2019-2020 was marked by political turmoil, terrorism, riots, and religiously motivated violence. Government authorities continued to discriminate against religious minorities and did not adequately respond to or prevent religious violence or harassment by non-state actors. (U.S. Department of State, 2020) The government also failed to address alleged war crimes stemming from the civil war between the Sinhalese dominated government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), an ethnic Tamil separatist group, that ended in 2009.

There were continued reports of abuses by security forces and military occupation of thousands of acres of Tamil lands, especially in high security zones in the northeast (Aneez, 2020), while militant Buddhist groups fostered an atmosphere of intolerance and attacked non-Buddhist individuals and religious sites. The constitutional deference for Buddhism further marginalized Tamil Hindus and other minorities, rendering them second-class citizens.

There has also been a rise in Islamist extremism in recent years, highlighted by the Easter bombings on April 21, 2019 of three churches and four hotels that killed more than 250 people and injured over 500 by an ISIS affiliate group, National Thowheed Jamath. (U.S. Department of State, 2020) The terrorist attacks renewed ethnic and religious tensions in the country and led to retaliatory violence on Muslims in several districts in the Northwest of the country in May 12-13, resulting in the demolition of mosques and Muslim properties and the death of one person. The violence allegedly involved radical Buddhist monks and was encouraged by Sinhalese nationalist politicians. The Human Rights Commision of Sri Lanka accused the police of not preventing the violence or prosecuting those involved. (U.S. Department of State, 2020)

The April terrorist attacks helped the election of the Sinhalese nationalist Gotabaya Rajapaksa as the president and the Sri Lanka People’s Front (SLPF) in November 2019. Gotabaya, who was the defense secretary and oversaw the end of the Sri Lankan civil war, also appointed his brother and former president Mahinda Rajapaksa as prime minister. The return of the Rajapaksa brothers to power brought renewed concerns amongst the Tamil Hindu population of an increase in human rights violations, (Freedom House, 2020) and a greater role for Buddhism in governance with the appointment of a Buddhist Advisory Council to regularly meet with and advise the president. (Keenan, 2020)

The Rajapaksa brothers further consolidated their power when their SLPF party easily won a majority in parliamentary elections in August 2020, after running on a campaign of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism thereby defeating “a more liberal, pluralist and tolerant vision of Sri Lanka.” (Keenan, 2020)

History / Background

Sri Lanka’s complex political, religious, and ethno-linguistic dynamics can be traced back thousands of years to this island nation’s early history. The ethnic Sinhalese migrated to the country from northern and/or eastern India in the fifth or sixth century BCE, followed by Tamils from southern India in the third century BCE.  (BBC, 2013) A subsequent influx of Tamils from south India arrived in 1815 as indentured laborers to work in tea, coffee, and coconut plantations. (BBC, 2013)

The south, west, and central regions of the island are primarily inhabited by the Sinhalese, while the Tamils reside in the north, east, and plantations in the central hills. The Sinhalese majority is Buddhist, while most Tamils are Hindus, with Christian and Muslim minorities.

The foundation for the present divide between the primarily Buddhist Sinhalese and Tamil Hindus (and to a lesser extent other minorities) can be found in part in a Sinhala-Buddhist document written in the sixth century CE, known as the Mahavamsa. This historical narrative on Sri Lanka lends credence to the idea that only the Sinhala-Buddhist people are the rightful heirs to the island nation, and religious and ethnic minorities are only “guests,” and has fueled Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism. (Ramachandran, 2018)

British policies that favored the Tamil minority further promoted Sinhala-Buddhist revivalism and nationalism and when the British departed in 1948, power was transferred to the Sinhala majority. Post-independence governments in 1949, 1962, and 1965 stripped hundreds of thousands of Tamils, who worked in plantation estates, of their citizenship. Many of these Tamils were not granted full citizenship rights until 2003. (Ross & Savada, 1990) Similarly, successive governments pursued resettlement policies, bringing Sinhalese from the south and settling them into Tamil areas in the north and east.

Sinhala-Buddhist nationalists came to dominate the government and implemented policies and laws that favored Sinhalas and Buddhism and marginalized the Tamil minority. (BBC, 2013; Ramachandran, 2012) This included refusing to allow Tamil as an administrative language in the Tamil majority northern and eastern regions of the country, leading to Sinhala-Tamil riots in 1958. (BBC, 2013; Ramachandran, 2012) The government continued to marginalize Tamils, and in 1972 accorded Buddhism a privileged status in the country. In response to escalating tensions, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was created in 1976 to promote a separate Tamil homeland in the northeast. (Bajoria, 2009)

In 1983, the “Black July” riots led to the killing of approximately 2,500 Tamils by Sinhala extremists in the aftermath of an LTTE terrorist attack on an army convoy that killed 13 soldiers. (Bajoria, 2009) The widespread violence led thousands of Tamils to flee the country, and many Tamil youth joined the LTTE and other militant groups, ushering in decades of brutal conflict. (BBC, 2013)

The Civil War and Post-Conflict Justice

Tamil militant groups, particularly the LTTE, fought to create an independent state (Tamil Eelam) in the northeast region, utilizing both terrorism and conventional military warfare. The decades-long civil war with the Sinhala-majority government and state sponsored paramilitary groups ended in 2009, with the defeat of the Tamil Tigers. Militant Buddhism was considered a major driving force in fueling and extending the war, and extremist Buddhist monks often undermined attempts to reach peace settlements with the Tamil Tigers. (McGowan, 2012)

The civil war took a heavy toll on this island nation, with nearly 100,000 fatalities in the three decades of conflict. Sri Lanka’s final military offensive against the LTTE in the closing months of the war in 2009 resulted in up to 40,000 civilian deaths, two-thirds of which allegedly occurred in safe zones created by the government. At the same time, the LTTE held over 300,000 Tamil civilians as hostages in the conflict area, shooting those that tried to leave. (Lynch, 2011; McGowan, 2012)

Moreover, the fighting left hundreds of thousands of civilians, primarily Tamils, displaced from their homes. By the end of 2006, an estimated 520,000 civilians were internally displaced, and  there were 300,000 additional displaced at the end of the final battle in 2009. (International Justice Resource Center, 2015) Some estimates put the total number displaced during the war at over one million. (Wesolek & Sydney, 2020)

According to human rights groups and the United Nations, both the government and LTTE were guilty of mass atrocities and war crimes. The systematic recruitment or abduction of young child soldiers, some as young as 12, for instance, was a common practice employed by government forces, pro-government militias, and Tamil militant groups alike.  (Raman, 2006)

Moreover, a large number of Hindu temples and religious institutions were destroyed during the course of the war, many of which have still not been rebuilt. The Department of Hindu Religious and Cultural Affairs has indicated that 1,479 temples were destroyed across the northeast provinces from 1983 to 1990. (Mazumdar, 2017) The Naguleswaram temple, dedicated to the Hindu God Shiva, in the Northern province was first attacked on October 16, 1990 when the Sri Lankan air force dropped two bombs, destroying much of the temple complex. It was attacked again two days later by the air force, this time killing up to 180 pilgrims gathering for a religious ceremony. (Mazumdar, 2017)

Since the end of the war in 2009, Sri Lanka has failed to address gross human rights violations and war crimes allegations. The previous administration under Maithripala Siresena (January 2015 – November 2019) initially agreed to several post-conflict justice and accountability measures under a United Nations Human Rights Commission resolution in 2015, including the creation of a truth commission and a war crimes court. (Freedom House, 2020) In February 2020, however, the Rajapaksa government withdrew from its human rights commitments under the 2015 resolution. (Baumgart, 2020) Additionally those accused of gross human rights violations during the civil war have been given high-level positions in the government, instead of facing accountability for their crimes. (Freedom House, 2020)

Furthermore, the Office of Missing Persons created in 2017 and the Office of Reparations established in 2018, tasked with investigating the cases of more than 20,000 people that disappeared during the civil war and provide legal recourse and compensation to families, ceased providing financial assistance to victims’ families in 2020 under the Rajapaksa regime. (Freedom House, 2020; UNHCHR, 2020; Amnesty International, 2020)

Finally, the government has indicated that it will not provide greater devolution of powers to the Tamil populated Northeastern provinces, contrary to the 13th amendment to the constitution. It has also pushed to consolidate additional power in its hands by introducing the 20th amendment which in effect repeals provisions of the 19th amendment by limiting the independence of Sri Lankan institutions and increasing the power of the executive branch. (UNHCHR, 2020) The passage of the 20th amendment in parliament on October 22, 2020 solidified the position of the president and prime minister (International Commission of Jurists, 2020), and reduced the likelihood of accountability for war crimes during the war and other human rights violations.

Status of Human Rights, 2019-2020

Religious Freedom

Although the Constitution of Sri Lanka provides freedom of religion under Articles 10 and 14, it undermines these protections by according Buddhism “the foremost place” and stating that “it shall be the duty of the State to protect and foster the Buddha Sasana [religion].” (Parliament Secretariat, 2015) This language affords a privileged status to Buddhists and implicitly relegates other religions to an inferior status by demonstrating government preference for one religion over others. This official preference was confirmed by the Supreme Court in 2003, when it ruled that only Buddhism is accorded state protection under the constitution. (U.S. Department of State, 2020)

The Constitution’s deference to Buddhism and state’s official role as the protector of Buddhism has led to the distribution of state largess to Buddhist institutions, shrines, and monks, which are unavailable to other religious communities. (Ramachandran, 2013) President Rajapaksa has given additional power to the Buddhist clergy through the creation of a Buddhist Advisory Council, that advises the president on public affairs of the state. (Keenan, 2020) The elevation of Buddhism in the state’s legal framework and national polity has also contributed to the rise of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism, often resulting in discrimination and violence against religious minorities.

Sinhala Buddhist extremists have been involved in destroying non-Buddhist religious sites and harassing minorities, and have at times operated in direct collaboration with government forces. (Freedom House, 2020; US Department of State, 2020) Buddhist nationalist groups, such as the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), have used social media to spread hate against minorities and promote an exclusivist Sinhala Buddhist identity. (US Department of State, 2020) The assertion of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism has further led to “cultural and demographic Sinhalisation” in historic Tamil areas, including Sinhalizing street and village names,  as well as the destruction of Hindu, Christian, and Muslim religious sites.

Tamil sources allege that there have been a series of attacks on Hindu religious sites and priests and the destruction of several temples in the northeast region of the country. (Ramachandran, 2013; Tamil Guardian, 2012) In many instances, Hindu temples have been destroyed under the pretext of development projects or due to their location within a Buddhist sacred zone. (Ramachandran, 2012)

Tamil groups and media reports further contend that the establishment of new Buddhist temples in close proximity to Hindu shrines or destroyed Hindu temples has been explicitly sanctioned by the military and often occurs with its assistance. (U.S. Department of State, 2020)

For instance, in 2013, a Buddhist monk occupied the Neeraviyadi Pillaiyar Hindu Temple in the northern district of Mullaitivu and built a Buddhist shrine on the site. Despite a May 2019 court order prohibiting further use of the temple land by Buddhists, a Buddhist monk and leader of the BBS, Gnanasara Thero, along with a group of followers, cremated the dead body of a Buddhist monk next to the Pillaiyar temple on September 23, 2019. Although Thero was initially jailed for violating the court order, he was later pardoned by former President Maithripala Sirisena and nominated to serve in the Parliament in August 2020. (Ranawana, 2020; U.S. Department of State, 2020)

On July 18, 2020, a Buddhist monk put up a Buddhist flag on the Madasami Hindu Temple in Kanthapallai, and attempted to remove statutes of Hindu Deities from inside. Fortunately, local police and politicians intervened and helped temple officials remove the flag and prevented any further desecration of the temple. (U.S. Department of State, 2020)

Similarly, on July 16, 2019, Hindus were prevented by police and military forces from offering prayers at the site of the Maariyamman Kovil Hindu Temple in Kanniya, where Sinhalese Buddhist extremists were attempting to build a Buddhist temple. Police looked on as Hindus, including priests, were assaulted by Sinhalese Buddhists at the site. On July 18, however, former president Sirisena stepped in and banned further construction of a Buddhist temple there. And on July 22, 2019, the courts intervened to formally stop the construction of the Buddhist temple and allowed the Kovil Hindu temple caretakers to maintain the site and for Hindu worshippers to continue to conduct religious activities at the site. (U.S. Department of State, 2020)

In June 2020, President Rajapaksa created a taskforce to protect the Buddhist heritage of the country in the eastern province, leaving Hindus vulnerable to further appropriation of their temples. (Baumgart, 2020)

At the same time, Christian groups have also preyed on Tamil Hindus, converting them and encroaching upon temple lands, while dominating leadership positions within Tamil political parties. Hindus have also reportedly faced threats from Muslims in the Eastern province. (Balachandran, 2016)

Institutional Violence & Discrimination

The Tamil minority continues to suffer institutional discrimination in employment, education, and political representation, while not having equal access to justice. (Freedom House, 2020)

Despite claims by the previous government that most of the Tamil lands occupied during the war have been returned, the military continues to occupy thousands of acres and has illegally sold off or allowed the encroachment of additional Tamil land. (Freedom House, 2020)

The militarization of the northern and eastern provinces has further led to systematic state repression of the Tamil minority. (Oakland Institute, 2016) The military continues to interfere in the daily lives of Tamils, and are heavily involved in activities including education, tourism, and farming. (Dibbert, 2019)

The ongoing displacement of thousands of Tamils also remains a major unresolved issue. According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, “Many people have been living in displacement…since the end of Sri Lanka’s 30-year civil war in 2009, during which more than a million people were displaced. At the end of 2018, Sri Lanka had 37,000 IDPs living in displacement as a result of conflict and violence.” (Wesolek & Sydney, 2020)

Conclusion and Recommendations

After coming to power on a platform of change and reform, the Sirisena government failed to address a number of outstanding human rights issues in Sri Lanka. The country took a further step back in 2019 with the ascension to power of the Rajapaksa brothers, and their party’s parliamentary victory in August 2020. Accordingly, the following are recommendations to the Government of Sri Lanka and the international community to uphold human rights and religious freedom for all its citizens.

Recommendations to the Government of Sri Lanka

HAF calls on the Sri Lankan government to uphold its commitments as outlined in the September 2015 UNHRC resolution to effectively investigate the war crimes committed by all sides during the civil war and establish a truth commission and war crimes court. Similarly, the continued militarization of the north and eastern sections of the country needs to end to build the trust of the minority Tamil population. The number of military personnel operating in these areas must be reduced to only that which is necessary for the security and protection of civilians, and security forces must not be allowed to operate with impunity. Arbitrary arrests and detentions, torture, and interference in the daily lives of Tamil civilians needs to cease, while the government must return occupied lands, and respect freedom of speech and association. Moreover, those civilians still displaced from the war must be resettled and rehabilitated in a timely manner.

It is further incumbent upon the federal government to remove preference for Buddhism from the Constitution, reduce the role of Buddhist clergy in state affairs, and fully devolve political power to the Northern Provincial Council as guaranteed by the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. Finally, the government must confront Sinhala-Buddhist nationalists and do more to protect ethnic and religious minorities and minority places of worship from communal violence and illegal encroachments.

Recommendations to the International Community

The international community, including the United Nations, India, and the US must continue to support human rights and democratic processes in the country, and pressure Sri Lanka to conduct an investigation into the civil war in accordance with the UNHRC resolution in order to achieve political reconciliation and create a stable country. At the same time, the Tamil diaspora must play a constructive role in the rehabilitation of Tamils in Sri Lanka, the welfare of the Tamil minority in particular, and the Sri Lankan state in general.


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Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka

65,610 square kilometers

22,889,201 (July 2020 est.)

Religious Demography
Buddhist (official) 70.2%;
Hindu 12.6%;
Muslim 9.7%;
Roman Catholic 6.1%;
Other Christian 1.3%;
Other 0.05% (2012 est.)

Ethnic Groups
Sinhalese 74.9%;
Tamil 15.4% (Sri Lankan Tamil 11.2%, Indian Tamil 4.2%);
Sri Lankan Moors 9.2%;
Other 0.5% (2012 est.)

Sinhala (official/national language) 74%;
Tamil (national language) 18%;
Other 8%.
Note: English, spoken competently by about 10% of the population, is commonly used in government and is referred to as the link language in the constitution to create a bridge between the Tamil and Sinhalese communities.

Southern Asia, island in the Indian Ocean, south of India. (CIA World Factbook, 2020)