Sri Lanka’s Speaker Mahinda Abeywardena had told the leaders of political parties last week that Khan would address the Parliament during his two-day visit beginning February 22. The foreign leader's address was scheduled for February 24. However, Sri Lanka has canceled the planned address to its Parliament by Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan next week, apparently because of concerns that he could rake up the Kashmir issue.
Officials cited Coronavirus restrictions as the reason for the move, though people familiar with developments in Colombo said on condition of anonymity that the Sri Lankan government had done a re-think following discussions on the implications of Khan raising the Jammu & Kashmir issue in his speech.
The address was scheduled for February 24, and Khan is scheduled to meet President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, and foreign minister Dinesh Gunawardena during the visit.
“The planned address to Parliament doesn’t appear to have been well thought through. There were considerable discussions within the government at which the possibility of Prime Minister Khan raising the Kashmir issue came up,” said one of the government officials.
Realizing the ramifications of such a development, the Sri Lankan side considered it more prudent to call off the address to Parliament, the people said.
It is the Pakistan government’s stated policy to raise the Kashmir issue at international forums, especially since the Indian government scrapped Jammu and Kashmir’s special status in August 2019. Pakistan even embarrassed itself by raising the Kashmir issue during a virtual meeting of SAARC leaders convened by India last year to discuss ways to counter the Covid-19 pandemic.
The sergeant-at-arms of Sri Lanka Parliament, Narendra Fernando stated that foreign minister Gunawardena had informed officials that Khan’s proposed visit to the Parliament complex will not take place. Fernando also said "Gunawardena had informed Parliament that Khan’s visit would go ahead as scheduled."
Reports in the Sri Lankan media also quoted foreign secretary Jayanath Colombage as saying that the Speaker had informed the government that he would be unable to ensure full attendance in Parliament because of the pandemic.
The Pakistan government had made a request for Khan to address the Parliament. The last foreign leader to address Sri Lanka’s Parliament was Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2015. Khan will be the first head of state to visit Sri Lanka since the Covid-19 outbreak last year.
His visit is being seen in Sri Lanka as crucial to gain the support of Pakistan and other Muslim countries ahead of a hearing on the island country’s human rights record, especially during the war with the LTTE, at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on February 24.
Last week, Khan had welcomed Sri Lanka’s assurance regarding allowing the burial of Muslim coronavirus victims instead of the forcible cremation of their bodies.
The visit also comes at a time when ties between India and Sri Lanka have been affected by Colombo’s unilateral decision to develop the East Container Terminal at Colombo port through a state-run body instead of under a trilateral agreement signed with India and Japan.
Both India and Japan have protested against the decision. Reports have suggested Sri Lanka has instead offered to allow India and Japan to develop the West Container Terminal at Colombo port.