On the very day that the powerfully resonant voice of South Africa’s anti-apartheid advocate and priest Desmond Tutu was stilled (December 26th 2021), Sri Lanka announced a preposterous rule potentially requiring citizens who marry ‘foreigners’ to obtain security clearance from the Ministry of Defence.
Parameters that defined the apartheid State
There is an awful coincidence in these two happenings, continents apart as they may be. This is exactly how totalitarianism flowers, from seemingly benign rules justified on one ground or another, to greater and even greater arbitrariness holding the citizenry captive. Germany’s Nazi regime and South Africa’s apartheid rule proceeded on much the same lines. In South Africa, a detestable apartheid era law titled the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act, 1949 and the Immorality Amendment Act of 1950 forbade white South Africans to marry or pursue sexual relationships across racial lines. Security clearances were required in exceptional cases.
These parameters defined the apartheid State which Tutu and his compatriots fought against, making him a beloved role model whose influence went far beyond his native land. This was a man who never forgot his roots, even when the highest honour was bestowed on him. Walking through the streets of Soweto a decade (nay, it seems an eon measured by pre-covid-19 realities) ago, I remember South African anti-apartheid campaigners who had fought many battles right up to the Constitutional Court telling me that their cherished ‘moral compass’ would still come to his humble home and sit outside, fanning himself in the heat while he talked with Soweto township residents.
As this column is being written, South Africa closes its week of mourning for Archbishop Desmond Tutu, interring his remains in Cape Town’s St George’s Cathedral even as Table Mountain and the City Hall remained resplendently lit up in purple. This was in celebration of the extraordinary life of one rare clergyman who refused to be constrained even by the rules of the Church, who spoke up for injustice and angrily disowned hypocrisy. His life teaches us a valuable lesson. However much grand thievery, chicanery and dishonesty lie behind the seizing and holding of power, position or title, whether this be a President, Prime Minister, Chief Justice or Chief Prelate, the truth is ‘the best weapon’ in Tutu’s own words.
Preventing money laundering is best done by arresting politicians
So we return to the instant proposals that the State thinks fit to foist on the heads of unfortunate citizens. The same circular requiring defence clearance for foreigners potentially entering into wedded bliss with Sri Lankans also mandates them to submit self-declared health declarations detailing their medical history, chronic diseases, status of infection of covid-19 and vaccination. Of course, the health protocols are of impeccable rationality. In functional governance systems facing global covid-19 emergencies, essential health checks are imposed by Governments on those entering its territories. So why mix these up with security clearances on citizens intending to change their civil status, pray?
The Registrar General’s Department has justified these rules being drafted on the ‘instructions of the Defence Ministry’ on the basis that these are to prevent drug trafficking and money laundering (See; ‘If you wish to marry a foreigner, get Defence Ministry security clearance,’ the Sunday Times, December 26th 2021). But if the intention is that, politicians, businessmen and the police must be investigated in the first instance. Documented links to sordid trails of money laundering and trafficking of all sorts have been exposed by a plethora of local and international investigations.
But no, we have deafening silence on that front, including studied inaction over disclosures in the Panama Papers to the Pandora Papers. Rather, the country’s defence mandarins have hit on the brilliant idea of vetting foreigners marrying Sri Lankans as if that was the easiest way to launder money. Perchance, the issue here is not so much foreigners engaging in such but Sri Lankans themselves luxuriously dabbling in dirty rackets at the highest levels of political power. So why stop at foreigners, why not prescribe Defence Ministry clearances for all citizens, with inevitable escape clauses for political corruptors which is anyway the case now?
Enabling the military to creep into the bedrooms of citizens
In any event, the Sri Lankan polity is now being divided at the speed of lightning into the obscenely rich and the very poor as parliamentarians gallivant overseas while citizens languish in queues fretting and foaming at the mouth, for cooking gas, for milk powder and for fertiliser. So let citizens themselves be divided into those who have got defence clearances and whose who have not, similar to the vaccination certificates which the Army Commander tells people to possess when entering public places. We can then enter upon our dystopian Orwellian nightmare for all the world to see.
On a far more serious note, enabling the military to creep into the bedrooms of Sri Lankan citizens, to borrow from Pierre Trudeau’s famous caution against the state controlling private rights as he pursued the decriminalization of homosexuality in Canada’s legislature, is no chance aberration. This absurd idea by the Sri Lankan Government collapses the State, the Defence Ministry and the health regulator into one, effectively negating any distinction between any one or the other. That is the very intent behind the move, in other words, this is yet another step in the journey towards obliterating civil governance.
Thus proposing army checks of citizens in public places to ascertain if they are carrying vaccination cards and positioning the national apparatus tasked with covid-19 prevention under the command of the military with health specialists given a secondary role, are all par for the course. The Director General of Health Services may assure the Supreme Court that vaccinations are not mandatory in a public interest litigation suit challenging the indiscriminate vaccination of children. But assurances to judges and for that matter, the presence or absence of laws, count for very little in Sri Lanka today. The Army’s prescription issued to citizens that access to public places is contingent upon vaccination, has already buried itself in the public mind.
False comforts and hard months ahead
These are palpable symptoms of a militarised State of which this proposed rule on marriages to foreigners is only a further reflection, albeit a ludicrous one. And there is another twist to the Government’s justifications for bringing this forward. We are told that investigations into the 2019 Easter Sunday attacks on churches and hotels by home grown jihadists has revealed that ‘some parties took advantage of the loopholes in the current common marriage registration procedure.’ The Registrar General apparently believes that the issuance of security clearances will obviate this threat.
But that is no more credible than other explanations. This Government has incurred the very real ire of the Catholic Church for failing to vigorously pursue investigations, to catch the so-called ‘mastermind’ of the attacks and to show discernible progress in bringing justice to the victims. Is it now proceeding to vet marriages to foreigners in the hope that this will deter further terrorist strikes? As Sri Lankans steel themselves for hard days ahead with power cuts and water cuts amidst the dangerous depletion of foreign currency reserves, the State has made no secret of its withdrawal from the fundamental job of ensuring basic necessities. Yet we can comfort ourselves that our security is being ensured with unwanted foreigners being stopped from marrying citizens.
What further soothing lullabies are we destined to hear in the New Year, now inexorably upon us?
( Sunday Times)