Many are the comments about Sri Lanka. The latest doing the rounds is that Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan was rather shabbily treated when the Address he was scheduled to make to Parliament was cancelled. It appears that the pandemic is the reason for the belated cancellation as though the pandemic suddenly enveloped Sri Lanka [...]


When Imran Khan was left speechless-almost


Many are the comments about Sri Lanka. The latest doing the rounds is that Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan was rather shabbily treated when the Address he was scheduled to make to Parliament was cancelled.

It appears that the pandemic is the reason for the belated cancellation as though the pandemic suddenly enveloped Sri Lanka and we in the Resplendent Isle were unaware of its existence.

There are many things which our leaders are not aware of. They would themselves admit that. But the Covid pandemic sure cannot be one of them. After all we have been exultant over the early success that we seem to have scored over it in the initial days.

So to suddenly the spring Covid three days or so before he turns up and with many in Sri Lanka hoping to hear him speak as the leader of Pakistan is to miss that opportunity.

It is known that it was the Pakistan leader who requested an opportunity to address parliament. It is a long time since Imran a highly popular and charismatic cricketer visited Sri Lanka. This was the only opportunity to see him even on TV

It would not be surprising if we are told that the on-going pandemic would prove an obstruction to making any arrangement for an address to parliament as though Imran Khan intended to emulate our master filibusterer Dr W. Dahanayake and hold up proceedings for many an hour without wilting away unlike some redoubtable grandstanders.

The story I am hearing from some is that it is more than a pandemic that cut Premier Khan off in mid-air so to say. Some were worried of what Imran Khan might say. In recent days he has been speaking of human rights, freedom of the media and other ‘unsavoury’ issues which are not everybody’s egg hopper.

These days when there is a lot of discussion, debate and in some countries street fights, over whether Muslim victims of Covid should be mandatorily cremated at death or be allowed the customary religious rights and whether that is dangerous to the health of other.

Moreover there over in Geneva Sri Lanka is barricading the battlements expecting such missiles to come flying into the laager. So perhaps there was advice from some quarters that we could do without an address to parliament.

But when you first entertain the idea of a speech to parliament and then fall down on it whatever the reason, there are those who would suspect other causes for cancelling the event and the word spreads with more reasons tagged on.

Imran Khan like the good Oxford University gentleman and even better cricketer might have put on a brave face. That is how it should be. Diplomacy does some times call for sacrifices especially at the highest levels. But however much his face says one thing it cannot be forgotten that the request for an address to parliament came from the prime minister who was coming to Colombo for the first time as the leader of his country.

I may be wrong here but I think the last time Imran Khan came to Sri Lanka was for a series of matches  in 1975 (it was around that time but I cannot be sure) when the Pakistan team was led by Imtikab Alam

Our rules, like some of our laws, are made on the hoof, so that when you wake in the morning some laws are as shiny and tinny as brass against the sound of silence.

Now that we are on the subject of Imran Khan and the 1975 (or was it 1976?) Pakistan tour of Sri Lanka and how some incidents on the playing field in Colombo sparked off anti-Pakistan media criticism like never before.

The leading newspapers had sharp criticisms of Pakistani behavior on the field and challenging umpire decisions etc splashed all over.  Unusually for the then staid Daily News it had a sharp, hard-hitting comment on the front page. It was one huge ho ha in the media including live commentaries on radio being critical as never before.’.

I was then news editor of the Sunday Observer but also writing for the Pakistan Times and Morning News in Karachi. My news despatches to the two papers had been read by Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.

He really hit the ceiling according to my informants. There was one line in my first report which made Prime Minister Bhutto ask his officials to recall the entire cricket team.

Mr Bhutto had come to Sri Lanka on a visit a few months earlier and it had gone off well. Following the row in Colombo by the Pakistan fielding side contesting decisions and challenging other ruling and even taunting the spectators, I had written in both Pakistani papers: “All the goodwill created by Prime Minister Bhutto during his recent visit to Sri Lanka was dissipated yesterday by the Pakistani cricketers”.

Bhutto was determined to recall the whole team immediately and gave orders. In the meantime Maithripala Senanayake who was acting as prime minister in the absence of Mrs Bandaranaike abroad went into a huddle with Sports Minister KB Ratnayake and Sports Ministry Secretary Lionel Madugalle on how to appeal to Bhutto to let his team continue the tour.

I had named four players as the most unruly. I cannot remember all four but two of them were fast bowler Sarfaz Nawas and Javed Miandad and, maybe, captain Imtikab Alam if I got the names and spelling correct.

The Sri Lanka side were trying to save the tour and the Pakistani’s their reputation. Calls were flying between the two countries and Prime Minister Bhutto’s temper slowly subsiding. At one point Bhutto had ordered that the four cricketers named in the report be brought back.

Again the Sri Lanka troika went into discussion. They would make another appeal to Mr Bhutto. I do not whether they did because they were not talking to me.

Mr Bhutto maintained he must teach the cricketers a lesson. After Bhutto relented and said he must recall at least one the message went to the Pakistani officials in Colombo- bring back Sarfaz Nawas.

So in Colombo Pakistan officials dashed off to Kandy where Sarfaz was playing in a match. At the lunch interval the officials bundled Sarfaz in a car and brought him to Colombo and he was kept at the Oberoi Hotel till time for the departure to the airport.

Imran Khan was in that raucous team that almost caused their return home. But all through that first day, even the cocktail hosted by the Pakistan High Commission Imran  behaved impeccably. I know because I was with him most of the time.

The upshot it all was that at the first cabinet meeting after Mrs Bandaranaike’s return Sports Minister KB Ratnayake said that was trying to spoil bilateral relations between Sri Lanka and Pakistan.

Prime Minister Bhutto did not seem to think so.

(Neville de Silva is a veteran Sri Lankan journalist who was Assistant Editor, Diplomatic Editor and Political Columnist of the Hong Kong Standard before moving to London where he worked for Gemini News Service. Later he was Deputy Chief-of-Mission in Bangkok and Deputy High Commissioner in London.)


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