Colombo, December 28 (The Citizen): Soon after the Karnataka State Assembly passed a bill making it mandatory for interfaith marriages to get a certificate from a District Magistrate saying that no religious conversion is intended, the Sri Lankan government made it mandatory for foreigners intending to marry Lankan citizens to get a certificate from the security authorities of their home countries saying that they had had no convictions in the previous six months.
Although the Lankan regulation does not explicitly mention “interfaith” marriages, it reflects a lack of faith in “foreigners” who are more likely to be Christians or Muslims rather than Buddhists. In Sri Lanka, the foreigner is the quintessential “other”.
Registrar General W.M.M.B. Weerasekara has been quoted as saying that the decision on new requirements was taken as per an agreement between the Ministry of Defense and the Department of Immigration and Emigration. The Department of Immigration and Emigration was brought under the Ministry of Defense by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
Giving reasons for the new measure, Weerasekara told Sunday Times: “We have seen some foreigners wanting to marry Sri Lankans here with ulterior motives like engaging in drug trafficking and money laundering. We want to make sure those foreigners who want to marry locals here are not involved in such activities.”
Slamming the move, Daily Mirror said that the “militarized” government of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had “grotesquely” generalized the issue of criminality on the basis of a few West African scammers and “unsubstantiated claims” about the involvement of foreign Jehadis in the 2019 Easter Sunday attacks in Colombo. By suspecting every foreigner of an ulterior motive the government has deprived ordinary law-abiding Lankans the right to marry foreigners without government interference, wrote columnist Dr. Ranga Jayasuriya.
“In the first place, the latest circular is a gross violation of the most fundamental freedom of the Sri Lankan citizens and is an interference in a matter that is an utmost personal choice. Marriage is a personal matter in which a government should not have any business. Democratic societies are founded on the basic understanding of the limitations of the government’s control over its citizenry. That social contract between the ruler and ruled is increasingly void in Sri Lanka’s militarized regime structure. The country today stands at a dangerous juncture of militarizing and ‘securitizing’ the most basic freedom of its people. Those are liberties that people in any civilized nation take for granted,” Jayasuriya said.
The latest requirement has turned citizenship into serfdom, he maintained. “In early Medieval Europe, serfs could not contract legal marriages without the consent of the feudal lord. Sri Lanka is walking back on the time and civilization as its citizens would have to seek ‘clearance’ from the new lords in the defense ministry to tie the knot.”
Jayasuriya cites some practical implications of this circular. “First and foremost, most liberal democracies are unlikely to share information of their citizens with the government of Sri Lanka. Recently, Scotland Yard suspended cooperation with the Sri Lankan Police citing right abuses. The lack of cooperation or a complete snub from many democracies would effectively leave many would-be couples in limbo, at the mercy of generals and bureaucrats.”
Also, antiquated mechanisms in much of the developing world would result in protracted delays. Sri Lanka’s own system is grossly inefficient and corruption-riddled. Each Sri Lankan who wishes to marry his or her foreign partner would be a victim of that system,” he pointed out.
National Security State
The step regarding marriages with foreigners is seen as being part of the conversion of Asia’s oldest democracy (Sri Lanka has been having universal adult franchise since 1931) into a “security state” under President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who is a retired Lieutenant Colonel and a former Defense Secretary. It is also a reflection of the paranoia which the Buddhist majority has about the entry of foreigners who are most likely to be Christian (or Muslim to a lesser extent). The measure is seen as being part of the project to turn Sri Lanka into a Buddhist country rather than a secular country.
President Gotabaya has entrusted many key civilian departments to former military personnel of the rank of Majors-General and above. In the beginning, this was looked at favorably by most Sri Lankans as it was thought it would bring some efficiency to the laid back Lankan administration. But events showed that militarization has only alienated the people from the government further.
Ministers and MPs, who represented the grassroots, had little or no role in the decision-making process other than rubber stamping decisions already taken at the very top. People are blaming the current dollar shortage and the severe shortage of essentials to government’s policies and not on the pandemic.
But President Gotabaya is doggedly sticking to his dim view of the civilian bureaucracy. He told the media on Monday that bureaucracy has failed to deliver his election promises and executive orders. “They have misinterpreted my orders. And academically qualified experts have failed because they have no practical experience,” he charged. There is now a fear of the government’s stepping up militarization to solve emerging problems. The chairman of the Presidential Commission on “One Country One Law”, the volatile Buddhist monk Ven.Gnanasara Thero, told the Tamil newspaper Weekend Virakesari that Sri Lanka needs military rule for a period to set matters right. He had also said that the only law Sri Lanka should have is the law of the Sinhalese (the majority community).
The “One Country One Law” Presidential Commission was established mainly to reform Muslim personal law which according to a common perception, allows polygamy and sanctions male hegemony. It is administered by legally untrained Quazis, who as a rule in Sri Lanka, have been males. Initially, the commission was all-Sinhala Buddhist. But later this changed following criticism.
On Sunday, the Presidential Media Division issued a press release quoting one Mohamed Zubair, a former High Court Registrar, requesting the Presidential Task Force for ‘One Country, One Law’ to recommend the abolition of Quazi Courts. Zubair told the Task Force in Kandy that the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act and polygamy concept, as well as the establishment of organizations based on different sects of a religion, should be banned. He said that maintenance cases currently under the Quazi system could be settled by the Magistrates’ Court and divorce cases at the District Court as in the case of other communities.
Signs of Resistance
But there are faint signs of resistance to the imposition of Buddhist monks on State institutions to dilute their secular character. Recently, students at the University of Colombo refused to accept their degree certificates from the newly appointed University Chancellor, and Rajapaksa-aligned, Buddhist monk Ven.Muruththettuwe Ananda Thero.
The University of Colombo’s Science Teachers’ Association (UCSTA) expressing their opposition to Ananda’s appointment as Chancellor had earlier issued a statement saying: “Even though the Chancellor’s role is mostly ceremonial, the person who holds the position ideally should have a track record of flawless professional and personal integrity, whose reputation and credentials will assist the University in furthering its reputation and credibility nationally and internationally. We believe that the Thero’s association with a well-known trade union and his political affiliations will not be helpful for advancing the universities’ interests within the local, national and international spheres and express our extreme disappointment in this appointment.”