Senior government officials have cited ‘COVID-19 constraints’ for the decision

In what appears to be a last-minute decision ahead of Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s coming visit to Sri Lanka, Colombo has cancelled his Parliament address scheduled next week, sparking speculation in political and diplomatic circles in the capital.

Senior government officials have cited “COVID-19 constraints” for the decision, even as the itinerary issued by the Department of Government Information — dated February 16, 2021 – listed “arrival at Parliament” on February 24, along with Mr. Khan’s scheduled participation in a ‘Trade and Investment Conference’, and the inauguration of a Sports Institute the same day. Amid a surge of infections in the country, Sri Lanka began a vaccination drive for parliamentarians on Tuesday.

The Pakistan 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 at the Pakistani High Commission in Colombo told The Hindu: “The PM’s address in [Sri Lankan] Parliament was not confirmed in the first place, it was being discussed.” However, Sri Lanka’s Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena had told a party leaders’ meeting earlier this month that Mr. Khan would be addressing the House. The matter was included in the minutes of that meeting, sources present said.

Emerging questions

Colombo’s revision of the visiting leader’s itinerary has raised questions for obvious reasons.

It comes barely a week before Sri Lanka faces a likely contested resolution at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, in which Pakistan is currently a member. The cancellation is also being viewed in the context of Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa’s assurance to Parliament on February 10 that burial of COVID-19 victims would be allowed, amid a persisting campaign from Sri Lanka’s Muslim community, seeking burial rights. Mr. Khan had welcomed Mr. Rajapaksa’s statement in a tweet soon after. “We welcome Sri Lankan PM Mahinda Rajapaksa’s assurance given in Sri Lankan Parliament today allowing Muslims to bury those who died from COVID-19,” he said.

But a week since, the government is yet to reverse its highly contested policy of enforcing cremations for COVID-19 victims, being followed despite the WHO clearing both burial and cremation.

Cabinet spokesman Udaya Gammanpila told the weekly media conference on Tuesday that there was no change in the existing policy. Mr. Rajapaksa had only expressed his “personal view” in Parliament, the spokesman said, adding neither the Prime Minister nor the Cabinet had the power to reverse the policy, that an “experts’ committee” under the Ministry of Health is said to be reviewing.

“Our government embarrassed our own Prime Minister first. Now they are embarrassing the Prime Minister of another country visiting us, this is pathetic,” said Rauf Hakeem, Opposition parliamentarian and Leader of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress. “They [government] are going back on their own positions and statements repeatedly, like they did with the assurance on burials. This sort of blowing hot and cold, especially in diplomacy, reflects a lack of maturity and could impact our relations with our long-term friends and partners,” he told The Hindu.

Meanwhile, New Delhi is following Mr. Khan’s visit with interest, diplomatic sources indicated, referring to the two countries’ conflicting position on Kashmir. Sri Lanka, which has maintained close ties with both India and Pakistan, has rarely commented on the issue.

The last foreign leader to address Sri Lankan Parliament was Prime Minister Narendra Modi, during his visit to the island nation in 2015.

Prime Ministers Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Moraji Desai were accorded the honour 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 spoke at the House.

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