Sri Lanka is a small country in a region where two heavyweights, China and India, are vying for influence while Pakistan is also keen to develop good relations with the fellow SAARC member. Sri Lanka is keen to cooperate with all the three countries without taking sides in their mutual disputes. The policy of strict neutrality has helped the country in maintaining internal security, boosting national defence and developing its economy. Whenever national interest required Colombo asserted its independence, like canceling the 2019 agreement with India and Japan to build the East Container Terminal at the Colombo Port, deciding to build it itself in disregard of India’s protestation.
Prime Minister Imran Khan’s planned speech in Sri Lankan Parliament has surprisingly been cancelled. Mr Khan is scheduled to travel to Colombo on a two-day trip from February 22. Different explanations have been offered for the cancellation. Senior Sri Lankan officials have cited covid-19 constraints for the decision. Others claim that Colombo suspected that Mr Khan might raise the Kashmir issue in his speech, further annoying India which is already incensed by the cancellation of the Terminal contract. A spokesperson at the Pakistani High Commission in Colombo reportedly told media that the PM’s address was not confirmed but was only being discussed. . The cancellation is also being viewed in the context of Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa’s assurance to Parliament that the 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. There is however still resistance to burials from important circles with the result that dead bodies of covid-19 victims continue to be cremated
Irrespective of whether the address was only being discussed or was dropped after initial agreement it has come as a diplomatic embarrassment. There was a need on the part of the Foreign Office to weigh the issue in the light of Sri Lanka’s foreign policy sensitivities before asking Colombo to arrange the address. Relations had continued to prosper between the two countries without any Pakistani Prime Minister after ZA Bhutto having addressed Sri Lankan Parliament. What was the need to ask for the address now?