Colombo, March 1: The two-day visit of the Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan to Sri Lanka, which concluded on February 24, added new dimensions to Pakistan-Sri Lanka relations. Thus far heavily dependent on defense ties established during Lanka’s no-holds-barred fight against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), Sri Lanka-Pakistan relations are now poised to acquire an economic and even a political dimension.
Imran Khan’s successful intercession for Lankan Muslims on the COVID-19 burial issue, has inadvertently created a Pakistani role in the resolution of Muslim problems in Sri Lanka.
Sooner or later, Pakistan may be joining India and the US-led West in playing a role in Lanka’s communal politics. This stems from the inability of successive Lankan governments to solve the country’s ethnic and religious problems through internal dialogue and effective action.
Imran had told a group of Muslim MPs who met him briefly on Wednesday, that he had taken up the matter with Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and had secured “a positive response” from them.
This was reflected in the Joint Communique. “Both sides underlined the importance of inter-religious dialogue and harmony as a key to promote cultural diversity, peaceful co-existence and mutual empathy,” the communique said.
Media reports said that, late on Wednesday, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa told Buddhist monks that there was pressure from different quarters to rescind the ban on burial. The monks replied that if the technical experts agreed to allow burial, they would have no objection.
The Minister of Health, Pavithra Wanniarachchi, then issued a gazette extraordinary, sanctioning the burial of COVID dead (along with cremation) under strict, State supervised conditions.
Given the dire need for the support of Pakistan and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) to face a resolution against Sri Lanka in March, it had become necessary for the government to accommodate the Muslims’ demand. The OIC had asked for the lifting of the ban.
But the downside is that Sri Lanka’s Muslims could start running to Pakistan, and to the OIC, to get their issues with the Sri Lankan State settled just as the Tamils are running to India, the West and the UNHRC to solve their problems with the Lankan State.
Be that as it may, what is definite is that Pakistan-Sri Lanka relations will have a major trade and investment component as both countries have pledged to increase two-way trade from the current US$ 460 million to US$ 1 billion.
For the first time, Sri Lanka has been invited to join the China-funded China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) to reach out to growing markets in Central Asia.
Of course, security will remain a key element in the relationship as in the past. But that too will be enhanced by a Pakistani credit line of US$ 50 million for Sri Lanka’s defense projects. The two sides have agreed to cooperate on tackling a common enemy – terrorism and religious extremism. On April 21, 2019 Easter Sunday Lankan Muslim suicide bombers inspired by the Islamic State (IS) had killed 277 innocent people, and Pakistan has so far lost 70,000 lives in terrorist attacks carried out by Islamic bigots.
On this issue the Joint Communique said that both sides “stressed the need for stronger partnership for supporting and coordinating with each other in dealing with matters related to security, terrorism, organized crime and drug and narcotic trafficking as well as intelligence-sharing.”
New Building Blocks
Imran was able to re-affirm, for Pakistan, the goodwill of the regime of the Rajapaksas. Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa described Pakistan as a “close and genuine friend.” And Imran Khan, on his part, announced a credit line of US$ 50 million for Sri Lanka’s defense projects. He extended a grant of US$ 327,916 (PKR 52 million) for a modern sports facility in Sri Lanka to be named “Imran Khan High Performance Sports Center”.
Other goodies were: 100 scholarships for undergraduate medical students; sponsorship of an Asian Civilization and Culture Centre at the University of Peradeniya in Kandy, Sri Lanka’s cultural capital and encouragement to Sri Lankans to make use of the “Buddhist Trail” that Pakistan will be putting in place to attract Buddhist pilgrims to ancient Buddhist sites in the Gandhara region now called Khyber Pakhtunkwa.
This will enable Pakistan to showcase Pakistan’s secular credentials despite being an avowedly Islamic state. It can display its achievements in saving these priceless monuments and idols from religious bigots and idol thieves and win plaudits from Buddhists in Sri Lanka and other East Asian countries.
Selling CPEC and BRI
Significantly, Imran invited Sri Lanka to take advantage of the China-funded China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) running right down his country from the Karakoram range in the North to the Arabian Sea in the South. He described CPEC as the “flagship project’ of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
Sri Lanka has ports, an airport, and the up and coming Colombo Port City which China considers part of its BRI, though the Sri Lankan government is yet to portray them as such. But Sri Lanka is well disposed towards the BRI though it has not formally joined it. Foreign Secretary Adm.Prof.Jayanath Colombo had recently told Xinhua that the BRI provides opportunities to Sri Lanka to grow its international trade and get foreign direct investments.
CPEC could also play a role in realizing the joint Lanka-Pakistan aim of taking bilateral trade from the current low of US$ 460 million to US$ 1 billion.
During Imran’s visit, a MoU on tourism promotion and cooperation between Board of Investment of Sri Lanka and the Board of Investment of Pakistan were signed. Another MoU envisaged cooperation between the Industrial Technology Institute (ITI) of Sri Lanka and the International Centre for Chemical and Biological Sciences, University of Karachi, Pakistan. Cooperation between Industrial Technology Institute of Sri Lanka and COMSATS University Islamabad was the subject matter of another MoU. The University of Colombo and Lahore School of Economics have agreed to collaborate.
Other significant outcomes are: a decision to forge relations between parliamentarians of the two countries who are both law makers and opinion makers. A decision to set up mechanisms for frequent inter-governmental consultations was also taken.
The two sides noted the existence of close cooperation between them in regional and international forums on issues of mutual interest, and agreed to further strengthen a coordinated approach on such matters.
Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa thanked the government and the people of Pakistan for the constant support extended by Pakistan to safeguard the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka. Such support has great significance now in the context of the possibility of Sri Lanka’s facing at the UNHRC, a hostile resolution on its alleged failure to atone for “war crimes” in its fight against Tamil Tiger terrorism.
However, Imran had one disappointment in an otherwise very fruitful trip: the Lankan government had backed out of a commitment to let him address parliament. Apparently, Colombo feared that he might talk about the Kashmir issue and raise the hackles in New Delhi. Imran did not mention Kashmir in the official talks but referred to it at a trade and investment conference in Colombo.
He said that Kashmir is the only issue between Pakistan and India. After becoming Prime Minister he had offered India a chance to hold peace talks with Pakistan, but nothing came out of it, he said. The only way to solve any issue is through dialogue, he added.