Islamabad, Pakistan – Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan is due to arrive in Sri Lanka for a two-day visit where he will meet Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa for talks focused on increasing trade and investment, the Minister said. Pakistan Foreign Office.
Khan will arrive in the Sri Lankan capital Colombo on Tuesday for his first visit to the island country since taking office as Pakistani prime minister in 2018.
“The [Pakistani] The Prime Minister will also lead the delegation-level talks, covering all areas of cooperation between the two countries, including trade and investment, health and education, agriculture and science and technology, defense and security, and culture and tourism, ”reads a Pakistani curtain. statement by the facilitator during the visit.
A statement from Sri Lanka’s foreign ministry said the visit would include “a business and investment forum, as well as a sports diplomacy initiative.”
Prime Minister Khan will be accompanied by Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, Trade Minister Abdul Razzaq Dawood and several other senior officials.
Pakistan and Sri Lanka have always enjoyed warm relations, with particularly close military cooperation during the final stages of the Sri Lankan civil war which has lasted for more than two decades.
Pakistan’s prime minister was one of the first world leaders to publicly congratulate President Rajapaksa on his landslide election victory two years ago. The president’s older brother, Mahinda, became prime minister several months later.
Trade relations, however, remain relatively small, with $ 359 million in bilateral trade in the last fiscal year, according to data from the Pakistani central bank, the majority of which exports from Pakistan to Sri Lanka.
Analysts say Sri Lanka’s economy remains heavily focused on trade relations with European countries and the United States, rather than the South Asian region.
Both countries will look to increase those numbers, as Rajapaksa and Khan seek to revive national economies that have been badly affected due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Ending forced cremation
The Gotabayas returned to power in Sri Lanka in 2019, winning a landslide presidential election following a controversial election campaign that saw their Sri Lankan party Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) fuel ethnic and religious tensions, appealing to the Sinhala majority Buddhist nationalism.
Sri Lanka is home to 21.8 million people, 10% of whom are members of a Muslim minority that has faced increasing persecution since the rise to power of the Rajapaksa Brothers, rights groups. say, adding that the government has tightened the space for civil rights and bowed to right-wing Sinhala Buddhist nationalism.
Earlier this month Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda announced that the island nation would stop the forced cremation of those who died from COVID-19, a controversial policy that has been seen to have unfairly targeted Muslim citizens whose beliefs demand that the dead be buried.
The move was hailed by Pakistani Prime Minister Khan, who has long addressed the issue of global Islamophobia in international forums and in bilateral discussions with world leaders.
We welcome the assurance of Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa given to the Sri Lankan Parliament today, allowing Muslims to bury those who have died from COVID19.
– Imran Khan (mImranKhanPTI) February 10, 2021
On February 16, however, rights group Human Rights Watch reported that forced cremations were underway, despite assurances from Prime Minister Rajapaksa.
World Health Organization guidelines say there is no benefit in limiting new infections to cremation of those who die from COVID-19.
“As far as the trajectory of Muslim rights is concerned, everything has been focused on the controversy over burials and cremation,” said Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, executive director of the Colombo-based Center for Policy Alternatives. “Despite international guidelines and the opinion of local experts, the government insists that the bodies must be cremated, and I think this is blatantly racist.”
It is unclear whether Khan, who called French President Emmanuel Macron last October for “promoting Islamophobia”, would address these issues during his two-day visit.
“I guess he should bring [these issues] and I don’t know what the Sri Lankan government’s response will be, ”Saravanamuttu said.
Last week, an address Khan was scheduled to make in the Sri Lankan parliament during his visit was abruptly canceled, with Sri Lankan media reporting the decision was taken to avoid the possibility of raising concerns with the Indian government if Khan was talking about the disputed region. of Kashmir.
“Obviously there was consideration to talk about the rights of Muslims or even the Kashmir issue,” Saravanamuttu said. “So to avoid disturbing Indian sensibilities and those of the majority [Sri Lankan] community that is the source of the cremation / burial problem, it was decided that this would not happen.
Asad Hashim is Al Jazeera’s digital correspondent in South Asia. He tweets @AsadHashim