By Bandula Kothalawala –
According to a news item in today’s papers, some 2,000 Sri Lankan expatriates were “awarded” certificates of dual citizenship at a ceremony held at Temple Trees on 17 November 2015 by HE Maitripala Sirisena, President of Sri Lanka. One is struck by the solemnity and grandeur of the occasion, apparently, graced by a constellation of local dignitaries including the Prime Minister. Nevertheless, there seems to be something odd about this particular spectacle.
In the first place, Sri Lankans who became citizens of another country should not have been stripped of their nationality. They should have been allowed to retain their nationality. In fact, Sri Lanka is one of the very few countries in the world, the citizens of which automatically lose the right to the nationality of their own country when they become citizens of another country. It is the prerogative of each and every nation to define the rules governing the retention and/or the acquisition of nationality. However, the state should exercise that right with fairness. It is hard to understand why a Sri Lankan citizen should automatically lose his/her nationality just because s/he becomes a citizen of another country. Many of us have obtained foreign nationality for a variety of reasons including hassle free travel. I have been working in the International Department of the Trades Union Congress (TUC) in London for over 26 years now. It would have been impossible for me to do my job as an international policy officer, as it involves frequent travel to various parts of the world. A Sri Lankan passport holder has to secure an entry visa for all but a few countries in the world. Very often, s/he has to apply for a visa, at least, three or four weeks in advance, depending on the destination and often cough up a tidy sum, in addition to filling in numerous forms accompanied with voluminous supporting documentation.
It is hard to understand why the acquisition of foreign nationality by a Sri Lankan is considered an offence punishable by withdrawal of his/her nationality. In the recent past, the media have reported on a spate of financial and other scandals involving people of all walks of life including prominent politicians of all hues. The lurid details published in the media would certainly make many a politician in the so-called banana republics blush. Curiously, those allegedly involved in the unsavoury deals are all deemed fit and proper persons to continue to be Sri Lankans unlike the expatriates who have chosen foreign citizenship for whatever reason. I hasten to add that I am not suggesting for a second that they be deprived of their nationality. I am only pointing to the fact that there seems to be limitless tolerance for one category of citizens and zero tolerance for others. If the acquisition of foreign nationality is so serious an offence, one wonders why it has been made possible to recover it, albeit at a price! According to the criteria for dual nationality published by the Department of Immigration and Emigration only those who have considerable financial resources at their disposal are eligible to apply for it. http://www.immigration.gov.lk. The fee per applicant is LKR 250,000, with some reductions for spouse and children.
As far as I am aware, South Africa is one of the few countries whose citizens lose their citizenship when they become citizens of another country. However, South African nationals have the option of applying for the retention of their citizenship when they apply for the citizenship of another country – choice not available to Sri Lankans. Moreover, those who lost their citizenship under the apartheid regime are retrospectively exempted from the loss of their SA citizenship under the SA Citizenship Act of 1995. In other words, they are allowed to resume their citizenship. Furthermore, the fee for the resumption of SA citizenship is only ZAR 300, which, in comparison, makes the fee for SL dual citizenship about eighty-three times more expensive based on today’s (18/11/2015) exchange rates. If the comparison is made on the basis of purchasing power parities (PPP), Sri Lanka charges over hundred times more for her dual citizenship than the Republic of South Africa! It is possible that ordinary Sri Lankans dazzled by mind-boggling sums incessantly bandied about in the media have lost their sense of proportion and tend to believe that all SL expatriates have struck gold abroad, especially, those living in the west. After all, in Sri Lanka, hardly a day goes by without someone making a demand of, at least, Rs 500m as compensation for alleged defamation or making allegations of fraud running into billions of US dollars! Therefore, ordinary people may be convinced that the eligibility criteria and fees are not, after all, so onerous and that many can afford them without difficulty. One can only hope that they will disabuse themselves of the myth. Of course, there are wealthy individuals among Sri Lankans, as there are among other expatriate communities.
It is often said that the SL Government has been forced to restrict dual citizenship for security reasons. While there may be some truth in it, it is worth pointing out that the legal provisions relating to the automatic loss of citizenship date back to the Citizenship Act No. 18 of 1948. Other nations do not seem to have resorted to drastic measures due to civil strife. Colombia is a case in point. Colombians have gone through immense suffering due to the on-going civil war in their country for more than five decades now. Yet, the Government of Colombo has imposed no restrictions on dual citizenship.
Strangely enough, even dual citizenship is viewed with suspicion in Sri Lanka. The 19th amendment to the Constitution bars individuals with dual citizenship from being members of parliament. Nevertheless, the authorities seem to have no qualms about appointing a foreigner to the post of the governor of the Central Bank. Please, note that I am not commenting on the suitability or otherwise of the past or present incumbents.
It is, indeed, a pity that the SL authorities have failed to realise the benefits of granting dual citizenship for Sri Lankan expatriates who are able and willing to make a significant contribution to the economic and social development of the country. They seem content to tinker with rules and regulations for political expediency. Of course, it is all about good governance! Sri Lanka – land like no other!