Pakistan-Sri Lanka Ties: A Game Changer in the Region?

Imran Khan’s visit has given more importance to informal and ancillary issues than formal agreements and has played a significant role in the politics of the subcontinent.

by MD Pathik Hasan

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan visited Sri Lanka on February 23 and 24 at the invitation of Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa. This is his first visit to Lanka after coming to power. He said, ‘I go to cricket after finishing my studies, and you (Mahinda Rajapaksa) travel to the field of politics.’ The tour has created tension in the subcontinent even before the tour. Khan’s visit took on a new dimension as India’s relations with Sri Lanka deteriorated after the recent cancellation of an agreement with India to build a container terminal at the port of Colombo. Sri Lanka has signed an agreement with India and Japan to set up a terminal on the eastern edge of the Colombo port in 2019. Under this, 49 per cent of the terminal would be owned by India and Japan and the remaining 51 per cent by Sri Lanka. The government was forced to cancel the agreement as 23 trade unions, opposition parties and the general public opposed it. Anandabazar opined that Sri Lanka’s decision was a diplomatic blow to Delhi.

Imran Khan’s visit has given more importance to informal and ancillary issues than formal agreements and has played a significant role in the politics of the subcontinent. For example, Mr. Khan’s visit ended the cremation of Muslims in Sri Lanka in the Covid epidemic, and the ceremony began with the recitation of the Qur’an at the airport, a rare event in Sri Lankan history, Providing special tourism facilities for Buddhists to visit Buddhist sites in Pakistan, Pakistan’s support for Sri Lankan membership in the UN human rights body, initiation of Muslim-Buddhist harmony, import-export of new products, expansion of Sri Lankan tea market in Pakistan, Sri Lanka trade with Pakistan through Central Asia. The creation and expansion of the sporting goods market is the fruit of this visit. The re-establishment ofthe coexistence and sympathy of Muslim and Sinhalese Buddhists instead of the anti-Muslim activities that have plagued social life over the long-running Easter Sunday incident. The image of the Prime Ministers of both the countries has been brightened and elevated as a result of this visit.

Former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has also tried his best to maintain good relations with Sri Lanka and join the Quad. In particular, when China began leasing the port of Hambantota to Sri Lanka for 99 years, India embarked on a similar project; Japan also joined with new technology. Imran Khan’s visit has changed the geopolitics of the Indian Ocean in the context of the Sri Lankan tug of war between China and Quad.

The day after Imran Khan’s return at the end of the tour, on February 25, 2021, almost 11 months later, the Sri Lankan government issued an emergency gazette repealing the provision of mandatory cremation. This is benefiting both the Muslim and Christian minority communities. No one from the world body, including the OIC, the Arab League or any human rights commission, has been able to address this issue outside of Islamic faith and Sharia. During Imran Khan’s two-day visit, the Sri Lankan authorities resolved the issue amicably. At the same time, Imran Khan was remembered by Sri Lankan Muslims. If Sri Lanka is to stand tall in the world, it is the social ties of different nationalities, different religions

During Mr. Imran’s visit, the two states signed the five agreements such as: 1. Cooperation in the tourism sector; 2. Increase relations and cooperation between the investment boards of both countries; 3. Relations and collaboration of the International Center for Chemical and Biology in Karachi in Pakistan with the Industrial Technology Institute of Sri Lanka; 4. Relations and cooperation between the Industrial Institute of Industrial Technology of Sri Lanka and A university in Islamabad and 5. Agreement on the relationship of the Lahore School of Economics with the University of Colombo.

On February 24, Imran Khan invited the Sri Lankan business community to speak openly; He spoke of investing in Pakistan and increasing trade connectivity. In particular, he announced Pakistan’s full cooperation in expanding Sri Lanka’s trade with Central Asian countries. He said the connection from Gwadar to Central Asian countries and the CEPC could open new doors for Sri Lanka. It will play a helpful role in alleviating poverty. 

He added that both countries are victims of terrorism. Pakistan has suffered for the last 10 years and Sri Lanka for 30 years. Now we have to cross the development ladder. Mr Khan said, “The tourism sector in Sri Lanka and Pakistan is very rich and needs to be utilized.” 

He mentioned, ‘There are many historical sites of Buddhists in Pakistan. Buddhists in Sri Lanka can visit them. If necessary, their facilities will be increased. ‘ He said the excavation work in Gandhara was unfinished. A 40-foot-tall sleeping statue of Gautam Buddha has been found during excavations, which will create a new attraction for Buddhists.Earlier, Pakistan created KartarpurGurudwara for the Sikhs and the world was happy with the Sikh community. There are many historical sites of Buddhists in Pakistan. Buddhists in Sri Lanka can visit them. 

Towards the end of his visit, Imran Khan announced a 50 million ‘military credit facility’ to Sri Lanka. Note that Pakistan’s military relations with Sri Lanka are old. After independence from Britain in 1947, Pakistan established good relations with Sri Lanka. Pakistan can play an important role if there is a China-Sri Lanka-Pakistan alliance bypassing the quad. So, this tour was Imran Khan’s tactical and successful tour. One crop of political victory. Pakistan provided assistance Sri Lanka militarily in Sri Lanka’s civil war.

Prime Minister Imran Khan has used ‘sports diplomacy’ in this visit. He has spoken in interactive sessions with the sports community. Mr Khan praised the Sri Lankan cricket team and said it was a matter of joy for both the countries that Sri Lanka had won the World Cup in Lahore on Pakistani soil. Addressing the cricketers, he said, “If you are scared, you will lose.”

Sri Lanka announced the construction of ‘Imran Khan High Performance Sports Center’ in Colombo. Mr Khan has announced a 52 million US dollars sports equipment and training package in Sri Lanka. It is worth mentioning here that Sialkot in Pakistan produces high quality sports goods in the subcontinent which is also appreciated in the world market. 

The two countries also pledged to work together on security, terrorism and organized crime, as well as drug trafficking. That is why the two countries are accelerating the exchange of intelligence. At a time when Sri Lanka is under international pressure over human rights, class discrimination, war crimes, Pakistan’s support in the international arena or China’s support is very important. In the context of the visit, it is seen that if the UN makes any preparations on Tamil war crimes, there is a possibility of veto of China and Russia. Imran’s visit is therefore very important diplomatically. Both the leaders felt that the SAARC countries should play a stronger role as per the SAARC Charter. The concept of SAARC is important for regional unity and development. Mr Khan emphasized the need for regional connectivity (CPEC). He said it was China’s BRI flagship project in Pakistan and a landmark step towards regional economic development and prosperity. He called on Sri Lanka to join the project and promised to provide necessary financial and technical assistance. This tie can be a game changer in Whole South Asian Region. 

Writer: MD Pathik Hasan, Dhaka based NGO activist, researcher and freelance writer particularly on current international issues.

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