Sri Lanka cancels Imran Khan’s parliament address a week ahead of visit

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Sri Lanka, Colombo has cancelled Imran Khan’s Parliament address scheduled next week, sparking speculation in the political and diplomatic circle in the capital.

Senior government officials have cited “COVID-19 constraints” for the decision, even as the itinerary issued by the Department of Government Information dated February 16, 2021, listed “arrival at Parliament” on February 24, along with Mr. Khan’s scheduled participation in a “Trade and Investment Conference”, and the inauguration of a Sports Institute the same day. Amid a surge of infections in the country, Sri Lanka began a vaccination drive for parliamentarians on Tuesday.

The Pakistan Prime Minister, who is the first Head of Government to visit Sri Lanka after the pandemic hit the world, last year, is expected to arrive on February 23.

When contacted, a spokesperson at the Pakistani High Commission in Colombo told the sources that “The PM’s address in Sri Lankan Parliament was not confirmed in the first place, it was being discussed.” However, Sri Lanka’s Speaker Mahindra Yapa Abeywardena had told party leaders meeting earlier this month that Mr. Khan would be addressing the House. The matter was included in the minutes of that meeting.

Colombo’s revision of the visiting leader’s itinerary has raised questions for obvious reasons.

It comes barely a week before Sri Lanka faces a likely contested resolution at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, in which Pakistan is currently a member. The cancellation is also being viewed in the context of Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahindra Rajapaksa’s assurance to Parliament on February 10 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.

But a week since, the government is yet to reverse its highly contested policy of enforcing cremations for COVID-19 victims, being followed despite the WHO clearing both burial and cremation.

Cabinet spokesman Udaya Gammanpila told the weekly media conference on Tuesday that there was no change in the existing policy. Mr. Rajapaksa had only expressed his “personal view” in Parliament, the spokesman said, adding neither the Prime Minister nor the Cabinet had the power to reverse the policy that and the “experts” committee under the Ministry of Health is said to be reviewing.




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