Sri Lanka country brief

Overview

Australia and Sri Lanka share a strong relationship.  A 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 are the foundations of the relationship. We have common interests in security and sustainable development in the Indian Ocean region.

The bilateral relationship continues to strengthen.  We share strategic interests and increasingly trade and investment opportunities. We engage regularly on a wide range of issues including economic and development cooperation, joint efforts against people smuggling, strong education linkages and on human rights and reconciliation.

We celebrated the 70th Anniversary of formal diplomatic relations in 2017 with an unprecedented series of high level visits. Australia welcomed Sri Lanka’s President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe. Prime Minister Turnbull travelled to Sri Lanka in November last year.

In April 2017, the Minister for International Development and the Pacific, Senator the Hon Concetta Fierravanti-Wells visited Colombo and Jaffna. The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Julie Bishop, visited in July 2017, and met senior business leaders in key sectors, as well as senior Sri Lankan Government Ministers. 

In November 2017, Australia hosted Senior Officials’ Talks with Sri Lanka to continue our ongoing dialogue and to further implementation on mutual key interests of our bilateral relationship.

Trade and Investment links

Growth in two-way trade is expected to continue strongly following the signing of the Australia – Sri Lanka Trade and Investment Framework Arrangement (TIFA).  Signed during Prime Minister Turnbull’s visit, the TIFA deepens economic cooperation between Australia and Sri Lanka.

Australia and Sri Lanka has established a Joint Trade Committee to strengthen our economic relationship and address market access and investment facilitation issues, making it easier for Sri Lankan and Australian businesses to trade and invest with one another.

Two-way trade and investment between Australian and Sri Lanka passed $1billion in 2017, and is currently at $1.4 billion.  In 2017, Australia’s investment in Sri Lanka totalled A$89 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 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.

Sri Lanka is Australia’s 22nd largest tourist destination.  In the last five years, the annual growth in Australians travelling to Sri Lanka was 10.7 per cent.  The number of tourists to Australia from Sri Lanka has also increased annually by 13.2 per cent per since 2012.  Direct flights, launched in 2017, have seen these figures grown.

Education Links

Education plays a significant role in Australia’s bilateral relationship with Sri Lanka. Many Sri Lankan students opt to study in Australia.  Australia is the second most popular tertiary study destination for Sri Lankans with around 9,500 students studying in Australia in 2017.

Many Australian education providers operate in Sri Lanka. 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.  Several Australian universities also have foundation programs for degrees started in Sri Lanka, which can be then transferred to, and completed in, their Australian campuses.

Sri Lanka is participating in the New Colombo Plan (NCP). Under the 2018 mobility round, Sri Lanka will receive around 226 New Colombo Plan mobility students, more than double the number funded for 2017. The projects covered a range of interest areas: health; agriculture; urban design; IT and law.

Development assistance

More information on Development Assistance to Sri Lanka.

Cooperation on transnational crime

Australia and Sri Lanka cooperate closely to counter transnational crime, including people smuggling.  Under the Memorandum of Understanding on People Smuggling and other Transnational Border Crime (September 2017) and 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, preventing criminals from exploiting gaps in legal frameworks.  We are also members of the Bali Process on People Smuggling, Trafficking in Persons and Related Transnational Crime.

In 2017, Prime Minister Turnbull provided three Australian Stabicraft vessels to the Sri Lankan Coast Guard to boost maritime security, as well as announcing assistance from the Australian Federal Police to reinforce Sri Lanka’s counter-narcotics efforts.  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.

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. The 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

A civil conflict between the government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) affected Sri Lanka from mid-1983 until May 2009.

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. In March 2017, Australia supported a successful HRC resolution to give Sri Lanka another two years to implement their transitional justice and accountability commitmentss.

Cooperation in regional and multilateral fora

Australia and Sri Lanka work together in a number of important regional and global fora, including participating in the Commonwealth.

Australia and Sri Lanka engage through the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) and are active members of the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA). We also work together in the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), 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 major regional forum for South Asia.

Sri Lankan community in Australia

In the 2016 Census, the number of people who identified with Sri Lankan ancestry in Australia was estimated at around 170,000. At the time of the 2016 Census, the majority, around 105,000, were of Sinhalese ancestry. Those of Tamil ancestry were estimated to number around 45,000.  There is also an estimated 20,000 people of Burgher ancestry (predominantly of mixed Dutch, Portuguese, German or British ancestry).

This large and varied Sri Lankan community contributes significantly to strengthening Australia’s multicultural 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. It lies east of the southern tip of the Indian subcontinent, separated by the Palk Strait. The population of Sri Lanka is 21.2 million, with over 2.3 million people living in the capital city of Colombo. Major districts include Gampaha (over 2.2 million people), Kurunegala (over 1.6 million people) and Kandy (over 1.3 million people).

Sri Lanka's official languages are Sinhala and Tamil. English remains widely spoken and used in government. 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 changed significantly with 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 included a national reconciliation package and drafting a new Constitution, incorporating political devolution to the provinces and abolishing the executive presidency.

Economic overview

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

In 2017, Sri Lanka’s GDP per capita was US$3,927. Sri Lanka’s economy grew an average 6.2 per cent between 2012-2017, 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 2016, the service sector accounted for 60.6 per cent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), followed by industry, including manufacturing (30.9 per cent), and agriculture (8.5 per cent).

Sri Lanka ranked 73rd in the Human Development Index in 2016 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 prosperity and a decline in absolute poverty. Recent survey figures found 6.7% of the population fell below the national poverty line, representing a drop of more than 22 percentage points in less than 20 years.

Going forward, sustaining inclusive 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: 4 September 2018