Sri Lanka country brief

Overview

Diplomatic ties between Sri Lanka and Australia were officially established in January 1947. In 2017, Australia and Sri Lanka will mark the 70th Anniversary of formal diplomatic relations with a series of events celebrating our contemporary relationship.

Our strong relationship is 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 continues 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. Inaugural Senior Officials’ Talks (SOTs) with Sri Lanka in December 2015 was an important step in building a new architecture to support this expanding relationship.

Then Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop visited Sri Lanka to attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting and associated meetings in Colombo in November 2013. In May 2015 Minister for Immigration and Border Protection Peter Dutton met with the Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and other leaders in Colombo to reaffirm both nations’ commitment to stopping people smuggling.

Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Samaraweera visited Australia in April 2016 to discuss the Sri Lankan Government’s reconciliation and reform agenda and expanding bilateral trade opportunities. Sri Lankan State Minister of Defence Ruwan Wijewardene visited Australia in October 2016 to discuss strategic and defence issues and counter people smuggling cooperation.

Trade and Investment links

Two-way trade is growing strongly at 9.5 per cent year-on-year to $951 million (2015). In 2015, Australia’s investment in Sri Lanka totaled A$47 million. Read the Sri Lanka country fact sheet [PDF 48 KB] for further details.

Commercial opportunities in Sri Lanka are growing. Sri Lanka is strategically located on major shipping routes, adjacent to India, and between China and the Middle East. It has high literacy standards, improving infrastructure, market leadership in a few core industrial sectors and is, for the first time in decades, at peace. English is widely spoken, it ranks well comparably for South Asia in the World Bank’s ease of Doing Business survey and may constitute a gateway for exporters to the Indian market through their bilateral FTA. Major market opportunities for Australia include agribusiness, education, tourism, hospitality and mining.

Sri Lanka is Australia’s 25th largest tourist destination. Australian tourist arrivals in Sri Lanka have grown by 12.7 per cent over the past five years and the number of tourists to Australia from Sri Lanka has also increased by 10.4 per cent per since 2010.

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 6000 Sri Lankan students studying in Australia in 2016.

Twenty-three Australian education providers operate in Sri Lanka. Several Australian universities also have articulation programs where degrees started in Sri Lanka can be completed at an Australian university in Australia. The majority of Australian providers in Sri Lanka offer higher education courses or university preparation courses. Significant opportunities exist to increase collaboration in the technical and vocational education (TVET) sector.

Sri Lanka is participating in the New Colombo Plan (NCP). 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.

Development assistance

More information on Development Assistance to Sri Lanka.

Cooperation on transnational crime

Australia and Sri Lanka cooperate closely to 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 strengthen the Sri Lankan Navy’s existing capability to intercept people smuggling ventures originating in Sri Lankan waters. 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 (UNSCR) 1373 on the prevention and suppression of terrorist acts. The LTTE listing was most recently renewed by the Minister for Foreign Affairs in 2016. Consequently, it remains 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.

In November 2015, the Sri Lankan Government de-listed eight of the 16 diaspora organisations it had banned in March 2014 under UNSCR 1373 for purported links to the LTTE. Eight remaining entities designated under Sri Lanka’s domestic implementation of UNSCR 1373 include a number of Australia-based organisations and individuals. These Sri Lankan listings are separate from Australia’s domestic 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

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).

The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights Investigation on Sri Lanka (OISL) report released in September 2015 found that war crimes and crimes against humanity may have been committed by both sides of the civil conflict between 2002 and 2011.

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.

In October 2015, Australia welcomed the Sri Lankan Government’s commitment to a transitional justice and accountability process at the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) in a consensus resolution co-sponsored by both Sri Lanka and Australia.

Media release: Supporting Reconciliation in Sri Lanka

In June 2016, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Prince Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, commended Sri Lanka for progress made on implementing the resolution, but stressed the importance of continued action, particularly on: land releases in the North and East; transparency in drafting new laws to replace the Prevention of Terrorism Act; release of political detainees; and effective witness protection.

Cooperation in regional and multilateral fora

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

In 2013, Australia passed chairmanship of the Commonwealth to Sri Lanka, which chaired the forum until 2015. Australia was represented by then Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop at Sri Lanka’s hosting of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Colombo in 2013.

Australia and Sri Lanka engage 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 (ARF), which develops 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 major regional forum for South Asia, including Sri Lanka.

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 origin in Australia is estimated at around 130,000. At the time of the 2011 Census, the majority, around 90,000, were of Sinhalese ancestry. Those of Tamil ancestry were estimated to number around 27,000. 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. This large and varied Sri Lankan community contributes significantly to strengthening Australia’s multi-cultural society and economy and are the foundation of our strong people-to-people links.

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 population. Major ethnic groups are 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 alternated 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.

Sri Lanka’s political landscape has changed significantly since the election of President Maithripala Sirisena in January 2015.  President Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe formed a ‘national unity government’ after August 2015 parliamentary elections, comprised of both main political parties. Their political reform agenda includes implementing a national reconciliation package and drafting a new Constitution that incorporates political devolution to the provinces, abolishing the executive presidency.

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

Economic overview

Sri Lanka’s economic prospects have improved considerably since the end of the civil conflict in 2009.

It is on the cusp of becoming an upper-middle income country, with a per capita income of USD 3,912 in 2015. Sri Lanka’s economy grew an average 6.4 percent between 2010-2015, reflecting a peace dividend and a policy thrust towards reconstruction and growth. Sri Lanka’s economy has transitioned from a previously predominantly rural-based agriculture economy towards a more urbanised economy driven by services. In 2015, the service sector accounted for 62.4 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), followed by manufacturing (28.9 percent), and agriculture (8.7 percent). 

Sri Lanka ranked 73rd in the Human Development Index in 2014 and has comfortably surpassed most of the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) targets set for 2015. Strong economic growth in the last decade has led to improved shared prosperity and an important decline in poverty. Extreme poverty remains low, as the $1.90 (PPP 2011) poverty rate fell half a percentage point, from 2.4 to 1.9 percent between 2009/10 and 2012/13. However, moderate poverty remains a challenge. In 2012/13, around 15 percent of the population lived on less than $3.10 per day.

Going forward, sustaining growth will require a strong focus on macroeconomic stability, deregulation, removing barriers to trade, high and sustained investment in infrastructure and human capital, and continued progress in fiscal consolidation and debt reduction.

Last Updated: 17 November 2015