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International relations

Marrying a Sri Lankan? You'll need the Defense Ministry's blessing

Policy aimed at protecting citizens' 'safety' draws widespread ridicule

Sri Lankans must get approval from the Defense Ministry to wed foreigners under a legal rule issued by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa's government. (Source photos by Yuji Kuronuma and Reuters)

COLOMBO -- Nithya Jayakody, a Sri Lankan citizen, was busy making elaborate plans with her European fiance for a grand wedding in Sri Lanka in August this year, but her nuptials were dealt a serious setback after the government announced in late December that starting Jan. 1, all marriages between Sri Lankans and foreigners must be approved by the country's Defense Ministry.

The legal circular, which was released just a week before it came into effect, has infuriated Nithya, who works as a lawyer in Switzerland. She is now rethinking her decision to marry in Sri Lanka, which would deprive her relatives and friends of the chance to celebrate with Nithya one of the most important days of her life.

"I am baffled by this new requirement. I fail to see how my decision to get married to a foreign national needs to be vetted by the state. I was planning my wedding for later in 2022. If such requirements can come in with such limited notice, it naturally makes me concerned about planning anything in Sri Lanka, and whether it is too risky to do so," she told Nikkei Asia.

Although dated Oct. 18, the circular was announced only at the end of December. Issued by W.M.M.B. Weerasekara, Sri Lanka's registrar general, the directive requires a foreign national seeking to marry a Sri Lankan to submit a certificate from the authorities in the person's country of birth attesting that he or she has not been convicted of an offense during the previous six months, along with a health declaration with the foreign national's entire medical history, ranging from chronic kidney disease to cancer, HIV and hepatitis. After this, the Sri Lankan Defense Ministry will issue a security clearance granting permission to proceed with the marriage.

The government says the circular was issued to ensure national security and minimize the number of Sri Lankans being tricked into marriage by foreigners involved in drug trafficking, fraud and money laundering, although it issued no statistics to support the claim that such crimes committed by foreigners are a major problem in the country.

Sri Lanka's registrar general issued a two-page circular outlining the new rules regarding marriage between Sri Lankans and foreign nationals. (Photo by Yuji Kuronuma)

The policy has met with widespread condemnation. Thishya Weragoda, a Colombo based lawyer, has filed a complaint with the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka. In a letter to the commission, Weragoda said the circular issued by the Registrar General is not a law, as the requirements it imposes are illegal, unlawful, irrational, illogical, absurd and unconstitutional.

"[I]t sounded absurd that someone has to get permission from a government entity to marry a person of their choice. Secondly, my kids are foreigners, and if this continues for the next 20 years and they reach the age of marriage, then they must go get approval. My kids don't need my permission, when they come of age, to get married, so why should they go and beg a government entity to approve their marriage?" he told Nikkei.

Weragoda said the government's order means one must marry only Sri Lankans, or foreigners the government approves of. "Surely this decision has violated many international and domestic rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights," he said.

Opposition parliamentarian Shanakiyan Rajaputhiran Rasamanickam raised the issue of a double standard, especially given that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa's wife, Ioma Rajapaksa, is an American citizen.

"The entire first family, including [the president's] wife, son, daughter-in-law and grandchild, are all American citizens. Even the finance minister, Basil Rajapaksa, who is the president's brother, is a dual citizen. So, why these double standards? The president should first get military clearance for his wife," he said. Rajapaksa was also an American citizen, but gave up his citizenship to run in Sri Lanka's presidential election in 2019.

Rasamanickam said that civilians continue to face more and more restrictions, whereas some politicians enjoy impunity. He also said the policy may adversely affect the more than 800,000 Sri Lankan Tamils living overseas, many of whom left the country during the war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam separatist group.

However, Lt. Col. Nalin Herath, the Defense Ministry's media director, insisted the sole reason for the new rules is to safeguard Sri Lankans. "This is purely for the benefit and the safety of our citizens," he told Nikkei. He denied accusations that the policy was a sign of the country's increasing militarization, saying it is mainly aimed at reducing criminal activities ranging from drug trafficking, to money laundering, to terrorism.

The legal change will affect not only foreign nationals but Sri Lankans living abroad who hope to return to the country someday to marry.

Sri Lankan born Mohammed Ariff, a dual citizen who lives in Ireland and is a father of four, calls the decision to vet foreign spouses "ridiculous." He is also worried the policy might be used to discriminate against Tamil and Muslims seen as critical of the government by impeding their ability to return home.

"It is shameful that the current rulers, who've had their own married to non-Sri Lankans, actually introduced this policy," he told Nikkei.

"While the details of implementation remain to be seen, the new regulation also fits in with, and will help facilitate, the state's well-established hostility towards Muslims and Tamils," Alan Keenan, senior consultant for Sri Lanka at the International Crisis Group, told Nikkei. "So the reasons for worry are multiple and real."

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