ISLAMABAD: Prime Minister Imran Khan will address the parliament of Sri Lanka on February 24, the third Pakistan leader to do so after former president Ayub Khan and former prime minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto.
The address is part of a two-day maiden official visit starting February 22. The premier will hold talks with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, and Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena, officials familiar with the situation said.
Former Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru was the first foreign dignitary to address the House in 1962, followed by United Kingdom Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1985. In 2015, incumbent Indian premier Narendra Modi spoke to the Sri Lankan legislators.
Imran will be the first head of government to visit the island country since the coronavirus pandemic struck last year. While Colombo refrains from commenting on tensions between India and Pakistan particularly Kashmir dispute, it has maintained close ties with Islamabad.
As Sri Lanka prepares to welcome the premier, several members of the country’s Muslim minority expressed hope for him to take up their concerns during talks with government officials.
Muslims make up nearly 10 per cent of the country’s population of 22 million, which is predominantly Buddhist. The Indian Ocean island was torn for decades by a civil war between separatists from the mostly Hindu Tamil minority and the Sinhala Buddhist-dominated government.
The government stamped out the rebellion some 11 years ago.
However, in recent years, Buddhist hardliners, led by the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) or “Buddhist Power Force” — a Sinhalese Buddhist nationalist group — have stoked hostility against Muslims, saying influences from the Middle East had made Sri Lanka’s Muslims more conservative and isolated.
In 2018, scores of mosques, Muslim homes and businesses were destroyed as Buddhist mobs ran amok for three days in Kandy, the central highlands district.
Representatives of the nation’s Muslims said that they were banking on the “great Muslim leader” to “speak on our behalf.”
“The community wishes to welcome a great Muslim leader who is coming as his country’s prime minister for the first time. He is in a vantage position to speak on behalf of the Sri Lankan Muslims,” NM Ameen, president of the Sri Lanka Muslim Council, told Arab News.
“Prime Minister Khan must use his visit to assist in our struggles for human rights, justice and accountability for all in Sri Lanka,” Shreen Saroor, women’s rights activist and co-founder of the Women’s Action Network, said.
With additional input from Reuters