Islamabad, Pakistan – Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has arrived in Sri Lanka for a two-day visit where he will meet Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa for talks focusing on increasing trade and investment, Pakistan’s foreign office said.
Khan arrived in the Sri Lankan capital Colombo on Tuesday for his first visit to the island nation since taking office as Pakistani prime minister in 2018. Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa received him at the airport.
“The [Pakistani] 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, defence and security, and culture and tourism,” read a Pakistani curtain-raiser statement on the visit.
A Sri Lankan foreign ministry statement said the visit would feature “a business and investment forum, as well as a sports diplomacy initiative”.
Prime Minister Khan will be accompanied by Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, Commerce Minister Abdul Razzaq Dawood and several other high-ranking officials.
Pakistan and Sri Lanka have traditionally enjoyed warm relations, with particularly close military training cooperation during the latter stages of the Sri Lankan civil war which lasted more than two decades.
The Pakistani 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 elder brother Mahinda became prime minister several months later.
Trade ties, however, remain relatively limited, with $359m in bilateral trade in the last fiscal year, according to Pakistani central bank data, the majority of it Pakistani exports to Sri Lanka.
Analysts say Sri Lanka’s economy remains heavily focused on trade ties with European nations and the United States, rather than within the South Asian region.
Both countries will be seeking to increase those figures, as Rajapaksa and Khan seek to revive domestic economies that took serious hits due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Ending forced cremation
The Gotabayasreturned to power in Sri Lanka in 2019, winning a landslide victory in the presidential election following a divisive electoral campaign that saw their Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) party stoke ethnic and religious tensions, appealing to majoritarian Sinhala Buddhist nationalism.
Sri Lanka is home to 21.8 million people, some 10 percent of whom are members of a Muslim minority that has come under increasing persecution since the Rajapaksa brothers came to power, rights groups say, adding that the government has tightened the civil rights space and pandered to right-wing Sinhala Buddhist nationalism.
Earlier this month, Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda announced that the island nation would be stopping the forced cremation of people who have died from COVID-19, a controversial policy that was seen to have unfairly targeted Muslim citizens whose beliefs require the dead to be buried.
The move was lauded by Pakistani Prime Minister Khan, who has long taken up the issue of global Islamophobia at international fora and during bilateral talks with world leaders.
We welcome Sri Lankan PM Mahinda Rajapaksa's assurance given in Sri Lankan Parliament today allowing Muslims to bury those who died from COVID19.
— Imran Khan (@ImranKhanPTI) February 10, 2021
On February 16, however, rights group Human Rights Watch reported that forced cremations were ongoing, despite the assurance from PM Rajapaksa.
World Health Organization guidelines state there is no benefit in terms of limiting new infections to cremating those who die from COVID-19.
“With regard to the trajectory for Muslim rights, everything has been focused on the burial and cremation controversy,” says Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, executive director at the Colombo-based Centre for Policy Alternatives. “Despite international guidelines and local expert opinion, the government insists that bodies need to be cremated, and I think that is blatantly racist.”
It is unclear whether Khan, who last October called out French President Emmanuel Macron for “encouraging Islamophobia” would take up these issues during his two-day visit.
“I would assume that he would have to bring [these issues] up and I don’t know what the response of the Sri Lankan government will be,” said Saravanamuttu.
Last week, an address Khan was planned to deliver to Sri Lanka’s parliament during his visit was abruptly cancelled, with Sri Lankan media reporting the decision was taken to avoid the possibility of causing concerns with the Indian government if Khan were to speak about the disputed region of Kashmir.
“Clearly there was some consideration of him either bringing up Muslim rights or indeed the issue of Kashmir,” said Saravanamuttu. “So to avoid ruffling Indian sensitivities and those of the majority [Sri Lankan] community who are behind the cremation/burial issue, it was decided that it would not happen.”
Asad Hashim is Al Jazeera’s digital correspondent in South Asia. He tweets @AsadHashim