase its defence capabilities. Both the countries also agreed to share intelligence so to fight terrorism, drug trafficking and organised crime. Imran Khan also highlighted the importance of China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and mentioned that it will enhance trade and connectivity. He also mentioned that One Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) would augment Sri Lanka’s connectivity up to Central Asia.
It appears that the visiting prime minister was briefed not to speak anything about the maltreatment of Muslims in Sri Lanka. The official press releases of both the countries have not mentioned anything about Sri Lankan Muslims however Rajapaksa twitted that Sri Lanka “is grateful to Pakistan for agreeing to open the pilgrimage corridors for Sri Lankans to visit ancient Buddhist heritage sites in Pakistan.”
At present Colombo also needs friends at Geneva so that the United Nations Human Rights Commission’s resolution 30/1 of September 2015 about the investigation of committing of the war crimes by Sri Lankan authorities, can be withdrawn. Colombo wants the help from Pakistan but does not want to lose India’s support hence it gave a red-carpet welcome to Imran Khan but not allowed to speak against India.
Imran Khan in view of cordial relations with Colombo had not spoken in favour of Sri Lankan Muslims. Same way no leader of Pakistan including Imran Khan speak in favour of Uighur Muslims although U.S. and Western world is criticising and condemning China for the blatant human right violations by Chinese security forces.
India permitted Khan’s airplane to fly over India’s airspace while in 2019 Pakistan refused permission to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s aircraft to use its airspace.
Now India should be careful about the triangulation between China, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. Out of these first two are India’s sworn enemy and will like to win over Colombo in their side too. Imran Khan also visited Kabul in November 2020 which was his first visit to Afghanistan after he assumed the office of Prime Minister two years back although Afghan President Ashraf Ghani visited Pakistan several times. The possibility that Khan is trying to make friends which can be later used against India cannot be ruled out.
Khan appreciated CPEC as well as BRI in Sri Lanka although several projects of CPEC are in trouble and there is lot of resentment about CPEC in Pakistan. It may be possible that Khan was briefed by Chinese to appreciate CPEC and BRI in Sri Lanka.
(Jai Kumar Verma is a Delhi-based strategic analyst and member of United Services Institute of India and Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses. The views in the article are solely the author’s. He can be contacted at email@example.com)