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Country Report: Sri Lanka

Women hold a protest in Mullaitvu, Sri Lanka, demanding the return of those who were disappeared during the war. Photograph: KUMANAN/Kumanan

In 2009, the armed forces of the Sinhalese majority government defeated the Tamil separatists of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The UN estimated that the civil war cost over 80,000 lives. Sri Lanka remains deeply divided ethnically and politically today.

The root causes of the conflict can be traced back to the differential treatment of Sinhalese and Tamils under British colonial rule and then under the Sinhalese dominated government. In 1948, the Ceylon Parliament passed the Ceylon Citizenship Act, which stripped over 700,000 Tamils of their citizenship. 300,000 Indian Tamils were deported to India. In 1956, Parliament passed the Sinhala Only Act, which made Sinhala the only official language. Tamil was finally added as an official language in 1987. In the 1970's the Policy of Standardization discriminated against Tamils in university admissions.

Tamil separatists formed the LTTE in 1983, demanding creation of Tamil Eelam, a separate state for Tamils in the North and East. The 26-year civil war witnessed atrocities by both sides. The LTTE used human shields, recruited child soldiers, and forced girls to blow themselves up in suicide bombings. The Sri Lankan army, under Defense Minister Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his brother President Mahindra Rajapaksa, tortured and murdered civilians suspected of being LTTE supporters. Near the end of the war, government troops shelled areas where Tamils had fled, killing tens of thousands.

Michelle Bachelet, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, has been authorized to collect evidence of war crimes committed in Sri Lanka during the civil war. However, like its predecessors, Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s government refused to cooperate with any accountability. President Rajapaksa marked May 18, the day the war ended, as National War Heroes Day. Many Tamils commemorate the day as Tamils Genocide Day.

Rajapaksa’s regime promoted extremist Sinhala Buddhist nationalism. Tamil Hindu and Muslim minorities continue to face systemic discrimination and police brutality. Muslims were forced to cremate bodies of Muslim Covid-19 victims. Government officials proposed banning Madrasas (religious schools) and the Niqab (face veil). Since 2017, towns such as Digana and Ampara have witnessed anti-Muslim mob violence. Anti-terrorism laws, including the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), have been perverted to arbitrarily target and detain Muslims without charge.

In 2022 the country is going through one of its worst economic crises. It defaulted on a multi-million pound foreign debt payment. Petrol stations ran out of gasoline. Annual inflation hit 70 percent. The crisis sparked mass protests against Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s government. In July 2022, thousands of protesters stormed Sri Lanka's presidential palace and Parliament and ousted both Rajapaksa brothers. Very few Tamils participated in the protests due to a divergence in goals from Sinhalese protestors. Sri Lanka remains ethnically segregated.

Genocide Watch recognizes the discriminatory laws and hate campaigns against Sri Lankan minorities as Stage 3: Discrimination, Stage 5: Organization, stage 6: Polarization, and Stage 8: Persecution. President Rajapaksa’s appointment of polarizing war criminals to his cabinet promoted impunity and Stage 10: Denial.

Genocide Watch recommends the following:

  • Sri Lanka should cooperate with the United Nations Human Rights Commission’s investigation of war crimes during the civil war, and domestic courts should prosecute crimes committed by all sides.

  • Sri Lanka should reform enforcement of its Prevention of Terrorism Act and stop targeting its Muslim population.

  • Future leaders of Sri Lanka should work with the Tamil National Alliance to overcome ethnic divisions.

  • NGOs should focus on local peacebuilding to unite the Sri Lankan people across ethnic divisions.

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