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Sri Lanka

Despite being the oldest democracy in South Asia, Sri Lanka struggles with the unequal treatment of ethnic groups across the country.

Assessed Groups

  • Religion
  • Ethnicity

Sri Lanka is a multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multilingual country. It is the oldest democracy in South Asia. The unequal treatment of ethnic and religious groups across all levels of society presents a significant challenge to the realization of pluralism. For example, the systematic, preferential treatment of the Sinhalese Buddhist population prevents the full participation of all Sri Lankan citizens in the political, economic and social life of the country. This preferential treatment is entrenched in the Constitution, which positions Buddhism as the preferred religion in the country. The country is emerging from a government-imposed ‘victor’s peace’, following a thirty-year civil war. Genuine, meaningful and inclusive reconciliation is still needed in the country to ensure Sri Lanka is able to realize its potential as a peaceful, prosperous and democratic society. This assessment was completed in 2022.

Key Takeaways

National ideologies may be worsening the exclusion of ethno-religious minorities.

The embedded notion that Sri Lanka is sinhadipa, or ‘Island of the Sinhalese’, and dhammadipa, the repository for Buddha’s doctrine, has contributed to a nationalist ideology that prioritizes the status and rights of the Sinhalese Buddhist population.

The establishment of a victor’s peace following the civil war entrenched a majoritarian ethos in politics. In other words, although all parties claim to adopt pluralism, most have governed by prioritizing the majority’s interest. This has left the Tamil and Muslim minorities to feel excluded from policies and initiatives.

Religious freedom is a source of pluralism, but it is under threat.

Sri Lanka ranks high when it comes to religious freedom. This is due to the various personal laws (otherwise known as family or matrimonial laws) specific to different religious communities, which vary amongst Tamils, Sinhalese and Muslims.

This religious pluralism, although not perfect, is under threat. The present government’s attempt to promote the One Country, One Law policy appears to target Muslim personal laws. These reforms represent an exceptional threat to pluralism and could lead to even more anti-pluralistic policies and practices.

A lack of data makes inequalities invisible and erases the past

The widespread masking of inequalities between groups and the erasure of the past have legitimized the systematic marginalization of non-Sinhalese Buddhist populations, and the perpetuation of a democratic security state.

For example, the government has shown an unwillingness to formally address allegations of war crimes thus silencing distinct groups’ experiences.


Embrace opportunity to represent Sri Lanka as a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, multi-religious and multi-cultural society in the new, proposed Constitution

Sri Lanka and its institutions can play a pivotal role in encouraging citizens to embrace pluralism. Sri Lanka proposed to introduce a new Constitution at the 43rd session of the UNCHR in Geneva. There is now an opportunity for this new Constitution to codify the island as multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, multi-religious and multi-cultural.

Incorporate pluralism concepts within educational curricula

Education is critical to equipping learners to engage positively with difference. Pluralism can be integrated into school curriculum as a measure to safeguard the island’s multi-cultural identity.

Strengthen bilingualism for bureaucrats and in public services

As a bilingual country (Sinhala and Tamil), the government can work to strengthen the provision of bilingual public service to the benefit of all its citizens.

Reactivate District Reconciliation Committees (DRCs) to help mitigate ethno-religious tensions

Reactivation of DRCs and subdistrict-level DRCs may promote positive connections across communities. This can have the effect of mitigating ethno-religious tensions and promote conflict resolution at local levels.

Establish a Pluralism and Equal Rights Commission

The report calls for the establishment of a Pluralism and Equal Rights Commission to promote pluralism in society and to work on issues identified in the fundamental rights chapter of the Constitution. The Commission could refer any proposed law to the Supreme Court with its observations on how such laws may promote or hinder pluralism.


Legal Commitments

International Commitments

Average score: 6

While Sri Lanka falls short in upholding international legal standards, the country has ratified all major United Nation (UN) treaties and engages with monitoring bodies. National legislation tends to undermine these commitments and instead utilize them to persecute political opponents. These shortcomings highlight the gaps between international commitments and implementation.

National Commitments

Average score: 6

The Sri Lankan Constitution recognizes the state’s plural nature. This commitment has been upheld in the national legal framework, by incorporating traditional Sinhala and Tamil practices and statutes. Despite such provisions, the Constitution hints at a hierarchy of religion and language. Per the Constitution, Sri Lanka’s first official language is Sinhala and Buddhism occupies a privileged position.

Inclusive Citizenship

Average score: 8

Although the law makes no distinction between citizens of Sri Lanka, this is not the experience in practice. There is a sense among minorities that being Sinhalese Buddhist trumps being Sri Lankan, due to the privileges afforded to them. Additionally, between 1948-1988, citizenship rights were routinely denied to Tamils. Although this was reversed, Tamils’ living conditions remain negatively affected.


Policy Implemntation

Average score: 6

Policies that prioritize the majority community and policies of ethno-nationalist populism undermine Sri Lanka’s efforts for pluralism. There is limited access to government services in the two official languages. Most services operate in Sinhala, and Tamil speakers who are socio-economically marginalized face additional obstacles by not speaking Sinhala. While the law is non-discriminatory, women, especially Muslim women, are impacted by patriarchal policies.

Data Collection

Average score: 5

Sri Lanka’s overall data collection is of commendable quality. Demographic census data provides information on ethnicity and religion, education, migration, etc. Despite this comprehensive data collection, there is a lack of data on group-based inequalities. Additionally, as policies get made on the national level, there is no regard to how they might impact ethno-religious groups.

Claims-making and Contestation

Average score: 6

The right to protest is constitutionally protected in Sri Lanka. While effective claims-making helps legitimize peoples’ concerns, the privileging of the majority group’s concerns also impacts the claims’ outcomes. The government tends to only respond to claims from Sinhalese Buddhists. Claims-making, thus, can lead to minorities feeling a lack of power.

Leadership for Pluralism

Political Parties

Average score: 5

All parties in Sri Lanka embrace pluralism, but some party platforms prioritize the majority group. Tamil parties tend to promote nationalism, while Muslim parties have pushed to reform the country’s political party system. Political corruption is present across all levels of politics, but especially in local and provincial levels. At higher levels of government, dynastic politics (many generations of the same family in politics) has become increasingly common.

News Media: Representation (A)

Average score: 6

Sri Lankan media operates in three languages: Sinhala, Tamil and English, but they often operate in silos, at the expense of pluralism. For example, Sinhala language media focuses on Sinhalese concerns. Tamil media provides space for issues impacting the Tamil community. Finally, English language media tends to be more pluralist, but its reach is limited.

News Media: Prominence of Pluralistic Actors (B)

Average score: 4

Most media promote government narratives that minimize minority grievances and experiences. The media not only furthers majority interests, it also contributes to silencing minority communities. The media also ensures that armed forces are portrayed favorably. This results in minorities feeling unable to criticize the military, despite being disproportionately targeted by them.

Civil Society

Average score: 6

There is considerable pluralism within Sri Lanka’s civil society. Sri Lanka has laws that protect freedom of association and expression, and people are generally accepting of differences. This means that polarization, as in other areas of society, is not so extreme. Although non-governmental organizations and civil society organizations are typically pro-democracy, they are seen as opponents by the government.

Private Sector

Average score: 6

Sri Lanka’s private sector is hardly a vocal supporter of pluralism. There are two general groupings for businesses: large companies and small private businesses. Small private businesses have notably contributed to weakening pluralism. Most small trader establishments tend to hire from their own communities. In turn, this reinforces societal divisions along ethno-religious lines.

Group-based Inequalities


Average score: 6

Sri Lankans value their vote and vote in high numbers. The country holds mainly free and fair polls with all communities having the freedom to vote. Ramped up militarization may prevent some Tamils from voting in the northeast. Despite there being many multi-ethnic parties, it is still difficult to envision a non-Buddhist becoming president.


Average score: 5

Most wealth is accumulated in the Western Province, while rural areas fare worse. For example, Indian Tamils have been disproportionately impacted by economic inequality, as a consequence of the civil war. Additionally, Tamil women are often hired as tea pickers or garment factory workers. They are often exploited and disempowered by low wages.


Average score: 7

Sri Lanka has a comprehensive social welfare program. Whenever social programs are threatened to be cut back or privatized, this leads to widespread protests. Recently, Sri Lanka has allocated more resources towards military spending, with the health sector being the most negatively impacted. Despite this, there is free access to education across the island, although the quality of education is not equal.


Average score: 7

Sri Lankans celebrate all aspects of their culture openly and all major religious festivals are national holidays. However, since the civil war, anti-Muslim rhetoric has increased because Islam has been seen as a threat to the Buddhist majority. In short, while religious minorities are able to celebrate their heritage, this can only be done without offending the majority sentiment.

Access to Justice

Average score: 5

Access to justice is characterized by legal delays, an uneven court system, political interference and corruption at the lower courts levels. Sri Lankan Courts have cemented the privileged position of the Sinhalese Buddhist population and allowed for the discrimination of religious minorities. For example, Muslims are disproportionately impacted and taken into custody for the slightest suspicion.

Intergroup Relations and Belonging

Intergroup Violence

Average score: 5

Nearly every group has experienced intergroup violence in Sri Lanka, following the civil war. Politicians have used intergroup violence to advance their careers and popularity. For the most part, intergroup violence has been stoked by ethno-religious nationalism. Overall, marginalized groups suffer disproportionately when it comes to violence.

Intergroup Trust

Average score: 5

There is low inter-group trust in Sri Lanka. The scarcity of resources has been used to sow discord among Tamils and Muslims. This is most prevalent in the northeast region, where both groups are present. Inter-group trust is also impacted by the Sinhalese, who feel threatened by the large population of Tamils who surround them.

Trust in Institutions

Average score: 5

Corruption has diminished the efficient nature of Sri Lanka’s public institutions. Public sector jobs are increasingly popular, as people see them as opportunities to benefit from corruption. The lack of minority representation in institutions has resulted in them experiencing unequal treatment. Overall, the decay of the island’s public institutions has impacted all, resulting in diminished pluralism.

Inclusion and Acceptance

Average score: 5

Sri Lanka’s religious communities operate in a state of relative freedom. There are two main findings regarding majoritarianism (prioritizing the majority). First, Sinhalese believe it is fine for Buddhism to be provided the foremost place in the Constitution, because they benefit from this. Second, in areas where minorities predominate, they also tend to adopt a majoritarian mindset. This can result in exclusionary treatment to those belonging to other groups.

Shared Ownership of Society

Average score: 5

In Sri Lanka, ethno-religious minorities do not feel that they are an equal part of society. Sri Lanka has reached a point where ethnicity outranks citizenship. Most groups, particularly Muslims and Buddhists, prefer to live among themselves, as opposed to among other groups. Overall, there is a sense of unequal citizenship that impacts all, regardless of class or gender.