Pakistan's prime minister Imran Khan concluded a visit to Sri Lanka today, where he met with both Sri Lanka’s president and prime minister to “explore new avenues of enhancing bilateral trade and investment between the two countries”, and held a last minute meeting with Muslim lawmakers on the island.
However, the issue of Sri Lanka’s forcible cremation of Muslims – a topic that has generated international outrage and led to protests as Khan visited – was seemingly not discussed at all.
Rajapaksa regime courts Khan
Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Imran Khan held a formal meeting together where the discussions focussed on agriculture, trade, technology, and tourism. The Sri Lankan president highlighted the as the COVID-19 pandemic subsided, he encouraged Pakistani tourists to visit the country. This week positive cases surpassed 80,000 in the country.
A larger delegation was present when Khan met with Mahinda Rajapaksa. The two prime ministers held cordial discussions where several Memorandum of understandings (MoU) were signed and commitments to bilateral trade were made.
The two parties agreed to further developed the Pakistan-Sri Lank Free Trade Agreement with both stressing the importance of achieving US$ 1 billion in bilateral trade. Furthermore, MoU’s were signed to enhance cooperation in tourism and enhance cooperation on investments between the two countries. Several MoU’s were signed to develop links between several universities in Sri Lanka and Pakistan. The Pakistani government announced their intention of establishing an Asian Civilisation and Culture centre at the University of Peradeniya, Kandy.
A US$ 50 million military defence credit line facility was established as both parties stressed the importance to expand security sector relations. The meeting comes just weeks after tens of thousands of Tamils and Muslims protested against state oppression in the Pottuvil to Polikandy march calling for the government to stop the militarisation and colonisation of the North-East and end forced cremations, amongst a host of other demands.
Read more at the Sri Lankan ministry of foreign affairs
A rushed meeting and a missed chance
Imran Khan also met with Sri Lanka Muslim Congress leader (SLMC) Rauff Hakeem and other Muslim parliamentarians today, despite a cancellation being announced by the Sri Lankan government yesterday.
Cabinet Spokesman and mass media minister Keheliya Rambukwella told reporters that the decision to cancel the meeting was taken on “security grounds” and that such a decision “was not politically motivated”, the Colombo Gazette reports.
Following the announcement of the cancellation SLMC leader Rauff Hakeem tweeted in support of the visiting Prime minister, calling Sri Lankan’s earlier decision to cancel the Prime ministers speech in parliament as “cowardly”.
As events developed the SLMC leader announced today that the Pakistani embassy in Sri Lanka had confirmed that the meeting between Prime minister Imran Khan and Muslim parliamentarians would go ahead. The SLMC leader commented how he looked forward to “fruitful discussions”.Following the meeting Hakeem tweeted that Khan “expressed confidence in the capacity of our [Sri Lanka] leaders to improve harmony among all Sri Lankans”. There has been no pubic mention of the pressing issue of forced cremations being discussed with the Prime minister by senior Muslim parliamentarians.
Had a pleasant and fruitful discussion with Pakistan PM along with my colleagues from several Parties. He expressed confidence in the capacity of our Leaders to improve harmony among all Sri Lankans and address their citizens grievances with view to foster goodwill among nations.
— Rauff Hakeem (@Rauff_Hakeem) February 24, 2021
The meeting comes as Sinhala nationalists protested his visit, carrying signs demanding that he return home and calling on the government to continue its internationally condemned policy of forced cremations. In advance of Khan’s visit, Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa announced that the government would repeal its draconian policy only for his statement to be withdrawn by one of the governments ministers.
Khan’s visit coincides with the 46th session of the UN Human Rights Council. Sri Lanka faces renewed pressure after withdrawing from resolution 30/1 which was co-sponsored by the government. The Muslim Left Front penned a letter to Prime minister, which called on him to raise the issue of forced cremations with the government of Sri Lanka.Furthermore, they urged the prime minister not to stand with the Sri Lankan governments efforts to reject the UN resolution as this would come at the “cost of the Tamil community’s legitimate struggle to hold the state accountable for the heinous crimes committed against them”.
The letter added;
“Like Muslims, Tamils have been facing many challenges under successive regimes, especially the victims and family members of the enforced disappeared who have been demanding truth and justice. The failure of domestic justice for both Muslims and Tamils, have prevented reconciliation in Sri Lanka…”
Read the full letter here.
However, the issue of forcible cremations was not mentioned in any official press release regarding discussions held, from Khan, the Rajapaksas or Hakeem.
As the prime minister departs, Sri Lanka intensifies its lobbying effort to reject to the proposed resolution at the UN Human Rights Council.