Senior government officials cited ‘COVID-19 constraints’ for decision.
In what appears to be a last-minute move ahead of Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s next visit to Sri Lanka, Colombo has canceled his speech to Parliament scheduled for next week, sparking speculation in political and diplomatic circles in the capital.
Senior government officials cited “COVID-19 constraints” for the decision, even as the itinerary released by the Department of Government Information – dated February 16, 2021 – mentioned “arriving in Parliament” on the 24th. February, as well as Mr. Khan’s planned participation in a “Trade and Investment Conference” and the inauguration of a sports institute on the same day. Amid a wave of infections in the country, Sri Lanka on Tuesday launched a vaccination campaign for parliamentarians.
The Pakistani prime minister, who is the first head of government to visit Sri Lanka after the pandemic hit the world last year, is expected to arrive on February 23.
When contacted, a spokesperson for the Pakistani high commission in Colombo said The Hindu: “The address of the Prime Minister in [Sri Lankan] Parliament was not confirmed in the first place, it was under discussion. However, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena said at a meeting of party leaders earlier this month that Khan would address the House. The issue was included in the minutes of that meeting, sources present said.
Colombo’s review of the visiting chef’s itinerary raised questions for obvious reasons.
It comes barely a week before Sri Lanka faces a presumably contested resolution at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, of which Pakistan is currently a member. The cancellation is also seen in the context of the assurance given by Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa to parliament on February 10 that the burial of COVID-19 victims would be authorized, as part of a persistent campaign to the Muslim community of Sri Lanka, demanding the right of interment. Mr Khan praised Mr Rajapaksa’s statement in a tweet soon after. “We welcome the assurance of Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa given to the Sri Lankan Parliament today allowing Muslims to bury those who died from COVID-19,” he said.
But a week since, the government has yet to reverse its much contested policy of enforcing cremations on COVID-19 victims, followed despite the WHO cleaning up both the burial and cremation.
Cabinet spokesman Udaya Gammanpila told the weekly press conference on Tuesday that there was no change in current policy. Mr Rajapaksa had only expressed his “personal point of view” to Parliament, the spokesperson said, adding that neither the Prime Minister nor the Cabinet had the power to reverse policy, only ” expert committee ”under the Ministry of Health would be revised.
“Our government first embarrassed our own Prime Minister. Now they embarrass the Prime Minister of another country who is visiting us, it’s pathetic, ”said Rauf Hakeem, opposition parliamentarian and leader of the Sri Lankan Muslim Congress. “They [government] come back to their own positions and statements on several occasions, as they did with the assurance on funerals. This kind of hot and cold breath, especially in diplomacy, reflects a lack of maturity and could impact our relationships with our longtime friends and partners, ”he said. The Hindu.
Meanwhile, New Delhi is following Khan’s visit with interest, diplomatic sources said, referring to the two countries’ conflicted stance on Kashmir. Sri Lanka, which has maintained close ties with India and Pakistan, has rarely commented on the matter.
The last foreign leader to address the Sri Lankan Parliament was Prime Minister Narendra Modi, during his visit to the island country in 2015.
Prime Ministers Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, and Moraji Desai received this honor earlier, in 1962, 1973 and 1979 respectively. Pakistani leaders, including Presidents Mohamed Ayub Khan, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, addressed the Sri Lankan Parliament in 1963 and 1975. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Thai PMs Thaksin Shinawatra and Yingluck Shinawatra also addressed the Bedroom.