PM Khan’s Colombo Visit being Planned

By Sulochana Ramiah Mohan | Published: 2:00 AM Jan 9 2021
Interview PM Khan’s Colombo Visit being Planned

By Sulochana Ramiah Mohan

Pakistan is among the few countries that do not interfere in the internal matters of Sri Lanka, or even voice for or against on any matters when you have equally contributed to our progress, be it during the war or cricket, is there any reason for this?

A: Pakistan, like any responsible nation in the world, respects Sri Lanka’s sovereignty. We respect international law and do not believe in interfering in the internal matters of any State, including Sri Lanka. We also believe that our support to Sri Lanka is not conditional but rather on fraternal grounds and hence we do not tie our support with any strings.

Pakistan’s PM Imran Khan is well known as a cricketer in Sri Lanka and the connections between the two countries centres mainly on cricket. However, we don’t see him or his Government engaging with Sri Lanka as expected. He has not visited Sri Lanka as well. What keeps him away?

A: I don’t think that the decades-long friendship and brotherly relations between Pakistan and Sri Lanka can be narrowed down to cricket alone.  Yes, both nations love cricket but it is just one of the many areas of mutual interest. I also believe that it is wrong to say that PM Imran Khan’s Government is not engaging with Sri Lanka as it should. Our relations today are as strong as ever. Interactions between the two Governments are taking place as usual at all tiers. Our Foreign Minister was here to congratulate the new Government on behalf of PM Imran Khan. Recently Bilateral Political Consultations also took place between the Foreign Secretaries of the two countries. Visits from both sides however, have been halted because of the ongoing pandemic situation globally. And this is not unique to Pakistan and Sri Lanka but all countries around the world. Moreover, the Prime Minister’s visit to Colombo is being planned.

What’s Pakistan’s foreign policy towards China and Sri Lanka?

A: Our foreign policy towards both countries is that of friendship, cooperation and non-interference in internal matters. Pakistan is also criticised about CPEC and BRI as lot of the misinformation is circulated to malign CPEC. Recently a disinformation network was uncovered by the EU DisinfoLab, which clearly shows how a certain country consciously runs vicious campaigns to sabotage our development projects and interests. There is no truth of course in this kind of propaganda. I think that the BRI, of which CPEC is also a flagship project, is a great opportunity for countries in the South Asian region in terms of connectivity and development. 

We don’t see Pakistani tourists visiting Sri Lanka nor Sri Lankans visit Pakistan despite the fact Pakistan has a huge Buddhist Heritage. Why is this? 

A: Both countries are tourism hotspots which unfortunately could not be fully explored due to the adverse security situation in the country in the past few decades. Now that both countries have finally overcome the internal unrest and all tourist spots are open and safe for foreign tourists, it is high time that the two friendly countries encourage their tourism operators to coordinate more tourist trips to both the countries. Promotion of religious tourism can bring the two friendly nations closer to each other. Other common interests are the cultural and sports ties that exist between the two countries which need greater focus.

Sri Lanka has been criticised for being put in a debt trap by China. Is this what the Government of Pakistan is criticised for too? How do you intend to rectify this image if it’s not true?

A: There is a lot of misrepresentation and false propaganda surrounding Chinese assistance to Pakistan and Sri Lanka. There is no debt trap at all. Let me say it once again; CPEC public debt loans are less than 10% of our total debt whereas their contribution to socio-economic development is promising. CPEC projects under the overarching umbrella of BRI are well thought out initiatives involving mega development projects for the economic and social development of Pakistan. The projects completed so far under Phase-I have already brought relief and started yielding dividends and tangible socio-economic benefits. Pakistan being a sovereign State exercises the right to choose economic partners from around the globe on mutually beneficial basis. All related projects are being pursued according to the laws and regulations of Pakistan and through an institutional mechanism wherein transparency is a prime consideration. 

Pakistan is also criticised internationally for alleged human rights violations mainly on religious freedom and on Media freedom. Recently a Hindu temple was destroyed in Pakistan while there are also accusations of the alleged murder of Human Rights activist Karima Baloch who was found dead in Toronto, Canada. Is there an improvement in human rights issues? 

A: Pakistan is an open democratic society and democracy has only strengthened in the recent years. Pakistan attaches great importance to fundamental freedoms and the protection of the rights of its minorities which have been enshrined in our Constitution and translated into the legal framework as well. As for our position on Human Rights, let me enlighten you once again that Pakistan was recently elected as a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council with an overwhelming majority. As OIC coordinator on human rights in Geneva, we lead Resolutions 16 and 18 on combating intolerance on the basis of religion or belief. We have an Interfaith Ministry and have almost finalised our Policy on Interfaith Harmony.

We are not a country where genocide of minorities takes place, where they are termed termites, fake domiciles are issued and amendments like CAA and NRC are passed. Our Government and public have openly deplored and condemned the recent Hindu temple incident and it can be gauged by the fact that the accused in the Hindu temple incident were immediately arrested, orders were issued for repair of the temple, the highest level of judiciary took immediate notice, and senior political leadership condemned the incident. 

As for the death of Pakistani national Karima Baloch, I think the question is misplaced. She was known to be engaged with foreign intelligence agencies. When the EU disinfolabs revelation exposed the malicious disinformation campaign, such assets become more valuable and a threat to the interests of their pay masters. She was not killed in Pakistan so I fail to understand how the Government of Pakistan should be questioned on the cause of her death instead her murder should be followed in the light of EU disinfolabs revelation and her linkage in that.

Since, you have also raised the issue of human rights, I would like to draw your attention to the grave human rights violations being carried out against the defenceless Kashmiris in Indian Illegally Occupied Jammu and Kashmir especially after abrogation of Article 35-A of the Indian Constitution.  The occupation forces are using pellet guns, torture, enforced disappearances, incarcerations, arbitrary detention, rape as an instrument of suppression and violation of basic human rights of Kashmiris.  Not handing over the bodies of murdered Kashmiri youth to their legal heirs is against all norms of humanity irrespective of their beliefs. 

Most drug traffickers are supposedly from Pakistan and Sri Lanka has arrested many and even extradited about 41 Pakistani drug offenders from Sri Lankan prisons recently. How can Pakistan assure that in future these drug traffickers would keep away from Sri Lanka and not make it a drug hub as many call it now?   

A: I won’t deny that there is room for cooperation between the two countries on the issue of drug trafficking. Remember the racket equally involves Sri Lankan citizens. We are closely working on it with the authorities on both sides. It should also be kept in mind that these drugs do not originate from Pakistan. We all know that these drugs are produced in a neighbouring country. Yes, Pakistanis were caught off ships but a lot of these Pakistanis illegally migrated to other countries and were used by drug dealers from those countries to carry these drugs. Sri Lanka unfortunately is only a small destination for their drugs; primarily the country is used as a transit destination for further transportation to European and Eastern markets.

Sri Lanka is located strategically on the East-West maritime corridor and has so many opportunities to reap. But it has missed many of the opportunities due to the war and now to the coronavirus pandemic. How do you see our progress in terms of trade relations with Pakistan and others in the South Asian region?

A: The South Asia Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA) is often highlighted as a prominent outcome of SAARC, but that, too, is yet to be implemented. Despite SAFTA coming into effect as early as 2006, the intra-regional trade continues to be at a meager five per cent. South Asia remains one of the least integrated regions in the world, where intra-regional trade accounts for less than 5% of the member countries’ total trade. It is a disconnected region due to circuitous routes to markets, inadequate trade agreements, congested/complicated border crossings and lack of transportation infrastructure. All these factors increase the cost of trading with each other as compared to external markets. Moreover, the negative role of India is viewed as hegemonic, being the largest country and economy in the region, whereby other smaller countries feel apprehensive on making progress on trade-related facilitation and challenges. India has negatively impacted on the economic integration of the region including SAARC. With nearly 400 million people living on less than US$2 a day – the largest concentration of poverty in the world – it is imperative that member countries act responsibly for deeper economic cooperation.

In the backdrop of challenges presented by the coronavirus pandemic, increasing intra-regional trade amongst SAARC member countries can bring shared economic benefits for all member countries. The arrangement will not only increase bilateral trade levels between SAARC countries but reduce prices for consumers and enhance access in landlocked countries such as Nepal, Bhutan, Northeast India and Afghanistan. To fully exploit the intra-regional trade potential, SAARC member countries need to eliminate tariff and non-tariff barriers, leverage private and intra-regional investment, invest in efficient connectivity and border crossings and liberalise sectors including services, logistics, shipping, air travel etc.

Pakistan-Sri Lanka bilateral trade has the estimated potential of over US$ 2 billion. Some of the potential export products of Pakistan are Portland Cement, denim fabric, woven fabric of cotton yarn, medicaments and surgical instruments, paper and paper boards, articles of silk and synthetic textile, knitwear, fertiliser, towels, bed wear, cutlery, leather products, sports gloves and footwear. In Sri Lanka, tariff restrictions are low for Pakistani exports but non-tariff barriers such as para-tariffs, accumulation of nation building tax (NBT), value added tax (VAT), ports and airport development levy (PAL), special commodity levy (SCL) and compliance issues (health, sanitary and safety standards) add cost to imported items. So, in a nutshell, non-tariff barriers have overshadowed the impacts of tariff rationalisation under PSLFTA and in turn, have been the major impediments to the export of Pakistani exports and this situation needs serious attention.

You claimed that Pakistanis enjoys Sri Lankan Tea or Ceylon Tea. Is there a high demand and how do you rate Sri Lankan Tea exports in 2019 to Pakistan?

A: Sri Lanka was the leading supplier of tea to Pakistan until 1984 but lost the market share over the years. Tea exports from Sri Lanka to Pakistan were 4675.26 MT in 2012, which drastically declined to 25.08 MT by 2014. Sri Lanka was able to increase its exports again in 2015 to 3150.17 MT. Most of the tea consumed in Pakistan is imported from Kenya, India, Uganda, Rwanda and Tanzania. Currently Sri Lanka’s market share in Pakistan is only 2-3% of total tea imports. Local packers and traders in Pakistan import 70% of tea from East African countries to blend with teas imported from other countries.

Pakistan’s tea market is dominated at present by Kenya due to the popularity of its CTC (cut, tear and curl) teas. Sri Lanka produces only 10% of CTC tea out of its total tea production which is not sufficient to cater to the huge Pakistan market. Although Sri Lanka produces a large quantity of orthodox tea, prices are very high compared with other orthodox tea exporters mainly due to the increased cost of production. Sri Lanka exports most of its tea in value added forms while other countries export in bulk. Value added forms of tea from other countries are offered at lower prices. This has resulted in Sri Lanka’s declining share in the Pakistani market.

China, US, India, Japan and many other countries are vying for investments in Sri Lanka but we hardly hear of Pakistan showing interest in doing any investment projects here, is there any reason for this?

A: Pakistani companies have invested in agriculture, Information Technology, textiles and construction /real estate development in Sri Lanka. We recognise high potential areas for investment and joint collaboration between Pakistani and Sri Lankan companies and are engaging with stakeholders on both sides to raise awareness regarding incentives and benefits of investing in Sri Lanka. 

As an example, the Sri Lankan Construction and Real Estate industry is rapidly growing and the country has an import requirement of 600 million USD worth of cement annually from various countries. Pakistan supplies 10% - 20% of Sri Lanka’s cement requirements and has the capacity to increase its exports due to competitive pricing and good quality. This sector has a larger potential due to increased consumer spending on construction and real estate.  

Similarly, the demand for sugar in Sri Lanka is estimated to be 650 MT per annum and the country imports more than 90% of its annual sugar requirement, while spending LKR 50 billion in foreign exchange. Sugar consumption is growing in Sri Lanka due to population growth and tourism. Sugar is one of the potential sectors where Pakistani investors can focus on in 2021. 

The High Commission of Pakistan in Colombo also held the first virtual business forum in collaboration with Sri Lanka Export Development Board (SLEDB) to increase awareness regarding trade and investment opportunities under the Pakistan-Sri Lanka Free Trade Agreement (PSFTA) on 18 September, 2020. More than 100 companies from both countries participated in the Webinar and the event was a great success. A series of sector-specific webinars and business forums have been planned for the next six months with public and private stakeholders from both countries across high-potential sectors such as construction materials, pharmaceuticals, textiles, and information and communication technology and tourism development.

How do you rate Lanka-Pakistan connections in the last five years in terms of exports and imports? 

A: Despite the balance of trade being in favour of Pakistan since the FTA with Sri Lanka has come into force, exports from Sri Lanka to Pakistan have also witnessed a surge from US$ 46 million in 2005 to US$ 105 million in 2018. However, the figure has fallen to US$ 81 million in 2019, which can be attributed to the local economic and security challenges faced by Sri Lanka in that year. 

The export basket of Pakistani products to Sri Lanka traditionally include Portland Cement, woven fabric of cotton, dyed fabric of cotton, denim, bed linen of cotton, rice (semi milled or wholly milled and broken rice), salts, onions, potatoes, and medicaments being amongst the top 15 export commodities to Sri Lanka. While, Pakistan’s imports from Sri Lanka include rubber and articles thereof, wood and articles thereof, fruits and nuts, tea, spices, paper and paperboard, floating vessels etc.

It is also important to note that imports from Pakistan fuel Sri Lanka’s value-added apparel industry and earn valuable foreign exchange for Sri Lanka through its exports to the EU and the US. Reciprocally, Sri Lanka can focus on further promoting its tea, rubber, fruits, spices, etc. Furthermore, there is potential for joint ventures in areas such in cement, food processing, textiles, pharmaceuticals, Information Technology and tourism development, whereby both Pakistan and Sri Lanka can gain knowledge and expertise through mutual collaboration. 

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By Sulochana Ramiah Mohan | Published: 2:00 AM Jan 9 2021

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