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Pakistani Prime Minister Khan heads to Sri Lanka to strengthen ties

 Islamabad, Pakistan - Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan will arrive in Sri Lanka for a two-day visit where he will meet with Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa to discuss increased trade. and investment, said Pakistan's foreign office.

Khan will arrive in Sri Lanka's capital Colombo on Tuesday for his first visit to the island nation since he took office as Pakistani prime minister in 2018.

Pakistani Prime Minister Khan heads to Sri Lanka to strengthen ties

"The [Pakistani] Prime Minister will also lead the talks at the delegation level, covering all areas of cooperation between the two countries, including trade and investment, health and education, agriculture and science and technology, defense and security, and culture and tourism. " he read a Pakistani statement to open the curtain on the visit.

A statement from the Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry said the visit will 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, Trade 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 later stages of Sri Lanka's civil war, which lasted for more than two decades.

The Pakistani prime minister was one of the first world leaders to publicly congratulate President Rajapaksa on his landslide electoral victory two years ago. The president's older brother, Mahinda, became prime minister several months later.

However, trade links remain relatively limited, with $ 359 million in two-way trade in the last fiscal year, according to data from Pakistan's central bank, most of which is exported by Pakistan to Sri Lanka.

Analysts say Sri Lanka's economy remains highly focused on trade ties with European nations and the United States, rather than within the South Asian region.

Both countries will seek to increase those figures as Rajapaksa and Khan seek to reactivate national economies that suffered severe impacts due to the coronavirus pandemic.

End forced cremation

The Gotabayas returned to power in Sri Lanka in 2019, winning a landslide victory in the presidential election after a divisive election campaign in which their Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna party (SLPP) fueled ethnic and religious tensions, appealing to majority Buddhist nationalism in Sinhala.

Sri Lanka is home to 21.8 million people, 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, They add that the government has restricted the space for civil rights and panned to right-wing Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism.

Earlier this month, Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda announced that the island nation would stop the forced cremation of people who died from COVID-19, a controversial policy that was deemed to have unjustly targeted Muslim citizens whose beliefs require that the dead be buried. .

The move was praised by Pakistani Prime Minister Khan, who has long addressed the issue of global Islamophobia in international forums and during bilateral talks with world leaders.

However, on February 16, human rights group Human Rights Watch reported that forced cremations continued, despite the assurances of Prime Minister Rajapaksa.

The World Health Organization guidelines state that there is no benefit in terms of limiting new infections to incinerate those who die from COVID-19.

"With regard to the Muslim rights trajectory, everything has centered on the burial and cremation controversy," says Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, executive director of the Colombo-based Center for Policy Alternatives. "Despite international guidelines and the opinion of local experts, the government insists that the bodies should 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 address these issues during his two-day visit.

"I would assume that he would have to raise [these issues] and I don't know what the response from the Sri Lankan government will be," Saravanamuttu said.

Last week, a speech Khan was scheduled to give to the Sri Lankan parliament during his visit was abruptly canceled, with Sri Lankan media reporting that the decision was made to avoid the possibility of causing concern with the Indian government should Khan speak. over the disputed region. from Kashmir.

"Clearly, there was some consideration of him mentioning Muslim rights or, indeed, the Kashmir issue," Saravanamuttu said. "So to avoid irritating the Indian sensitivities and those of the majority [Sri Lankan] community behind the cremation / burial issue, it was decided that it would not happen."

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