The Colombo trip is only Imran Khan's second foray in the neighbourhood since becoming Prime Minister. His first was to Afghanistan last November, two years after his election

Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s two-day visit to Sri Lanka, starting Tuesday, has attracted a fair amount of controversy because of a cancelled invitation to address the Sri Lankan parliament. But ties between the two countries are on much more solid footing than immediately apparent, and this is unlikely to become a sticking point in a long and steady relationship.

The Colombo trip is only Imran Khan’s second foray in the neighbourhood since becoming Prime Minister. His first was to Afghanistan last November, two years after his election. The last time a Pakistani prime minister visited Colombo was Nawaz Sharif in 2016.

It is also the first visit by a head of government to Sri Lanka since the pandemic began. For Colombo, the visit holds much value. It comes at a fraught time for the government on the international stage. Imminently, it is bracing to be hauled over the coals at the United Nations Human Rights Commission for withdrawing from resolution 30/1 of September 2015, under which it committed to carry out war crime investigations.

To make matters worse, the Islamic world is appalled by Sri Lanka’s tight rules for the last rites of Muslims who have died of COVID-19. Burials are strictly not allowed. All bodies must be cremated. The rule created a storm in Sri Lanka, with community leaders convinced that this is nothing but an extension of the state’s persecution of Muslims.

The community, whose numbers are about 11 per cent of Sri Lanka’s population, has had tense relations with the state and with the Sinhala Buddhist majority for much of the last decade, with riots shattering the calm once every few years. But the tensions have spiked after the synchronised Easter suicide bombings by a group of men and women who proclaimed themselves to be members of ISIS.

When Prime Minister Rajapakse indicated in Parliament recently that Muslim burials would be allowed, Imran Khan tweeted his praise. “We welcome Sri Lankan PM Mahinda Rajapaksa’s assurance given in Sri Lankan Parliament today allowing Muslims to bury those who died from COVID-19,” Imran tweeted, though the government is yet to act upon that assurance, and officials have made contrary noises.

International Human Rights watchdog Amnesty International has urged Khan to take up the issue with Sri Lanka during his visit.

Sri Lankan media reports have speculated that this could be one reason why the visiting Prime Minister’s planned Parliament address was cancelled by the hosts. The other speculated reason was concern that he would raise the Kashmir issue, and that there was pressure from India to cancel the event.

Sri Lanka may yet formally concede the demand for burial, and if it comes during Imran Khan’s visit, it could be win-win for both sides. Colombo needs all the friends it can at Geneva in the coming weeks, including countries in the Islamic world. For canvassing the cause of the Sri Lankan Muslims, Khan could claim some brownie points at home and in Islamic states, with some of which – UAE, Saudi – he has recently been having a rough time.

The Pakistan Prime Minister is in Colombo along with Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, and trade and commerce officials.

Pakistan is Sri Lanka’s second largest trading partner in south Asia after India. Newspaper Dawn reported that the two countries decided to reactivate a Joint Working Group (JWG) to resolve pending technical issues on trade, during commerce secretaries-level talks on February 18. Sri Lanka and Pakistan have a free trade agreement dating back to 2005. Pakistan’s top exports to Sri Lanka are textiles and cement. Sri Lanka’s top exports to Pakistan are tea, rubber and readymade garments.

Over the last decade, Pakistan has also been projecting its ancient Buddhist connections to promote cultural ties with Sri Lanka.

But it is defence ties that are a strong pillar of the Sri Lanka- Pakistan bilateral relationship. After India pulled back the IPKF in 1990, it provided no active defence support to the Sri Lankan military, though there was intelligence sharing during the war against the LTTE. Sri Lanka turned to Pakistan for arms, ammunition as well as training for its fighter pilots.

Gotabaya, who was defence secretary at the time, visited Pakistan in 2008 to make a request for emergency assistance with military supplies. There were also unsubstantiated claims in Pakistani media after the war ended that Pakistani air force pilots had flown bombers in northern Sri Lanka.

Just as Sri Lankan military officers come to India for training at NDC and Staff College, Wellington (President Rajapaksa is a Wellington alumnus), they also go to Pakistan’s military academies for training. Earlier this month, Sri Lanka participated in a Pakistan’s multi-nation naval exercise Aman.

During the 1971 war, Pakistan Air Force jets refuelled in Sri Lanka. Pakistan’s envoys to Sri Lanka are usually retired military officials, and the same was true for Sri Lanka’s High Commissioners to Pakistan until a few years ago. In 2006, Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam carried out an attack in Colombo against then Pakistani High Commissioner to Sri Lanka Bashir Wali Mohamand, formerly a former intelligence chief. He escaped the attack, but seven others were killed.

As Sri Lanka’s closest neighbour with strong, all-encompassing ties, even if these are sometimes problematic, India has not perceived Pakistan as a serious rival in Sri Lanka so far.

Sporadically, the Indian security establishment has voiced concerns about Pakistan’s role in the radicalisation of Muslims, especially in Eastern Sri Lanka, where funds have poured in for new mosques from some West Asian countries, and the effect that this could have in India.

There is now a new wariness about a triangulation in the ties between Sri Lanka, China and Pakistan in defence co-operation, though it has not been publicly expressed. In 2016, India put pressure on Sri Lanka to drop a plan to buy the Chinese JF-17 Thunder aircraft made in Pakistan and co-produced by the Chinese Chengdu Aircraft Corporation.