Sri Lanka country brief

Australia-Sri Lanka Relations


Diplomatic ties between Sri Lanka and Australia date back to 1946 when the Federal Minister for External Affairs recommended to Parliament that Australia be represented by a Commissioner in Ceylon owing to the likelihood of Ceylon being granted independence. Diplomatic ties were officially established with Ceylon in 1947. Our strong bilateral relations are founded on our shared history of cooperation in areas such as education (dating back to the Colombo Plan of the early 1950s), trade and investment, sport, culture and development as well as our links through the Commonwealth. We have common interests in security and sustainable development in the Indian Ocean region.

The bilateral relationship has continued to strengthen and covers a broad range of issues, including economic and development cooperation, joint efforts against people smuggling, strong education linkages and engagement on issues of human rights and reconciliation.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop both visited Sri Lanka to attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, and associated meetings, in Colombo in November 2013. A delegation from the Sri Lankan Parliament visited Australia in June 2014. Sri Lanka’s former External Affairs Minister, Professor G.L. Peiris visited Australia to attend the Indian Ocean Rim Association Council of Ministers Meeting in Perth in October 2014. The Hon Scott Morrison MP visited Sri Lanka in July 2014 as Minister for Immigration.

Trade and Investment links

The bilateral trade and investment relationship has considerable potential for growth. Two-way merchandise trade was A$389 million in 2013-14. The sectors of interest to Australia include agribusiness, food and wine, mining, education and tourism and leisure. Read the Sri Lanka country fact sheet [PDF 48 KB] for further details.

Australia has been a leading partner in Sri Lanka’s plans to revive its dairy sector. Austrade and the Export Finance and Investment Commission (Efic) have helped to develop public sector capacity and demonstrate effective dairy management systems. The growing tourism sector presents opportunities to consolidate and expand our footprint in premium foods and to introduce Australian building technologies to leisure developments.

Sri Lanka is Australia’s 24th largest tourist destination. In 2013/14 there were 64,515 departures to Sri Lanka. Tourism to Sri Lanka has grown by 15.8 per cent over the past five years. Tourism to Australia (from Sri Lanka) is also on the increase. In 2013-14 there were 21,237 short term arrivals, an increase of 5.5 per cent on the previous year.

Education links

Education plays a significant role in Australia’s bilateral relationship with Sri Lanka. Australia is the second most popular tertiary study destination for international students originating from Sri Lanka with around 5,500 Sri Lankan students studying in Australia as of July 2014.

A number of Australian education providers operate in Sri Lanka, including Monash College; Edith Cowan University; University of Southern Queensland; William Angliss Institute; TAFE South Australia; University of Ballarat; and Curtin University of Technology. A number of Australian universities also have articulation programs where, for example, the first two years of a bachelor degree are completed at a Sri Lankan institute and the third year at an Australian university in Australia. The majority of Australian providers in Sri Lanka offer higher education courses or university preparation courses. There is an opportunity for Australia to further strengthen its relationship with Sri Lanka through increased collaboration in the technical and vocational education (TVET) sector.

Sri Lanka is participating in the New Colombo Plan (NCP), which presents opportunities for even closer ties between our two countries. In 2015, a total of seven mobility projects will take place in Sri Lanka under the NCP, involving 54 students. The projects cover a range of interest areas, including architectural design; business culture and innovation in Sri Lanka; and engineering design in the Indo-Pacific.

Although they are quite distinct initiatives, it is important to recall that the NCP name was inspired by the success of the original Colombo Plan and what it represents to Australians and our neighbours.

Development assistance

More information on Development Assistance to Sri Lanka.

Cooperation on transnational crime

Australia recognises that working with regional partners is crucial to combatting transnational crime including people smuggling. Australia and Sri Lanka cooperate closely on counter people smuggling through the Australia-Sri Lanka Joint Working Group on People Smuggling and Other Transnational Crime and the Bali Process on People Smuggling, Trafficking in Persons and Related Transnational Crime.

In 2014, Australia donated two Bay Class vessels to Sri Lanka to operate alongside the Sri Lankan Navy’s existing capability to intercept people smuggling ventures originating in Sri Lankan waters. The vessels have been gifted for the purposes of providing support for border protection, maritime safety and to counter people smuggling. Under the Australia-Sri Lanka Memorandum of Understanding concerning Legal Cooperation against the Smuggling of Migrants (December 2009), Australia and Sri Lanka are working to strengthen people smuggling legislation to prevent criminals exploiting gaps in legal frameworks.

Successive Australian Governments have consistently and strongly opposed all forms of terrorism, including terrorist acts by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). On 21 December 2001, the Minister for Foreign Affairs listed the LTTE in accordance with Australia's obligations under United Nations Security Council Resolution 1373 on the prevention and suppression of terrorist acts.. The LTTE listing was renewed by the Minister for Foreign Affairs in November 2013. Consequently, it is a criminal offence under Australian law to use or deal with assets owned or controlled by the LTTE, or to provide assets to the LTTE, whether directly or indirectly.

On 21 March 2014, the Sri Lankan Government gazetted a list of organisations and individuals it had designated pursuant to Sri Lanka’s implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1373.. The listed entities included a number of Australia-based organisations and individuals. The Sri Lankan listings do not affect Australia’s implementation of UN Security Council sanctions regimes, and do not constrain the freedom of those Australia-based groups or individuals listed to express their views and to operate in Australia in accordance with Australian law.

Human rights and reconciliation

The Australian Government considers that engaging Sri Lanka, not isolating it, is the most effective way to encourage and advance progress on human rights and accountability, the rule of law and democratic governance and to promote reconciliation. Australia regularly engages the Sri Lankan Government on these issues.

Australia is working constructively with the Sri Lankan Government, the Tamil National Alliance and other stakeholders to identify ways to promote human rights and post-conflict reconciliation. We continue to encourage the Sri Lankan Government to give the highest priority to fully implementing its Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) process.

From mid-1983 until May 2009 Sri Lanka was afflicted by a serious civil conflict between the government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Post-conflict the Sri Lankan Government has made some good progress on economic growth, resettlement of internally displaced persons, demining and infrastructure development in the north and east.

Australia has consistently urged the Sri Lankan Government to ensure that all allegations of serious international crimes committed by both sides to the civil conflict are investigated and prosecuted in a transparent and independent manner.

Australia did not to co-sponsor the March 2014 UN Human Rights Council resolution on Sri Lanka as we were not convinced the resolution’s call for a separate, internationally-led investigation into alleged violations of international human rights and humanitarian law, without the support of the Sri Lankan Government, was the best way forward.

Cooperation in regional and multilateral fora

Australia and Sri Lanka work together in a number of important regional and global fora.

In 2013, Australia handed over chairmanship of the Commonwealth to Sri Lanka. Australia was represented by Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop at Sri Lanka’s hosting of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM).

Australia and Sri Lanka engage together through the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) and are both active members of the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA).

We also work together in the ASEAN Regional Forum, which is an important forum for developing regional approaches to transnational security challenges, including disaster relief and cyber security.

Australia is an observer to the South Asian Association of Regional Countries (SAARC), the key regional forum for South Asia.

Sri Lankan community in Australia

Based on the 2011 Census and settlement data of permanent arrivals since the 2011 Census to 1 July 2013, the number of people of Sri Lankan backgrounds in Australia are estimated to number around 123,000. At the time of the 2011 Census, the majority, around 90,000, were estimated to be of Sinhalese ancestry. Those of Tamil ancestry were estimated to number around 27,000. In addition to this number, there was also an estimated 14 000 to 20 000 people of Burgher ancestry (predominantly of mixed Dutch, Portuguese, German or English ancestry) who mostly claim a European rather than Burgher ancestry (in the Census). This large and varied Sri Lankan community contributes significantly to strengthening Australia’s multi-cultural society and in turn further build the strong people-to-people links between our countries.

General information

Geography and demography

Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon) is an island about the size of Tasmania in the Indian Ocean, lying east of the southern tip of the Indian subcontinent from which it is separated by the Palk Strait. The population of Sri Lanka is 20.8 million, with 2.3 million people living in the capital city of Colombo. Major districts include Gampaha (2.2 million people), Kurunegala (1.6 million people) and Kandy (1.3 million people). Sri Lanka's official languages are Sinhala and Tamil, although English is commonly used in government and is spoken competently by about 10 per cent of the Sri Lankan population. The major ethnic groups are the Sinhalese (74 per cent) and Tamils (18 per cent). The major religions in Sri Lanka are Buddhism (69 per cent), Hinduism (15 per cent), Christianity (8 per cent) and Islam (7 per cent). The currency is the Sri Lankan Rupee.

Political overview

Political power in the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka since independence in 1948 has fluctuated between two main political parties – the leftist Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the centre-right United National Party (UNP). The President is directly elected and is Head of State, Head of Government and Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces.

Following Presidential elections on 8 January 2015, Maithripala Sirisena was declared the seventh President of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, with 51.28 per cent of the vote. Sirisena had been Health Minister under the government of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa until he unexpectedly announced his candidacy on 21 November 2014 as a common candidate of a coalition led by the main opposition party, the UNP. Sirisena was formally sworn in on 9 January, along with UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister. Wickremesinghe has been Prime Minister on two former occasions (1993 to 1994; and 2001 to 2004). President Sirisena won the election campaign on a platform of democratic reform, good governance and anti-corruption. He has committed to a 100 day program, following which Parliamentary elections would be held.

Media Release: Statement by Foreign Minister Julie Bishop on election outcomes.

In September 2013 elections were held for the first time for the Northern Provincial Council, since it was first established in 1987 subsequent to the Indo-Lanka Accord. The Tamil National Alliance was successful, winning the elections with an absolute majority. Concerns remain regarding the effective devolution of power to the Council.

Economic overview

Sri Lanka’s economic prospects have improved considerably since the end of the civil conflict in 2009. Economic growth has been steady (over six per cent in 2012 and 2013), but further economic reforms are needed to ensure this continues. Key attractions are a relatively well-educated work force; growing service economy and Sri Lanka’s strategic location on the major east-west sea route. Sri Lanka was a founding member of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and historically has been one of the driving forces for trade liberalisation in the region.

Although Sri Lanka graduated to middle income country status in 2010, there are significant disparities in income, infrastructure and access to basic services across the country. Poverty remains high in some parts of the country. Sri Lanka is nonetheless characterised by high levels of literacy (91 per cent) and life expectancy (75 years) and a low rate of infant mortality (14 per 1,000 live births).

The services sector accounts for almost 60 per cent of GDP. Manufacturing, the fastest-growing sector accounting for almost 30 per cent of GDP, is dominated by the garment industry. The agriculture sector, though decreasing in importance to the economy, nevertheless accounts for around 11 per cent of national output and employs more than one-third of the workforce. The public sector remains large, with the state continuing to dominate in the financial, utilities, health and education sectors.

Last Updated: 4 February 2015