COLOMBO: Sri Lankan Muslim community leaders were on Tuesday pinning their hopes on Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan addressing their human rights concerns during his historic visit to the island nation later this month.
Premier Khan is due to arrive in the capital Colombo on Feb. 23 where he is expected to hold talks with key government officials and party leaders.
Sri Lanka’s parliament speaker, Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena, on Tuesday said that the Pakistani PM was slated to address the legislature the following day.
Khan will become the third Pakistani head of state to address the Lankan parliament, after former President Gen. Mohammed Ayub Khan (1963) and Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (1975).
Former Indian premier, Jawaharlal Nehru, also addressed the Lankan parliament in 1962, followed by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1985. More recently, Indian PM Narendra Modi spoke to the legislature in 2015.
During his two-day visit to the country, Khan is expected to hold talks with Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, and Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena.
Prominent representatives of the island’s 2 million Muslims, who make up 9 percent of the total population, said they were banking on “great Muslim leader” Khan to “speak on our behalf.”
President of the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka, N. M. Ameen, told Arab News: “The community wishes to welcome a great Muslim leader who is coming as his country’s prime minister for the first time. He is in a vantage position to speak on behalf of the Sri Lankan Muslims.”
Rishad Bathiudeen, former minister and leader of the All-Ceylon Makkal Congress, who met with the charge d’affaires of the Pakistan High Commission in Colombo on Tuesday, told Arab News: “We have expressed the concerns of the Muslim community, especially regarding the forced cremation policy of the government (for COVID-19 victims).”
Last year, the Sri Lankan government was accused of forcing the cremation of anyone confirmed or suspected to have died from the coronavirus disease (COVID-19).
The move outraged Muslims who said it breached their religious rights, and medical experts argued that there was no evidence that COVID-19 could be contracted from dead bodies.
Shreen Saroor, a women’s rights activist and co-founder of the Women’s Action Network, told Arab News: “Our legitimate rights to bury our dead must not undermine the rights of our Tamil and Sinhala brothers and sisters to protect their rights or know the truth about the death of their family members and to be allowed to mourn them.”
“Prime minister Khan must use his visit to assist in our struggles for human rights, justice, and accountability for all in Sri Lanka,” she said.
Saroor added that there were “concerns” that Khan might “negotiate a deal with the Sri Lankan regime to restore Muslim burial rights while in turn offering Pakistan’s support to Sri Lankan diplomatic efforts to reject the (UN) Human Rights Council resolution.
“This would not be the act of a friend to Sri Lanka and would be at the cost of the Tamil community’s legitimate struggle for truth and justice. Like Muslims, Tamils have been facing many challenges. The failures of domestic justice have prevented reconciliation in our country and stopped the nation from moving toward a stable and prosperous future.”
A Jan. 27 report by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, highlighted the need for a “strong human rights resolution” to address Sri Lanka’s “deteriorating human rights situation” and “pursue accountability for past and recent violations.”
It also set out steps for the UN Human Rights Council to “confront the growing risk of future violations.”
In response to the report, the Human Rights Watch organization said: “Since the government of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has withdrawn its support for the 2015 consensus resolution seeking justice and reconciliation, and shown general disregard for upholding basic human rights, the council should act to protect those most at risk and advance accountability for grave international crimes.”
Toward the end of the 2009 civil war between the government and the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), both groups committed atrocities which led to the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians.