“South Asian countries together comprise 1/4 of the world’s population. This region, however, is the least integrated in terms of regional cooperation,” Major General ( Retd) Muhammad Saad Khattak, Pakistan High Commissioner to Sri Lanka, said in an exclusive interview with Lanka Courier.
Major General Muhammad Saad Khattak (Retd) has more than three decades of an illustrious career in various assignments both inside and outside Pakistan. He is a graduate of the French Army Junior Staff Course, Defense Intelligence Directors Course, UK, Command and Staff College Quetta, and National Defence University Islamabad. He possesses Masters Degrees in Political Science, War Studies and an M. Phil in International Relations.
He has remained extensively exposed to Counter-Terrorism challenges in Balochistan and KPK/FATA. His employment in Balochistan and in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, FATA and Islamabad/Rawalpindi at senior positions provided him a unique insight into the ongoing effort against War on Terrorism.
Excerpts from the interview;
You have earned around 35 years of an illustrious career in various assignments both inside and outside Pakistan. First of all, I We would like to know, what triggered you to join the military?
In our society Military has traditionally been seen as a profession of great respect and merit. Few members of my family had joined before me who also served as motivation for my opting to join Army. Moreover, as young students we were always under the illusion that the early you join military, the early one would get rid of formal education which later proved a fallacy as in the military one goes through so much of academic and professional education that far surpasses formal academic education in the universities.
Like many other countries, the military as an institution is one of the strongest state apparatus in Pakistan. You were a senior military officer who worked at various places of the country. What are the emerging threats and how does your military help to measure them to implement a proactive mechanism which will prevent any hindrance to social order?
Pakistan Armed Forces are one of the most professional outfits in the world. With the dynamic spectrum of threats, the responses of the institution are also evolving to counter the challenges. Pakistan Army has proved its metal and strength in successfully overcoming present day challenges including terrorism, disaster management and effectively assisting the government in combating the Covid-19 pandemic. It is the success of Pakistan Army and government of Pakistan as a whole that Pakistan stood 3rd, world over, in post pandemic recovery according to “The Economist’s Covid-19 Normally Global Index”.
You are a military expert turned diplomat. How did you incorporate your military experiences with diplomacy?
Given the evolving dynamics across all fields, no one in the first place can claim to be expert of any field. During the course of higher military education, we are exposed to various aspects of Diplomacy, be it defence, economic or public diplomacy. Practical application and manifestation of knowledge gained to a very dynamic environment like Sri Lanka has been a unique honour and privilege for me. Besides, as soldiers and senior commanders we are trained in human handling, across different cultures, utilizing the art of negotiations and interactions through effective communication skills that we learn over years of experience. Honestly, despite the restraints of Covid- 19 over the last almost 2 years, I have been able to meet and interact with all segments of Sri Lankan society across the entire nook and corner of the country that has added a great deal to my learning besides further strengthening our mutual bonds. I am highly indebted to the Sri Lankan leadership and people for their whole hearted support.
Both Sri Lanka and Pakistan are members of a few regional bodies such as SAARC. Regional cooperation is vital to any country for achieving its goals. We would like to have your take on the prevailing situation of regional operation between South Asian countries and the challenges ahead? How can we overcome those challenges?
South Asian countries together comprise 1/4 of the world’s population. This region, however, is the least integrated in terms of regional cooperation. SAARC has remained hostage to India’s bullying policies and desire to maintain regional hegemony over her smaller neighbours. Since India is the largest country in the region so unless it shows maturity, the region will remain hostage to poverty and underdevelopment. The world has felt a dire need for regional and multilateral integration post COVID-19. If we want to overcome these challenges, we need to strive for equality in mutual relationship to exploit our full potential for regional integration and development. In this regard China has recently launched a new initiative by the name China-South Asian Countries Poverty Alleviation Initiative. Five out of seven countries who are already part of BRI have shown their willingness. India and Bhutan are so far silent. This initiative of China has tremendous potential to improve mutual trade promising greater integration of the region.
Pakistan is one of the trusted partners of Sri Lankans to improve their skills in many subjects, most importantly education and security. You have helped Sri Lanka during the brutal war against terrorism that lasted three decades. We would like to know more detail about this collaboration.
Pakistan launched Pakistan-Sri Lanka Higher Education Cooperation Programme for Sri Lanka with the capital cost of approximately US$ 18.402 million. Under this programme, 800 fully funded and 200 partially funded scholarships are being offered to Sri Lankan students at graduate, post-graduate level. Under this arrangement, Allama Iqbal Scholarships have already been launched. 50 selected students are currently undergoing studies in Pakistan under this program in the field of engineering, basic & natural sciences and social & management sciences. During his visit to Sri Lanka earlier this year, the Prime Minister of Pakistan announced 100 special medical seats for Sri Lankan students in addition to the 1000 scholarships already being offered. Moreover, process for 250 seats for the year 2021-22 has been initiated. This program will greatly help in enhancing people-to-people contacts between the two countries.
The Government of Pakistan is also giving Jinnah Scholarships to Sri Lankan students for the past 14 consecutive years where top scoring O/Level and A/Level Sri Lankan students receive monetary handouts. So far, 2000 Sri Lankan students have benefitted from this scheme.
Moreover, Defence ties between Sri Lanka and Pakistan are time tested and built on a strong foundation. This bond is further strengthened after 2009 when Pakistan provided its unflinching moral and material support to Sri Lanka in LTTE War. This ever-growing defence relation is based on Capacity building of the Sri Lankan Armed Forces through training and provision of modern day military hardware. Pakistan provides over 600 vacancies annually to Sri Lankan armed forces on gratis basis in various training institutions of Pakistan. Both the country’s armed forces participate in bilateral as well as multinational exercises.
There are untapped areas in Pakistan and Sri Lanka yet to be explored, such as food production, tourism, and pilgrimage. Please let us know your plan to identify the potentials of these areas to enrich diplomatic relationships?
Both countries are tourists hotspots which could not be fully exploited due to security situation in the past few decades. Whereas Sri Lanka is home to beautiful beaches and natural beauty, Pakistan besides its beautiful coast offers a variety of attractions like the beautiful virgin Northern Areas, Swat etc. Remains of ancient civilizations like Mohengo-Daro, Harappa and Buddhist religion are attractive spots for interested tourists from the world. The other common ground to visit our countries is the cultural and sports ties between the two countries while promotion of religious tourism can further bring the two nations closer to each other. Moreover, we are in the process of launching a documentary film on the glorious Gandhara Civilization and Buddhist heritage of Pakistan. We are in touch with the Sri Lankan Prime Minister’s Office for the joint launch of this documentary. It will further boost the understanding and friendship of the two countries as well as acrossall the Buddhist countries in the world.
A number of initiatives have been taken to improve bilateral trade between two countries during recent years. Three editions of the Pakistani Single Country Exhibitions have been organized in Sri Lanka during 2016, 2017 and 2018, which translates into higher volumes of bilateral trade. The High Commission of Pakistan in Colombo also held the first virtual business forum in collaboration with Sri Lanka Export Development Board (SLEDB) to enhance awareness regarding trade and investment opportunities under the Pakistan Sri Lanka Free Trade Agreement between the two friendly countries on 18th September, 2020. More than 100 companies from both sides participated in the Webinar and the event was a great success. A series of sectors-specific webinars and business forums have been planned for the next six months with public and private stakeholders from both sides across sectors such as Construction materials, pharmaceuticals, textiles, information and communication technology and Buddhist tourism development in Pakistan. Steps are being taken to facilitate Buddhist tourism from Sri Lanka to Pakistan, so that people can experience our rich Buddhist heritage as well.
The Trade and Investment Wing of High Commission of Pakistan, in collaboration with Ministry of Commerce and Trade Development Authority of Pakistan (TDAP), organized a promotional event for Pakistani Dates (Fruit) Exports in Sri Lanka, at the High Commission in Colombo on 08th April 2021.
Following the recent visit of the Prime Minister of Pakistan to Sri Lanka, a high-level 14-member Buddhist Monks’ delegation visit has been arranged by High Commission of Pakistan in Colombo during April 2021 to promote religious tourism to Pakistan and to enhance people-to-people contact between Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
Pakistan is the second-largest trading partner of Sri Lanka in South Asia. Sri Lanka was the first country to sign a Free Trade Agreement with Pakistan, which became operational in 2005. We believe both countries have a long road ahead. What are the plans to improve trade and the economy?
After the signing of Pakistan Sri Lanka FTA in 2005, exports from Pakistan to Sri Lanka have seen an increase from US$ 100 million to US$ 369 million in 2019, but the mutual trade remains much below the potential. 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 dampened to US$ 81 million in 2019, which can be attributed to the local economic and security challenges faced by Sri Lanka in the last year. The High Commission of Pakistan is fully committed to increasing bilateral trade under the FTA. We are in close coordination with the relevant Sri Lankan authorities in order to strategize enhancing Sri Lanka’s exports to Pakistan. Through a number of measures such as encouraging Sri Lanka-specific trade exhibitions in Pakistan, arranging buyer delegations from Pakistan for B2B engagements, organizing business forum and raising matters related to tariff and non-tariff barriers being faced by Sri Lankan exporters with Pakistani authorities.
Pak-Sri Lanka bilateral trade has the estimated potential of over US$ 2 billion. Some of the potential export products from Pakistan are Portland cement, denim fabric, woven fabric of cotton yarn, medicaments & surgical instruments, paper & paper boards, articles of silk & synthetic textile, knitwear, fertilizers, towels, bed wear, cutlery, leather products, sports gears and footwear. Top import products from Pakistan to Sri Lanka are Vegetable products and Betel Leaves, Coconut and Copra, Fiber boards, Natural Rubber and Tea. Sri Lanka’s exports to Pakistan only has a share of 0.7% in Sri Lanka’s total exports. A range of new products have also penetrated into the Pakistan market after the implementation of the PSFTA and these new products include items such as fresh pineapple, MDF boards, tamarind with seeds, edible oil, porcelain tableware & kitchenware, ceramic tiles, furniture, electrical switches & sockets, herbal cosmetic products, plastic articles, paints, glass paintings, leather products, frozen fish, prawns, lobsters, crabs, cut flowers & foliage and gems & Jewellery.
Pakistan and Sri Lanka have maintained a very cordial diplomatic relationship since the beginning. Can you give us a brief outline of this strong diplomatic relation between the two countries?
Since the establishment of diplomatic relations between Pakistan and Sri Lanka in 1948, the two countries have maintained a close, cordial and mutually supportive relationship. We have been helpful to each other during difficult times and always coordinate our positions on regional and international fora. Our relations are on a positive trajectory however, Pakistan wishes to expand its economic, trade, defence and cultural relations with Sri Lanka.