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Pakistani PM’s visit to Sri Lanka will ‘open new chapter’ in bilateral relations

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Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s visit to Sri Lanka will open a new chapter in bilateral relations, officials told Arab News on Monday.

Khan is due to arrive at Bandaranaike International Airport at 4 p.m on Tuesday and will be given a special guard-of-honor ceremony.

He will meet key leaders, including Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena, and will attend an investors’ forum on Wednesday.

“Premier Imran Khan is making his maiden visit as prime minister to our country,” Rohan Welliwita, Rajapaksa’s media secretary, said. “This is a landmark visit which will open a new chapter in the Lanka-Pak relations.” 

Seven agreements are going to be signed during Khan’s two-day trip, but Welliwita did not give details about them.

A Foreign Ministry official, requesting anonymity as she was not authorized to speak to the media, said the agreements would promote “tourism, technology, parliamentary relations, culture, sports, trade and investments.”

The Pakistan-Sri Lanka Trade and Investment Forum, organized by the Ministry of Commerce of Pakistan and its diplomatic mission in Colombo, will be at the Shangri-La Hotel, where Khan is expected to woo the island's business magnates into investing in Pakistan.

Khan’s original itinerary, which included an address to Sri Lanka’s parliament on Wednesday, was abruptly cancelled last week due to his “tight schedule” amid claims that the visit was ill-timed due to a spike in coronavirus cases across the country.

"The address has been canceled because of the visiting premier’s demanding schedule," Shan Wijetunge, the parliament’s head of communications, told Arab News.

Khan will be accompanied by Foreign Affairs Minister Makhdoom Shah Mehmood Qureshi, the prime minister’s commerce adviser Abdul Razak Dawood, Foreign Affairs Secretary Sohail Mehmood and a delegation of senior officials and business leaders.

Rajapaksa tweeted: “Look forward to welcoming the Prime Minister of Pakistan Imran Khan and his delegation in Sri Lanka. This visit will further reinforce our bilateral relationship and pave the way for joint ventures that mutually benefit both our nations.”

Khan replied: “Thank you for your invitation Prime Minister Rajapaksa. Looking forward to my visit to further strengthen the friendship and cooperation between our two countries.”

Pakistani media reports, quoting the Commerce Ministry, said that Sri Lanka had agreed to reactivate a joint working group to resolve pending technical issues between the two trading partners.

Sri Lanka’s Muslim leaders said they hoped Khan would address the issue of forced cremations during his talks with key leaders.

The mandatory cremation policy for COVID-19 victims was enforced last April, angering Muslim and Christian communities, who said it violated their rights.

Earlier this month on Feb. 9, in response to a lawmaker's question, Rajapaksa said the government would soon begin to allow burials for those who had died from COVID-19.

The following day, however, the Health Ministry said the statement was not effective since it had yet to be ratified by an official notification.

Sri Lanka continues to face pressure over the policy, with the Organization of Islamic Cooperation lodging three requests for the country to reconsider its decision on cremations.

The issue has gained more momentum after a video of a 13-year-old boy asking Khan to help the Muslim community complete the last rites for COVID-19 victims went viral on Monday.

"I hope he will take up the cremation matter on behalf of Lankan Muslims with the high officials of Sri Lanka," Sri Lanka Muslim Council President N.M. Ameen told Arab News.