Rebuilding bridges

Saturday, 13 June 2015 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

THE Government this week exhibited its commitment to improving relations with the diaspora communities after handing over 150 dual citizenship certificates to Sri Lankans living abroad. Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera welcomed the Sri Lankans who opted to renew their ties with the country, stating that we had been divided along different lines – ethnic, religious, linguistic, class – for far too long.

The process of obtaining dual citizenship was altered under the previous regime, with former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa heading the interview board set up to determine a candidate’s validity for dual citizenship. However, according to the Foreign Minister, President Maithripala Sirisena has realised the “true value of the diaspora community” and wished to engage with Sri Lankan communities living outside the country.

The new regime believes that the diaspora communities have much to contribute to the country. With the sweeping changes being made within the country as well as its relationship with international communities, it is not inconceivable that the new outlook on dual citizenship will be met with optimism. Instead of isolating the diaspora further, the Government’s plan to welcome their participation should be seen as a positive move towards true and meaningful reconciliation. After years of fostering mistrust and suspicion between the local community and those who’ve sought residency elsewhere, Sri Lanka is finally making constructive moves to end decades of enmity.

The move could potentially encourage Sri Lankans living abroad to get more involved in the post-war Sri Lanka both in terms of politics and the economy. Opening the doors to the diaspora communities could ultimately dispel destructive notions that have taken root within those communities and could also attract direct investment into the country. Furthermore, investment from Sri Lankan stakeholders would ensure that funds are directed to projects of public value – education, healthcare, transport, etc.

However, the goodwill towards those who wish to renew their commitment to Sri Lanka needs to go a few steps further. Although dual citizens retain their voting rights, there is no system through which they can play an active role in the country’s elections other than by presenting themselves physically at a voting booth on the day of the polls. This oversight has rendered hundreds of thousands of Sri Lankans working and living abroad powerless. Even though they are recognised as stakeholders, their power to exercise their rights has been severely limited.

US citizens have the ability to vote from overseas by completing a Federal Post Card Application online and returning it to their local election office after which a blank ballot is sent electronically to the voter. In view of a very large number of Sri Lankan migrant workers and considering their vital contribution to the wellbeing of the nation, measures need to be taken to include them in this process.

Furthermore, according to the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, Sri Lankans holding dual citizenship have been stripped of their right to contest in parliamentary elections; a clause also included in the Constitution of Australia; a country which deals with the integration of a number of foreign communities. According to the Australian Constitution, even the UK is considered a foreign power despite the two countries holding a common nationality at the time it was drawn up. In countries such as Germany, the US and UK, dual citizens are allowed to run for elections under different conditions. In Germany, for example, politicians are allowed to hold dual citizenships with other EU countries or Switzerland. 

In Sri Lanka’s case, politicians have long debated a dual citizen’s loyalty when holding a parliamentary seat or other administrative offices within the Government. Within that frame, an element of hypocrisy lies within the fact that under the current Constitution, those citizens could be trusted with various public administrative roles but are not permitted to become a representative of the people in Parliament.

With the shifting views on the intentions of the diaspora, the Government has certainly taken steps to improving relations with the Sri Lankan communities abroad but need to strengthen this invitation by not only encouraging investment of funds, talent and knowledge but by also empowering them politically as equal citizens.