Opinion: Pakistan's embarrassment is a spanner in Imran Khan's Colombo visit

Written By: Shantanu Mukharji
New Delhi Published: Feb 20, 2021, 02.22 PM(IST)

File photo of Pakistan PM Imran Khan Photograph:( AFP )

Story highlights

Sri Lanka's decision to cancel Pakistan PM Imran Khan's address to Sri Lankan Parliament is being assessed as triumph of Indian policymakers

Pakistan faced a profound diplomatic embarrassment when the Government of Sri Lanka cancelled (Feb 17) the much-hyped Prime Minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan’s address to the Sri Lankan Parliament. It was originally scheduled for February 24.  

This is seen as a major setback to the Pakistani establishment as Imran’s visit commencing on February 20, was seen in Pakistan as a significant move to further befriend Sri Lanka. It is also assessed by the diplomatic circles that it was a triumph of the Indian policymakers because the proposed Sri Lanka visit, more specifically the Parliament address was largely at China’s behest.

Now, Pakistan will have to recover with immense difficulty with the shock it received by the last-minute cancellation. Meanwhile, knowledgeable sources also say that the Parliament address was sabotaged to prevent Imran Khan for raking up the Kashmir issue on foreign soil, thus trying to cause a wedge between Indo-Sri Lanka warm ties. This has also left China red-faced as China was intently watching the upcoming visit for geopolitical reasons. 

The cancellation has been officially confirmed now by Sri Lanka Foreign Minister Gunawardena. Although the Sri Lanka Parliament Speaker reckons that the address has been called off due to Covid-19 related precautionary measures, this explanation seems faint and far from convincing.

In the meantime, credible reports trickling in from Colombo indicate that there is no possibility of Sri Lanka signing any defence agreements with Pakistan during the visit of Imran Khan. Sri Lanka Foreign Secretary Admiral Prof. Jayanth Colombage did disclose that a number of agreements on economic cooperation, culture and other issues are on the cards but nothing on defence.  

However, grounds for strong defence cooperation between Sri Lanka and Pakistan do exist.  From 2000 to 2009, Pak-Sri Lanka military cooperation was exceptionally strong. During the operations against the LTTE in its last phase in 2009, Sri Lanka had sought Multi-Barrel Rocket Launchers (MBRLs) which Pakistan had readily obliged. It is also pertinent to point out that the LTTE had tried to assassinate the Pakistani High Commissioner in Colombo, Bashir Wali Mohmand in 2009 as he was assisting the Sri Lankan forces’ efforts to exterminate the LTTE.

In a development linked to Prime Minister Imran Khan’s visit, the Sri Lankan Muslim community leaders are preparing to meet the visiting Pak PM to hand over their list of grievances by involving Imran Khan whom they described as a great Muslim leader.  It is likely that the section of Muslims in Sri Lanka would highlight the human rights violations against the 9 per cent Muslim minority in Sri Lanka and alleged social discrimination.  

Reacting to the cancellation of the Parliament address, Rauf Hakeem, opposition MP and leader of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress said (Feb. 17) that the Sri Lanka government had embarrassed the PM of a foreign country. Muslims in Sri Lanka are also believed to be agitated over the controversy of the government’s decision to allow only cremation and not the burial of all the COVID casualties. On his part, Imran Khan is expected to give a patient hearing to the ‘aggrieved’ Muslims.  It could, in case, be interesting to Pakistan and Sri Lanka watchers to see how Imran’s forthcoming Colombo visit unfolds.

While the cancellation of the Parliament address by Imran Khan is dampening for Pakistan and its PM, it is also seen as a loss of face amid a slew of problems Pakistan is already grappling with.  
However, a more serious problem that Pakistan is facing at this juncture is the assessment by the experts that Pakistan is unlikely to exit the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) ‘grey’ list until June this year, despite its efforts to gather support from the member nations ahead of the plenary meet of the FATF slated in Paris from Feb 21 to 26.  

This is yet another critical setback for Pakistan. It also means Pakistan has not done enough to improve its track record on terror funding despite repeated warnings by the FATF. Compounded with this, the latest report of denial of an address by PM Imran Khan to the Sri Lankan Parliament exposes Pakistan’s hollowed foreign policy bereft of any maturity or seen as an incorrigible nation, howsoever harsh it may sound.

Pakistan doesn’t seem to be learning any lesson and instead it continues to bask on India bashing and most of such reactions emanating from a deep sense of insecurity from India. 

Let us dwell upon a couple of illustrations to prove our point. The Chief of the Army Staff General Qamar Ahmad Bajwa, while addressing the cadets of the Air War College Institution ( AWCI), at the 34th Air War course at Karachi, under the aegis of the Pakistan Air Force ( PAF), warned ( Feb 17) that Pakistan was ready to give a befitting reply to any misadventure posed by its adversary. 
The tenor and syntax were aggressive and reminiscent of his similar speech earlier this month, again at a PAF function. In both cases, the army chief insinuated his warning towards India. 

It was indeed unprovoked and avoidable and but the contents rob away any chances of toning down a sense of hostility in letter and spirit . 

Army chief apart, the Foreign Minister of Pakistan Shah Mehmood Qureshi, while addressing the participants of the Ninth International Maritime Conference in Karachi on Feb 15, accused India of taking recourse to what he termed belligerent and aggressive policies raising the chances of a conflict in the Indian Ocean. Crossing all limits of decency, Foreign Minister Qureshi also charged India for being driven by "extreme Hindutva ideology".

Again, such remarks coming from a senior minister against a sovereign country were totally uncalled for. It’s clearly evident that such manifestations are the result of a great sense of insecurity felt by Pakistan. This seems to have heightened following the perceived armament build-up by India, as assessed by media house Al-Jazeera. It further analyses that being in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue group, Pakistan is apprehensive with security concerns.

Though the well-known commentator and security analyst Zahid Hussain feels that India’s military preparedness is against China, Pakistan feels threatened by India . Pakistan recently hosted a naval exercise with the US, the UK, Russia participating. 

Reeling under such massive level of apprehensions from perceived Indian threats, Pakistan first needs to tone down its rhetoric, address its domestic concerns, rein in the various terror groups bred in Pakistan and also straighten up its foreign policy creases so as not to face embarrassment as in Sri Lanka. It would then augur well with it to exaggerate concerns from India.

(Writer is a retired IPS officer, a security analyst and a former National Security Advisor to the Prime Minister of Mauritius. Views are personal)

(Disclaimer: The views of the writer do not represent the views of WION or ZMCL. Nor does WION or ZMCL endorse the views of the writer.)

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