Sri Lanka cancels Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan's address to parliament

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Imran Khan not to address Sri Lankan parliament ostensibly over Covid-19 (IANS)

Sri Lanka has cancelled Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s address to its Parliament, which had been slated for February 24. However, the two-day official visit aimed at strengthening Pakistan-Sri Lanka relations continues as planned.

Khan will arrive in Colombo on February 22 in a bid to shore up ties with a friendly country and to reverse its recent foreign policy debacles.

Sri Lanka cancelled Khan's address to the parliament citing the coronavirus pandemic. Reportedly, Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena wrote to the government asking to postpone the event due to Covid-19 spread and appearance of new strains of the virus in capital Colombo. The Speaker said that due to the virus, he would not be able to ensure proper attendance for the event.

Sri Lanka newspaper, Colombo Gazette reported that Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena informed parliament officials that the proposed visit to the Parliament complex by Khan will not take place. The Pakistani Prime Minister will be the first head of the state to visit the island nation since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic in early 2020.

It was on a request from Pakistan that Sri Lanka had agreed to include Khan's address to the parliament in his itinerary. Colombo, however, realised it was walking a tight rope as this could impact its relations with close neighbour India. It also feared that Khan may raise the Kashmir issue in his address which would not go down well with India. For over a year, Khan has made Kashmir the sole highlight of his foreign policy, and Colombo realised that a mention of Kashmir by Khan might offend India.

Pakistan's Kashmir policy has, however, boomeranged on the Islamic nation. It has seen major setbacks in its foreign relations over the past year including with close allies like Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Its relations with the US too are on a downswing owing to its continuous support to terror organisations in Afghanistan.

With its external policy in tatters, the Sri Lanka visit is important for Pakistan as the latter remains the only South Asian nation with which it has enjoyed consistent good relations.

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Khan is expected to hold talks with Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, and Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena.

His visit is also expected to smoothen relations between the government and the island's two million Muslims, who have been feeling alienated since the Easter bombings and the recent controversy over cremation of those suspected to be dead of coronavirus.

For Sri Lanka too, Pakistani support is vital. It has not been let off the hook by the Western nations for alleged war crimes. As soon as March 2021, it will have to face the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva over possible sanctions for human rights abuses. International organisation Human Rights Watch has alleged that Sri Lanka has indulged in enforced disappearances as well as killings for which it is obstructing justice.

The High Commissioner for Human Rights and former Chilean president, Michelle Bachelet has even recommended that Sri Lanka can be hauled up before the International Criminal Court. With skeletons in its own closet, Sri Lanka hopes to find solidarity from Pakistan before the UNHRC. It has already been extended that support by China and Russia.

The China factor too brings the two South Asian nations together. Both are close allies of China, where the latter has invested much money through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), almost impinging upon their sovereignty, something which both deny.