Imran Khan’s Visit to Sri Lanka – A Success?

On February 23, Prime Minister Imran Khan arrived on a two-day visit in Sri Lanka at the invitation of his counterpart, Mahinda Rajapaksa. Pakistan and Sri Lanka have shared a cordial relationship over time. On his arrival, Khan received a warm welcome and was presented a guard of honour. Besides, a special documentary reminiscing the fanfare associated with Khan’s cricket days was also played. Interestingly, Khan was scheduled to address the country’s parliament, which was cancelled by the Sri Lankan government citing coronavirus restrictions that appear to give mixed signals.

As per varied sources, the decision to cancel the address was another tactic of not providing an opportunity to the leader to discuss the country’s bilateral disputes, particularly the Kashmir issue, highlighting India’s expansionist designs. As relations between Sri Lanka and India are nearing a critical juncture, the address might have created further friction as the Rajapaksa government recently reneged on a 2019 port deal – a key Indian project.

While talking to Al-Jazeera, Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu of the Centre for Policy Alternatives said that “Clearly there was some consideration of him either bringing up Muslim rights or indeed the issue of Kashmir.” The Executive Director at the Colombo-based research institute stated,  “So, to avoid ruffling Indian sensitivities and those of the majority [Sri Lankan] community who are behind the cremation/burial issue, it was decided that it would not happen.” Such a stance makes sense as countries have varied internal dynamics, and the established foreign policies consider the evolving forces at work. The posture is comprehensible even if the Sri Lankan government was trying to maintain a balance in its relations with India and Pakistan by limiting the address or rejecting the request of 15 Muslim Parliamentarians to meet Prime Minister Imran Khan, citing security concerns.

Prime Minister Imran Khan discussed the matter with the Sri Lankan authorities and urged them to respect the Muslims’ sentiment. Surprisingly, the order has been reversed, and how Khan took up the issue has been widely lauded.

Reportedly, the issue of forced cremations was raised with the Sri Lankan premier and president. The country’s Muslim population has been continuously targeted by the Buddhist nationalists, and the ban on the burial of virus victims stirred resentment among the community. The arbitrary policy assumed that the burial would contaminate groundwater and spread infection. As per the reports, Prime Minister Imran Khan discussed the matter with the Sri Lankan authorities and urged them to respect the Muslims’ sentiment. Surprisingly, the order has been reversed, and how Khan took up the issue has been widely lauded. The leadership at both ends must be given credit for resolving the matter cordially while generating significant goodwill. However,  the political commentators consider the recent visit a lukewarm interaction, which is unsettling considering Pakistan’s attempt to expand its diplomatic orientation.

Traditionally, Pakistan has provided significant military support to Sri Lanka, most notably in the closing phase of the country’s two-decades-long civil war against Tamil rebels. However, the trade ties remain relatively limited, approximating the bilateral trade to be $359 million during the last fiscal year. The majority of the trade constitutes Pakistani exports to Sri Lanka. Many analysts believe that the Sri Lankan economy focuses on the European nations and the United States, and there is a relatively low trade influx within the South Asian region. Most importantly, the Prime Minister’s comment regarding the benefits that Sri Lanka can achieve from the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor appears to be an extremely thought-out decision. The decision of enhancing economic connectivity between the two countries will further strengthen the relatively low trade ties as the domestic economies have taken serious hits due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Furthermore, the two sides signed memorandums of understanding on strengthening cooperation in tourism, investment, and educational exchanges. Pakistan also announced an Rs.52 million grant for the promotion of sports in Sri Lanka. The leadership of Pakistan is gradually expanding its diplomatic footprint, which must be applauded. Likewise, the foreign policy arena is being revived under the current government. The state’s ruling elite finally understands the benefits that its geographic location will serve while the corridor for trade and energy is unfolding as a flagship mega project, making connectivity all the more significant.

Saman Rizwan

Saman Rizwan is a Research Assistant at the Centre for Strategic and Contemporary Research.

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