Sri Lanka - language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion

Read about Sri Lanka: language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion, agriculture, climate ...


Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka, in full, Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, island republic in the Indian Ocean, lying off the southeastern tip of the Indian subcontinent. The Palk Strait and Gulf of Mannār separate Sri Lanka from India. The Arabian Sea lies to the west, the Bay of Bengal to the northeast, and the Indian Ocean to the south. Colombo, situated on the western coast, is the largest city and the commercial capital of Sri Lanka. The administrative capital is Sri Jayawardenepura (Kotte), located about 16 km (about 10 mi) east of Colombo.

The population of Sri Lanka is about 20 million. Ethnic groups include the Sinhalese, who form the majority of the population, and the Tamils, who form the largest minority group. Agriculture is the largest sector of the economy in terms of employment, but manufacturing generates the majority of export earnings. Sri Lanka has a democratic political system, with a directly elected president as head of state.

Sinhalese and Tamil kingdoms ruled the island now known as Sri Lanka from ancient times until the 1500s, when Europeans established colonial rule. First the Portuguese, then the Dutch, and finally the British colonized the island. The island was a Portuguese colony from 1517 to 1658, a Dutch colony from 1658 to 1796, and a British colony from 1796 to 1948. The British colony, called Ceylon, gained independence in 1948. The newly independent nation retained the name Ceylon until the 1972 constitution renamed it Sri Lanka. Since independence Sri Lanka has maintained a democratic, multiparty system of government. A civil war that erupted in 1983 between the Sinhalese-dominated government and Tamil separatists, who demanded the creation of an independent Tamil nation, appeared to have come to an end in May 2009 when the president of Sri Lanka declared victory over the rebels, known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), and the LTTE said it had “decided to silence its guns.”


The island of Sri Lanka is roughly pear-shaped. The Jaffna Peninsula forms a stemlike extension in the north. The total area of Sri Lanka is 65,610 sq km (25,332 sq mi). The greatest length, from north to south, is 440 km (270 mi). The greatest width, from east to west across the island’s broad southern portion, is 220 km (140 mi). Sri Lanka’s coastline extends a length of about 1,340 km (about 833 mi).

The land of Sri Lanka can be divided into three geographic zones that correspond to elevation: the central highlands, the lowland plains, and the coastal belt. The central highlands include numerous mountains, plateaus, and valleys. Pidurutalagala, the highest point in Sri Lanka, rises 2,524 m (8,281 ft) in the central highlands. In contrast, the elevation of the surrounding plains ranges from 90 m (300 ft) to sea level. The plains are broadest in the north. The coastal belt rises about 30 m (about 100 ft) above sea level. Lagoons, sand beaches, sand dunes, and marshes predominate along the coast, although steep rocky cliffs are found in the northeast and southwest.

Rivers and Lakes in Sri Lanka

The rivers of Sri Lanka originate in the central highlands. From there they descend to the plains and empty into the sea. The rivers are typically unnavigable in their higher reaches, where they flow swiftly and turbulently through highly eroded passages to the plains below. Many rivers descend over steep cliffs, forming spectacular waterfalls. In their lower courses, the rivers slowly meander through flood plains and deltas.

The longest river of Sri Lanka, the Mahaweli, traverses a course of about 330 km (about 205 mi). It flows northeastward across the central highlands and empties into the Bay of Bengal near the port of Trincomalee, on the eastern coast. The country’s second longest river is the Aravi Aru, traversing about 220 km (about 135 mi) on a northwestward course, from the central highlands to the Gulf of Mannār.

Sri Lanka has no natural lakes. Dams on the Mahaweli and other rivers have created large reservoirs. In addition, a series of small reservoirs called tanks dot the north central plains, storing water during the dry season. Some of the tanks were constructed as many as 2,000 years ago.

Climate in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka has a tropical climate with monsoons (large-scale wind systems that reverse direction seasonally). Most temperature variation in the country is determined by elevation rather than season, with cooler temperatures at higher elevations. The average monthly temperature in the lowlands ranges from 26° to 31°C (78° to 87°F) year-round. Temperatures at Nuwara Eliya, situated at an elevation of 1,525 m (5,000 ft) in the central highlands, range from 13°C (55°F) in December to 20°C (70°F) in May.

The monsoons bring two distinct periods of heavy rainfall to Sri Lanka. From May to October the southwest monsoon brings moisture-laden air from the Indian Ocean. From December to March the northeast monsoon brings moisture-laden air from the Bay of Bengal.

These monsoon patterns combine with Sri Lanka’s surface features to create two climatic zones in the country: a wet zone in the southwest and a dry zone in the north and east. The wet zone is inundated with rain during both monsoon seasons, with some rainfall between the monsoons as well. The western slopes of the central highlands are the wettest area of the country, receiving average precipitation of more than 3,810 mm (150 in) each year.

In contrast, the dry zone usually receives rain only during the northeast monsoon. Periods of drought are common during the summer months. This zone has average annual precipitation of less than 1,905 mm (75 in). The driest parts of the zone along the northwestern and southeastern coasts receive about 1,270 mm (about 50 in) of rain each year.

Natural Resources of Sri Lanka

Minerals of commercial value found in Sri Lanka are gemstones, graphite, ilmenite (a mineral sand), limestone, quartz, mica, industrial clays, and salt. The only commercially extractable nonferrous metals are titanium, monazite, and zircon, which are found in beach sands in some coastal areas. Sri Lanka has been known since ancient times for the variety of its precious and semiprecious stones. These include high-value gemstones such as sapphire, ruby, cat’s-eye, topaz, and beryl, as well as semiprecious gemstones such as garnet, moonstone, tourmaline, and feldspar.

Plants and Animals in Sri Lanka

The natural vegetation of Sri Lanka varies according to climatic zone and elevation. Dense evergreen rain forests are found in the southwestern lowlands. Trees include mahogany and many varieties of palm, including coconut, betel, and palmyra. In the central highlands, montane evergreen forests are interspersed with grasslands. The drier evergreen forests in the north and east contain trees such as ebony and satinwood. Thorn forests and drought-resistant shrubs prevail in the driest areas. Along the coast, mangrove forests border lagoons and river estuaries. Screw pines and palm trees also grow in coastal areas. A variety of water hyacinths, ferns, acacias, and orchids are found in many areas.

The animal life of Sri Lanka includes 88 species of mammals, 30 of which are threatened with extinction. The Asian elephant, cheetah, leopard, and several species of monkey are endangered and officially protected. The island’s many species of primates include the long-tailed langur, toque macaque, and slender loris. Other mammals include the sloth bear, several species of deer, mongoose, and wild boar. Reptiles are numerous, with 144 known species. Some are threatened with extinction, including all five of the island’s marine turtle species. Snakes include the cobra, viper, and python.

Sri Lanka has one of the world’s most diverse frog populations, with more than 100 identified species. More than 400 bird species inhabit the island, some on a migratory basis. Many are colorful, tropical species, including the blue magpie, paradise flycatcher, flamingo, and parrot.

Environmental Issues in Sri Lanka

Deforestation is one of the most pressing environmental issues in Sri Lanka. In the 1920s, 49 percent of the island was covered in forest. By 2005, the forest cover had dwindled to about 29.5 percent. Forests have been cut to expand agricultural areas and for fuel and timber. Deforestation has led to soil erosion, landslides, and floods.

Loss of forest habitat is the primary threat to the survival of many animal species. National reserves and sanctuaries, covering about 15 percent of the total land area as of 2007, have been established for the protection of forests and wildlife. Sinharaja Forest Reserve, which protects the island’s last extensive remnant of tropical lowland rain forest, was declared a World Heritage Site in 1988.

Water pollution is also a serious environmental issue in Sri Lanka. Pollutants such as sewage, fertilizers, pesticides, and toxic metals degrade the quality of water available for human consumption. The pollutants also wash out to sea in Sri Lanka’s rivers, damaging marine habitats. The mining of coral reefs for the lime industry has also damaged some marine habitats of Sri Lanka.

The government of Sri Lanka has ratified international agreements pertaining to global warming, desertification, endangered species, hazardous wastes, law of the sea, and wetlands.


Population in Sri Lanka

The population of Sri Lanka is about 21.3 million (2009 estimate), yielding an overall population density of 329 persons per sq km (853 per sq mi). However, the population density is much greater in the southwestern and northern areas, where the majority of Sri Lankans live. The population grew nearly 13 percent from 1990 to 2000, with an increase of about 0.9 percent in 2009. About 79 percent of the population lives in rural areas.

Principal Cities of Sri Lanka

The largest city of Sri Lanka is Colombo, a seaport on the western coast that serves as the country’s commercial capital. About 1.5 million people live in the Colombo municipal area, which includes several contiguous towns and the urban district of Dehiwala-Mount Lavinia. The country’s administrative capital, Sri Jayawardenepura (Kotte), is located on the outskirts of Colombo.

Other important urban areas include Kandy, the capital of a Sinhalese kingdom until it was annexed by the British in 1815; the seaport of Jaffna, on the Jaffna Peninsula in northern Sri Lanka; the seaport of Trincomalee, on the eastern coast; and the seaport of Galle, on the southwestern coast. Jaffna was the country’s second largest city until an ethnic-based civil war erupted in northern Sri Lanka in 1983. The city subsequently lost a significant portion of its population as people fled to escape the violence.

Ethnic Groups in Sri Lanka

The principal ethnic groups in Sri Lanka are the Sinhalese, who form the majority, and the Tamils, who form the largest minority. These two groups tend to be concentrated in different areas of the country, depending on where they settled historically. Their different languages and religions are additional sources of isolation and ethnic tensions, which have existed for centuries. In 1983 these ethnic tensions escalated into a civil war between the Sinhalese-dominated government and Tamil separatists, who demanded that the Northern and Eastern provinces of Sri Lanka be made an independent Tamil nation.

The Sinhalese constitute more than 70 percent of the population. They form an even greater majority in southwestern Sri Lanka, where their population is concentrated. They are descended from people who began to migrate to the island from northern India about 500 BC. They speak a distinct language, Sinhala, and traditionally practice Buddhism.

Tamils made up about 18 percent of the population at the 1991 census. Their proportion of the population has since declined, mostly as a result of immigration to India. Tamils speak a language called Tamil. They traditionally practice Hinduism, although a small percentage are Christians. Tamils originally immigrated to Sri Lanka from southern India. Those known as Sri Lankan Tamils trace their origins to ancient migrations, whereas the so-called Indian Tamils came as migrant workers during the 19th century.

Muslims are considered both an ethnic and religious group in Sri Lanka. They constitute about 8 percent of the population. The great majority are descendants of Arab traders known as Moors who settled in coastal areas from the 700s to the 1400s. They speak a modified version of Tamil that includes many Arabic words. Malayan peoples, whose ancestors came from what is now Indonesia in the 1600s, constitute a small proportion of Sri Lanka’s Muslim population.

Other ethnic groups in Sri Lanka include Burghers, a term used in Sri Lanka for people of mostly European (Dutch and Portuguese) descent, and the indigenous people of the island, commonly known as Veddas. Together, these two groups account for less than 1 percent of the population.

Languages in Sri Lanka

Sinhala and Tamil are the official languages of Sri Lanka. Sinhala, also known as Sinhalese, is an Indo-Aryan language that originated from a mixture of Sanskrit dialects. Tamil is a Dravidian language that originated in southern India. A modified version of Tamil is spoken in some Muslim communities. English, the official language from 1833 to 1958, continues to be widely used and serves as the “link” language between Sinhala and Tamil. In 1958 a law was passed to make Sinhala the only official language, thereby requiring its use in all government matters. Tamils strongly objected to the law on the grounds that it excluded them from fully participating in civil service. The 1978 constitution made Tamil a national language, while Sinhala remained the higher-status official language. A constitutional amendment in 1987 elevated the status of Tamil to an official language.

Religion in Sri Lanka

Buddhism and Hinduism were introduced from India as early as the 3rd century BC. The Sinhalese established Buddhism as the official religion of their kingdoms in Sri Lanka. The Tamils were already Hindus by the time they migrated to the island in significant numbers.

The long coexistence of Buddhism and Hinduism led to some fusion of religious elements. One of the most distinctive traits of religion in Sri Lanka is that Buddhists and Hindus share a common devotion to many of the same sacred sites and entities. All of Sri Lanka’s Buddhist temples, for example, have sections for Hindu deities.

Buddhism is the predominant religion in Sri Lanka. Its adherents, who are mostly Sinhalese, make up about 70 percent of the population. Buddhists in Sri Lanka follow the Theravada tradition, in which the Buddha is revered but not worshiped as a god (in contrast to the Mahayana tradition).

The proportion of Hindus in Sri Lanka declined from about 15 percent in 1980 to about 11 percent in 2000, due to the immigration of many Tamils to India. Muslims and Christians each constitute about 8 percent of the population. During the colonial period, Europeans introduced various Christian denominations, with Roman Catholicism winning the most conversions.

Education in Sri Lanka

Schooling is compulsory for children from 5 to 13 years of age. Education is state funded and offered free of charge at all levels, including the university level. The government also provides free textbooks to schoolchildren. Literacy rates and educational attainment levels rose steadily after Sri Lanka became an independent nation in 1948. The government gave high priority to improving the national education system and access to education. The adult literacy rate now stands at 92 percent. The language of instruction is either Sinhala or Tamil. English is taught as a second language.

Sri Lanka has 13 universities, all of which are public institutions. The largest universities are the University of Colombo (founded in 1921; renamed in 1979), in Colombo; the University of Peradeniya (1942), in Peradeniya, a suburb of Kandy; and the University of Sri Jayewardenepura (1958; renamed in 1978) in Sri Jayewardenepura, just outside Colombo. Other institutions of higher education include medical schools, engineering schools, schools of law, and technical and vocational training schools.

Way of Life in Sri Lanka

Sri Lankans of all ethnic groups and religions are intensely family oriented. Although the nuclear family forms most households, close family ties are maintained with extended family members. Large family reunions are held during traditional festivities such as the Sinhalese and Tamil New Year, which is celebrated in April according to the astrological calendar.

In both Sinhalese and Tamil communities, caste determines social position. Castes are hereditary social groups that define an individual’s unchangeable position in society. Members of different castes do not intermarry. The traditional practice of arranged marriages is still common in Sri Lanka, although individual choice of marriage partner has gained some acceptance.

The status of women has greatly improved in Sri Lanka since 1948, mostly as a result of improved access to education and the resulting increase in female literacy. Today, women are employed in a variety of professions and jobs. Household chores and childcare are considered primarily a woman’s responsibility.

Both traditional and Western styles of dress are common in Sri Lanka. Traditional clothing for both men and women includes long wrap-around cloths that form garments for the lower body. Women’s garments are called sari and redda, and men’s are called sarama or sarong. The redda is often worn with a traditional jacket called hatte, and the sarama is worn with a collarless tunic-style shirt.

The most common food in Sri Lanka is rice mixed with a variety of spicy meat, fish, and vegetarian curries. Rice flour is used to make many other dietary staples, including appa (a crisp crepe), string hoppers (steamed noodles), pittu (a steamed mixture of flour and grated coconut), and a variety of pastries and cakes. Curd (yogurt made from buffalo’s milk) is eaten any time of day, often sweetened with honey or palm syrup. Fruit is commonly served at the end of a meal.

The most popular sport in Sri Lanka is cricket, a legacy of British colonial rule. Cricket is played in both rural and urban areas and by all ethnic groups. The Sri Lankan cricket team is highly ranked internationally.


Sri Lankans have shared a long history with the peoples and cultures of the Indian subcontinent. From ancient times, the proximity of Sri Lanka to the mainland exposed it to many different cultural influences. At the same time, Sri Lanka’s insularity as an island meant that its people modified those influences to create traditions all their own.

Art and Architecture of Sri Lanka

The ancient cities of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa contain some of Sri Lanka’s most renowned architectural treasures. Located in the north central region, these once-resplendent cities served as the capitals of Sinhalese kingdoms from the 300s BC to the AD 1200s. The ancient cities contain the ruins of numerous palaces and Buddhist temples, rock sculptures of the Buddha, and Buddhist memorial mounds called dagobas (stupas).

Some of Sri Lanka’s standing Buddha rock sculptures are colossal in proportion. Among the tallest and best preserved is the Buddha in Aukana, located about 51 km (about 32 mi) southeast of Anuradhapura. A free-standing sculpture hewn from solid rock, it stands 13 m (42 ft) in height, including its carved lotus-petal pedestal. The ruins of Polonnaruwa include the rock temple of Gal Vihara, where a series of four large Buddha sculptures—one standing, two sitting, and one reclining—were cut from a granite ridge in the 1100s. The standing Buddha is 7 m (23 ft) tall, and the reclining Buddha is 14 m (46 ft) long. The rock temple of Isurumuniya Vihara, built in the 200s BC at Anuradhapura, is renowned for its rock carving of two lovers. The temple overlooks the Tissawewa tank, one of three ancient reservoirs in Anuradhapura.

Many of the paintings of the ancient kingdoms have been obliterated by the passage of time. The cave temples of Dambulla, however, contain brilliantly colored wall paintings depicting the arrival of Buddhism in Sri Lanka and other historic events. The frescoes of Sigiriya, a rock fortress built in the AD 400s, depict nonreligious images similar in form to paintings found in the Ajanta Caves in east central India.

Sri Lanka’s many Buddhist relics, sculptures, and temples attest to the importance of the religion in Sri Lanka since ancient times. Among the most revered Buddhist relics are the sacred bo tree at Anuradhapura, dating to the 200s BC when the teachings of the Buddha were introduced, and a tooth believed to be that of the Buddha, enshrined in the Dalada Maligawa (Temple of the Tooth) in Kandy.

The ancient ruins of Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Dambulla, and Kandy have been designated World Heritage Sites by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

Music and Dance in Sri Lanka

The Sri Lankan tradition of folk drama includes the kolam, a masked drama, and the sokari and nadagam, stylized dramas with song and dance. Sinhalese classical dance includes the highly athletic Kandyan form, which originated in the central highlands when the region was part of the kingdom of Kandy from the AD 1500s to 1815. The Kandyan performances include representations in dance of animals and birds, as well as stories from the Ramayana, a Sanskrit epic of ancient India. The dances are accompanied by complex drum rhythms. Tamil classical dance includes bharata natyam, a highly stylized form that originated in southern India. Baila, a style of song and dance introduced by the Portuguese in the 1500s, is widely popular in Sri Lanka.

Literature in Sri Lanka

Early Sinhalese literature was primarily religious. Buddhist monks compiled what are considered the earliest texts of Sri Lanka. The Mahavamsa (Great Chronicle), written in the AD 500s in Pali (the language of Theravada Buddhism), chronicles the rise and fall of successive Sinhalese kingdoms in Sri Lanka, beginning with the legendary colonizer of the island, Prince Vijaya, in the 500s BC.

The development of Sinhala as a vernacular and literary language is well illustrated in the rock fortress of Sigiriya. From the 600s to the 1400s, visitors to the fortress created a wall of Sinhala graffiti, scribbling nearly 1,500 pieces of prose and poetry on a highly polished wall of rock. Poems based on the Jatakas, the stories of the lives of the Buddha, were composed in the Sinhala language from as early as the 1200s.

Poetry flourished as the earliest literary form in the Tamil language. After Sanskrit, Tamil is the oldest literary language of the Indian subcontinent (see Indian Literature). This strong Tamil literary tradition was part of the cultural heritage of Tamils who migrated to Sri Lanka in ancient times. The earliest known Sri Lankan Tamil poet was Eelattu Poothanthevanar, whose poems were included in the Tamil cankam (sangam) poetry anthologies compiled in southern India before 250 AD. A distinctly Sri Lankan Tamil literary tradition first developed in the 1940s with the works of the so-called marumalarchi (renaissance) writers Mahakavi, A. Kandasamy, and Varadar. The poetry of Mahakavi, in particular, helped distinguish the literature of Sri Lankan Tamils from that of Tamils in southern India.

Sri Lankan writers established fiction as a literary form in the 1900s. Martin Wickramasinghe was one of Sri Lanka’s first modern Sinhalese novelists. He authored a trilogy that captured social changes related to the end of colonialism in Sri Lanka. The novels of the trilogy were Gamperaliya (Village Revolution; 1944), Yuganthaya (End of an Era; 1948), and Kaliyugaya (Inauspicious Era; 1957). A large body of modern literature has developed in both the Sinhala and Tamil languages. Writers producing poetry and fiction in English include Jean Arasanayagam, Ann Ranasinghe, and Romesh Gunesekera. Their works examine the effects of ethnic strife and war in people’s lives. Award-winning Canadian writer Michael Ondaatje based his humorous semiautobiographical novel Running in the Family (1982) on his return visit to Sri Lanka, the country of his birth and childhood.

Theater and Film in Sri Lanka

Ediriweera Saratchandra’s Maname (King’s Name), produced in 1956, is considered the first modern drama in the Sinhala language. It was staged in the traditional folk drama style known as nadagam. Political and social themes are often the focus of contemporary dramas. Locally produced motion pictures are exclusively in Sinhala. Tamil-language films are imported from southern India.

Libraries and Museums in Sri Lanka

The Colombo National Museum Library (1877) houses the largest collection of Sri Lankan publications. The Department of National Archives (1902) contains the official records of the Dutch administration (1640-1796), the British administration (1796-1948), and the administrative records of Sri Lanka since independence.

The National Museum of Sri Lanka has its headquarters in Colombo, with branches in Kandy, Ratnapura, Anuradhapura, Galle, and Trincomalee. The national museums house archaeological collections and historical artifacts and documents of Sri Lanka. Archaeological museums are located in Polonnaruwa and Anuradhapura.


Sri Lanka has experienced modest economic growth since independence in 1948. The economy relied on agricultural exports until the 1980s, when export-oriented manufacturing grew in importance. The civil war in Sri Lanka discouraged foreign investment and constrained economic progress beginning in the early 1980s.

The gross domestic product (GDP), the total value of all goods and services produced, has grown at an annual rate of about 3 percent since 1948. The relatively slow growth of the population helped create a greater per capita gain despite the modest growth of the economy. In 2007 annual per capita income was $1,616.50.

In 1977 the government of Sri Lanka launched an economic liberalization program designed to boost the manufacturing sector. The program established special economic zones that attracted foreign investment and promoted export-oriented manufacturing. The program increased exports of manufactured goods such as garments and electronics, while also providing a new source of employment.

In terms of GDP and export earnings, the significance of agriculture relative to manufactured goods declined substantially after 1977. The contribution of agriculture to the country’s GDP declined from 40 percent in 1977 to 11.7 percent in 2007. The contribution of manufacturing rose from 12 percent in 1977 to 16 percent in the late 1980s, where it remained through the 1990s; in 2007 it stood at 18.5 percent. In 2006 manufactured goods generated about 67 percent of export earnings, while food product exports generated about 21 percent.

Labor in Sri Lanka

The total labor force in Sri Lanka increased from 5.8 million in 1991 to 9 million in 2007. During the same period, employment in the agricultural sector declined from 43 percent to 34 percent, while employment in the industrial sector increased from 15 percent to 23 percent. Other sectors, including services, accounted for the remainder of employment. The unemployment rate stood at 14.7 percent in 1991. In 2007 6 percent of the workforce was unemployed.

Labor unions were first established in Sri Lanka in the late 1800s. After the end of World War II in 1945, a large proportion of the labor force was unionized. Since the economic liberalization of the late 1970s, however, labor unions have lost membership and bargaining power. Most trade unions in Sri Lanka are affiliated with political parties. There are nearly 1,500 registered trade unions with a combined membership of about 250,000.

Agriculture of Sri Lanka

Tea, rubber, and coconut are the chief export-oriented commercial crops. Rice and a variety of tropical vegetable and fruits are grown primarily for domestic consumption. A variety of spices also are cultivated, including chilies, cinnamon, cardamom, pepper, cloves, and nutmeg.

Commercial crops are cultivated both in large plantations with hired labor and in owner-operated smallholdings. In the 1990s most government-owned plantations were put under the management of private companies. Among the commercial crops, the largest production of tea comes from the central highland regions. Rubber cultivation is concentrated mainly in the southwestern and western wet zone of the island. While the coconut palm grows in most of the coastal regions, its highest concentration is in the lowlands of northwestern Sri Lanka.

About 30 percent of the country’s total land area is cultivated, and at least half of the cultivated area is dedicated to the growing of rice. Rice is the staple food and primary subsistence crop in Sri Lanka. The majority of Sri Lanka’s rice is grown in relatively small plots of land. Beginning in the late 1970s, the construction of dams on the Mahaweli River created a reliable supply of water for rice irrigation in the north central dry zone. The amount of land under rice cultivation increased substantially, and Sri Lanka nearly achieved self-sufficiency in the grain. The annual output of rice increased from about 450,000 metric tons in the early 1950s to 3.1 million metric tons in 2007.

Forestry and Fishing in Sri Lanka

A large proportion of Sri Lanka’s remaining forest cover is not considered commercially valuable. Estimates indicate that no more than 20 percent of the remaining forests (including forest plantations) are high- and medium-yield sources of timber. The majority of harvested timber is used as firewood, which most households use for cooking.

Fishing is a traditional industry in Sri Lanka’s coastal waters. Marine fishing accounts for almost 90 percent of the total fish catch. Civil unrest in the country has made some areas of the coast inaccessible to fishing, causing declines in the fishing industry in the 1980s and 1990s.

Mining in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka possesses a variety of economically useful minerals such as gemstones, graphite, ilmenite (a mineral sand), industrial clays, limestone, monazite, salt, titanium, and zircon. Local industries producing ceramics, cement, bricks, glass, and salt are based on extracted minerals. Sri Lanka is a leading exporter of gemstones.

E. Manufacturing in Sri Lanka

In the 1960s and 1970s the government of Sri Lanka pursued an economic policy in accordance with a model called import substitution industrialization. Under this model, the government bought controlling interests in many manufacturing industries. Policies such as import controls favored domestic products.

In 1977 the government embarked on an economic liberalization program to draw foreign investment in export-oriented industries. The program encouraged the private sector to play a dominant role. Free-trade zones, also known as investment promotion zones, were set up to give generous tax concessions to foreign companies. Garments, textiles, and electronics dominate manufacturing in the free-trade zones. About 70 percent of the factory employees are women.

In 1990 the government launched an ambitious privatization program to transfer state-owned industries to the private sector. Privately owned industries now manufacture such products as steel, fertilizers, rubber, and cement.

Tourism of Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka’s tropical climate, scenic beaches, and historical sites are prime tourist attractions. By the 1970s, sizeable investments were devoted to the building of infrastructure for the tourism industry, including hotels and resorts. Tourism declined after 1983 as a result of the civil war and related security concerns. As the fighting was confined to a smaller area in the early 2000s, tourism revived to some extent. About 494,000 tourists, mostly from Europe and India, visited Sri Lanka in 2007.

Energy in Sri Lanka

An estimated 47 percent of energy requirements of Sri Lanka are met by noncommercial biomass energy sources. These sources include crop residues such as coconut shells, coconut leaves, and paddy husks. Petroleum provides about 30 percent of the country’s total energy needs, and hydroelectricity provides about 23 percent. Since the early 1980s, the construction of dams on the Mahaweli has made a significant contribution to the hydroelectric power capacity. The dams generate about one-half of the country’s total output of hydroelectric power. Sri Lanka has experienced periodic power shortages since 1994. The immediate cause of the energy crisis was low reservoir levels due to the failure of monsoons to bring adequate rainfall.

Transportation in Sri Lanka

Road transportation accounts for about 93 percent of the land transportation in Sri Lanka. The country has about 97,286 km (60,451 mi) of roads. The road density is highest in the southwest, especially in the area around Colombo. Buses are the principal mode of public transportation.

Sri Lanka Railways operates the country’s railroad network, which includes about 1,450 km (about 900 mi) of track. Colombo is the node of the network, and train routes connect the main cities of all nine provinces in the country. The railroads were developed during the British colonial period, with the first line from Colombo to Kandy opening in 1867.

Sri Lanka has three deep-water ports, at Colombo, Galle, and Trincomalee. Colombo handles the highest volume of cargo, followed by Galle.

Sri Lankan Airlines is the national airline. Founded in 1979 as Air Lanka, the airline changed its name when it came under partial foreign ownership in 1998. Bandaranaike International Airport, the country’s only international airport, is located in Katunayaka 35 km (22 mi) north of Colombo.

Communications in Sri Lanka

In Sri Lanka there are 63 fixed-access telephones for every 1,000 people, well below the world average of 100 telephones per 1,000 people. The state sector provides fixed-line telephone services. Private companies provide cellular telephone services. The wireless cellular network has helped alleviate the inadequate capacity of the wire-based network. Internet access is increasing, with several Internet service providers (ISPs) competing to provide connectivity.

Radio is a popular instrument of mass communication in Sri Lanka. There are about 211 radio receivers per 1,000 people. Of eight radio stations operating in the country, three are government controlled. Television was introduced in Sri Lanka in 1979. Initially the government was the only service provider. Four independent television networks now broadcast in the country. The government-owned network broadcasts on two channels. There are 108 television sets per 1,000 people.

Nine daily newspapers are published in Sri Lanka. They have a combined circulation of 530,000. A government-owned newspaper-publishing group publishes the English-language Daily News, the Sinhala-language Dinamina, and several other newspapers. All other newspapers are under private, independent ownership.

Foreign Trade in Sri Lanka

In 2001 the United States was the largest purchaser of Sri Lanka’s exports, accounting for approximately 64 percent of the total value, while the European Union (EU) accounted for about 30 percent. Manufactured goods made up 67.4 percent of Sri Lanka’s total exports in 2006. When the government of Sri Lanka began to promote export-oriented manufacturing in 1977, manufactured products accounted for only 14 percent of total exports. Textiles and garments became the most significant single category of exports by 1986.

Asian countries are the main exporter of goods to Sri Lanka. Together they provide about 55 percent of Sri Lanka’s total imports. The largest volume of imports comes from India. The principal imports are rice, wheat, sugar, petroleum, and fertilizer.

Currency and Banking of Sri Lanka

The monetary unit in Sri Lanka is the rupee, which consists of 100 cents (110.6 rupees equal U.S.$1; 2007 average). The Central Bank of Sri Lanka, the sole bank of issue, also acts as a financial adviser to the government and administers monetary policy. The two state-owned banks, Bank of Ceylon and People’s Bank, dominate the banking system.


Sri Lanka is a sovereign nation within the Commonwealth of Nations. Upon gaining independence from Britain in 1948, Sri Lanka (then known as Ceylon) became a dominion within the British Commonwealth of Nations, a loose alliance of mostly former British colonies. The head of state was formally the British monarch, represented by a governor general.

In 1972 the country adopted a new constitution that formally changed its name from Ceylon to Sri Lanka and established it as a republic. An appointed president replaced the British monarch as head of state. In 1978 Sri Lanka ratified a new constitution that established the popular election of the president.

For all its years as an independent country, Sri Lanka has had an active multiparty system, democratically elected governments, and peaceful transfers of power. Universal adult suffrage has been in place since 1931. The minimum voting age is 18.

Executive of Sri Lanka

The president of Sri Lanka is head of state, chief executive, and commander in chief of the armed forces. The president is directly elected to a six-year term and may serve no more than two terms. The president appoints the prime minister and the cabinet of ministers, all of whom must be members of the legislature.

The president has wide-ranging powers. She or he can dismiss the prime minister or any other minister, dissolve Parliament and call for new parliamentary elections, suspend the sitting of Parliament for a limited period of time, and submit to a national referendum any bill that Parliament has rejected.

Legislature of Sri Lanka

The legislature of Sri Lanka is a unicameral (single-chamber) body called Parliament. It has 225 members; 196 members are directly elected and 29 are appointed from national party lists that are compiled according to which parties won at least 5 percent of the vote. Members serve six-year terms. No term limits are imposed. Members are elected under a modified system of proportional representation. The prime minister is traditionally the leader of the political party that obtains a majority of seats in Parliament. If no party gains a majority, a member of Parliament who obtains the support of a majority of members may be appointed prime minister.

Judiciary in Sri Lanka

The judicial system of Sri Lanka includes a Supreme Court, Court of Appeal, High Court, magistrates courts, and primary courts. The Supreme Court is the highest court. It is comprised of seven judges, including a chief justice. The president of the republic appoints the justices of the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal. No term limits are imposed for the justices.

Under the 1978 constitution, oversight of the judiciary is provided by a three-member Judicial Commission, comprised of the chief justice of the Supreme Court and two other judges. The commission is responsible for reviewing judicial appointments (except those to the Supreme Court) and protecting the judiciary from political interference.

The laws of Sri Lanka reflect diverse cultural influences. Criminal laws are based primarily on British law. Civil laws are based on Roman-Dutch law. Marriage, divorce, and inheritance laws are communal, based on Tesavalami (Tamil law), Kandyan law (Sinhalese), and Islamic family law.

Local Government of Sri Lanka

For purposes of local government, the country of Sri Lanka is divided into nine provinces: Western Province, Central Province, Southern Province, Northern Province, Eastern Province, North-Western Province, North-Central Province, Uva Province, and Sabaragamuwa Province. The provinces are subdivided into a total of 25 districts.

In 1989 the 13th amendment to the constitution gave more power to the provinces. Provincial councils were established, and elections were held to elect provincial councils in all but the Northern and Eastern provinces, where the civil war continued to be centered. Members of the provincial councils are directly elected to serve five-year terms. The councils possess limited powers in education, health, rural development, social services, agriculture, security, and local taxation. Each province is headed by a governor, who is appointed by the president.

Local government also includes district councils, municipal councils, urban councils, and village-level councils. All local governments have limited powers, and the president of the republic has the power to dissolve them at will.

Political Parties of Sri Lanka

The United National Party (UNP) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) are the country’s two leading political parties. Both parties are democratic socialist in orientation. Since 1948 they have generally alternated in forming governments, often in coalition with other parties. Governing coalitions led by the SLFP have included the United Left Front (ULF), formed in 1968, and the People’s Alliance (PA), formed in 1994. The People’s Alliance was later renamed the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA).

Other prominent political parties in Sri Lanka include the National Heritage Party; the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress; the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), long the foremost Tamil political party; the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP; People’s Liberation Front), a Marxist party with a Sinhalese base of support; the Communist Party of Sri Lanka (CPSL); and Sihala Urumaya (SU; Legacy of Sinhalese), a Sinhalese Buddhist party. The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) is the political arm of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a militant separatist Tamil organization.

Social Services in Sri Lanka

The government of Sri Lanka provides a comprehensive set of social services, including free education, free health care, and income assistance. Through the provision of fully state-funded education, Sri Lanka has achieved an unusually high literacy rate for a developing nation. The state-run health-care system includes a widespread network of health-care facilities that provide basic services free of charge. The health-care system has helped raise the average life expectancy in Sri Lanka. Various income assistance programs over the years have helped address nutritional deficiencies of the poor. An ambitious housing program launched in the 1980s enabled people of low incomes to acquire homes.

Defense of Sri Lanka

Defense spending rose sharply after 1983, when ethnic conflict between the Sinhalese and the Sri Lanka Tamils triggered a protracted civil war in Sri Lanka. In 1982 the government spent U.S.$54 million (3.1 percent of the budget) on national security; in 2000 the expenditure amounted to U.S.$1.1 billion (17 percent of the budget). In 2001 the armed forces comprised an army of 95,000 personnel, a navy of 18,000, and an air force of 10,000. Paramilitary forces include the Ministry of Defense Police, which includes an antiguerrilla security force.

International Organizations in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is a member of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), which also includes India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, the Maldives, and Bhutan. Sri Lanka is also a member of the Commonwealth of Nations and the United Nations (UN).


The first large-scale migrations from the Indian subcontinent to the island now known as Sri Lanka began around 500 BC. Indo-Aryan people migrated from the northern areas of the Indian subcontinent. Over time they became known as the Sinhalese and developed a distinct language, Sinhala, based on the Sanskrit language. Early migrations to the island also took place from south India among Dravidian peoples, who spoke the Tamil language.

The principal source for the early history of Sri Lanka is the Mahavamsa (Great Chronicle), written by Buddhist monks in the 500s AD. It provides a legendary account of the first Sinhalese ruler in the 5th century BC and documents the rise and fall of successive Buddhist kingdoms. Later Sinhalese history is chronicled in the Dipavamsa (Lesser Chronicle), completed in the late 1700s AD. Because the chronicles were written to glorify Buddhism and its royal patrons, they present a relatively one-sided narrative of events.

According to the Mahavamsa, the first ruler of the island was Vijaya, a banished prince from northern India, whose arrival coincided with the parinibbana (passing away) of Gautama Buddha, the founder of Buddhism, in 483 BC. This legend helped establish the powerful belief among the Sinhalese that they were the chosen guardians of Buddhism.

Ancient Kingdoms

In 377 BC the Sinhalese established Anuradhapura as the capital of their kingdom. In 250 BC Sinhalese king Devanampiya Tissa converted to Buddhism during a missionary visit by Mahinda, son of Indian emperor Ashoka. The Sinhalese monarch became a powerful patron of Buddhism, firmly establishing it as the official religion of his kingdom. The art and architecture of Anuradhapura flourished under Buddhist influence and state patronage.

The kingdom prospered under a system of settled agriculture. By the 1st century AD, the Sinhalese had built several large-scale irrigation works that included a complex system of dams, reservoirs, and canals. The irrigation works allowed them to cultivate rice and other crops on a grand scale in the dry north central plains, where Anuradhapura was centered.

Despite recurring invasions from south India, Sinhalese kings held sway over Anuradhapura for several centuries. In the late 900s, however, the Cholas (a Tamil-speaking people from south India) conquered the capital and annexed Rajarata, the agricultural center of the Sinhalese kingdom.

In 1070 Sinhalese king Vijayabahu I drove the Cholas out of Sri Lanka and established a new capital at Polonnaruwa, about 80 km (about 50 mi) southeast of Anuradhapura. The kingdom prospered until about 1200, when it entered a period of decline marked by dynastic succession disputes, social and economic instability, and repeated invasions from south India. When the kingdom finally collapsed in the late 1200s, the Sinhalese abandoned their settlements in the north central plains and migrated to the southwest. In the north, meanwhile, a Tamil kingdom centered at Nallur (near present-day Jaffna) in the Jaffna Peninsula expanded its influence during the 1200s and 1300s.

Foreign Contacts

Sri Lanka was known to seafarers since ancient times. Maps that the Greek astronomer Ptolemy compiled in the 2nd century labeled the island Tabrobane. Arab seafarers called it Serendip. From as early as the 700s, Muslim traders called Moors established coastal trading communities in the island. Muslim communities began to claim a significant share of maritime trade in the Indian Ocean in the 1100s.

From about the 1400s, European maps identified the island as Seylan, which was later anglicized to Ceylon. In the 1500s Portugal and Spain established their dominance in the maritime trade of South and Southeast Asia. In the 1600s the Dutch emerged as the dominant colonial power in the region, followed in the 1700s by the British.

Period of Colonial Rule

When Europeans first came to the island of present-day Sri Lanka in the early 1500s, it was fragmented between three local polities: two Sinhalese kingdoms, centered in Sri Jayawardenepura (Kotte) in the southwest and Kandy in the central highlands, and a Tamil kingdom centered in the Jaffna Peninsula.

Portuguese and Dutch Rule

The Portuguese decided the island of present-day Sri Lanka, which they knew as Ceilao, was strategically important for dominating trade in the Indian Ocean. In 1517 the Portuguese founded a fort and trading post at Colombo. By 1619 they controlled all but the central highlands, where the Kingdom of Kandy successfully thwarted their attempts to seize control. The Portuguese waged a vigorous campaign to convert the people of the island to Roman Catholicism, destroying many Buddhist and Hindu temples. Kandy became a place of refuge for Buddhist monks and others disaffected with Portuguese rule. Roman Catholicism became the most enduring legacy of Portuguese colonial rule.

In the early 1600s the Dutch sought to wrest control of the maritime spice trade from Portugal. With the help of local leaders, the Dutch attacked Portuguese strongholds in the island, winning major victories in 1639 and 1640. The Portuguese surrendered their last stronghold at Jaffna in 1658. The Dutch developed a robust trade in cinnamon. They developed a network of inland canals to transport the cinnamon and other goods to the coastal ports. Like the Portuguese, the Dutch were unsuccessful in gaining control of the Kingdom of Kandy. The Dutch tried with little success to supplant Roman Catholicism with Protestantism. The most enduring legacy of Dutch rule was the development of a well-organized judicial system based in Roman-Dutch law, modified to some extent by Muslim and Tamil customary laws.

British Rule

In 1796 the British expelled the Dutch from the island. Ceylon, as it was known to the British, officially became the first British crown colony in 1802. Following several British military campaigns, the Kingdom of Kandy capitulated to British sovereignty in 1815. Although segments of the Sinhalese population rebelled in 1818 and 1848, the British used their superior military power to ruthlessly suppress the uprisings. The 1848 rebellion forced the colonial government to reassess some of its policies. It repealed some taxes that had alienated Sinhalese farmers and adopted a more conciliatory policy toward Buddhism.

In 1833 the British began to govern the country under a single administration. Previously, the island had been governed under administrative divisions along ethnic and cultural lines. The British also created an economy based on plantation agriculture. The administration took over vast areas of land in the central highlands, sold them cheaply to British nationals, and encouraged the development of large plantations. Tea, rubber, and coconuts became the colony’s principal exports. When local Sinhalese refused to work in the plantations, the colonial administration brought in large numbers of Tamils from southern India to work as migrant laborers.

The indigenous struggle for representative government led to some modest improvements in 1910 and 1924. In 1931 a new constitution established universal adult franchise and allowed significantly more indigenous representation in government. However, the British governor general and British ministers retained control over most matters.

During World War II (1939-1945) Sri Lanka was an important base of operations in the Allied offensive against the Japanese and a major source of rubber, foodstuffs, and other materials vital to the war effort. Negotiations during and after the war between local leaders and British administrators resulted in the Ceylon Independence Act of 1947. Ceylon formally became an independent dominion within the British Commonwealth of Nations on February 4, 1948.

Developments since Independence

The constitution of independent Ceylon was modeled on that of Britain. The nominal head of state was a governor general, who represented the British monarch, but executive authority was exercised by a prime minister and cabinet of ministers who were responsible to the legislature.

First UNP Government

Elections for the first government of independent Ceylon were held in 1947. Upon independence in 1948, Don Stephen Senanayake took office as the country’s first prime minister. Prior to Ceylon’s independence, he brought together leaders of various communities and interests to form the United National Party (UNP). The UNP easily won the 1947 elections. Its general ideology was liberal, pro-Western, and secular (nonreligious). It favored economic progress through private enterprise. Economic power remained in the hands of a small elite of mercantile entrepreneurs and landowners.

When Senanayake died in an accident in 1952, his son Dudley Senanayake succeeded him. A massive civil disobedience movement to protest the reduction of the country’s rice subsidy compelled Senanayake to resign in 1953. His cousin John Kotelawela replaced him as prime minister.

Political opposition was initially provided by two Marxist parties, the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) and the Communist Party of Sri Lanka (CPSL). In 1951 Solomon Bandaranaike, minister of local government, resigned from the cabinet and formed his own party, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). The party was strongly nationalist and socialist. Most importantly, it represented the interests of Sinhalese Buddhists, who formed the majority of the country’s population.

First SLFP Government

The elections of 1956 swept the SLFP to power, and Bandaranaike headed a coalition government called the People’s United Front (Mahajana Eksath Peramuna, or MEP), comprising the SLFP and a section of the LSSP. The new SLFP-led government enacted a number of fundamental reforms in line with its nationalist and socialist platform. Ceylon assumed a neutral and nonaligned position in international affairs, and some industries were nationalized. However, the government’s policies that strongly supported Buddhist and Sinhalese cultural activity also created hostile ethnic relations.

In 1958 the new SLFP-led government passed the Official Language Act, which declared Sinhala the sole official language. The law provoked widespread Tamil opposition. Represented by the Federal Party, the Tamils began a struggle to secure official recognition of their language, Tamil. The struggle inflamed communal dissension, and riots were widespread in 1958. The country was plunged into ethnic turmoil and civil strife, with widespread riots, trade union strikes, and conflicts among Buddhist factions.

In this atmosphere of political unrest, Bandaranaike was assassinated by an extremist Buddhist monk in September 1959. Bandaranaike’s widow, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, replaced him as leader of the SLFP. The July 1960 elections returned the SLFP to power. Bandaranaike became prime minister of Sri Lanka, making her the first female prime minister in the world.

Second SLFP Government

The second SLFP government continued to implement socialist reforms while promoting an even stronger pro-Buddhist policy. To satisfy the Buddhists, all denominational schools, a majority of which were Christian, were nationalized. The use of Sinhalese as the language of government and the courts of law was speedily implemented in 1960. Representatives of the Tamil-speaking minority led mass demonstrations against the government’s language policy. To cope with the situation, the government declared a state of emergency and curtailed Tamil political activity.

Faced with dwindling support, Bandaranaike formed a coalition with the leftist LSSP in 1964. The SLFP’s right wing defected to the opposition, forcing a general election in May 1965. The UNP won a decisive victory, and Dudley Senanayake became prime minister a second time.

Second UNP Government

The new UNP government enjoyed a full five-year term in office. Senanayake pursued a policy of ethnic and religious reconciliation. Tamils were included in the government, and their language was given some official recognition. The government encouraged private enterprise and eliminated restrictions on imports, resulting in some economic growth.

Leading up to the 1970 elections, the SLFP formed the United Left Front (ULF) coalition with the Communist Party of Sri Lanka (CPSL) and the LSSP. The ULF exploited the government’s conciliatory policy toward the Tamils to win Sinhalese allegiance. It also attacked the UNP government’s concessions to domestic and foreign capitalist interests.

Third SLFP-Led Government

In May 1970 the ULF gained a majority in parliament, and Bandaranaike again became prime minister. Claiming a mandate for radical change, the ULF government greatly expanded state control of trade and industry. However, it faced a severe economic crisis caused by balance of payments deficits, rising foreign debts, and an expensive social welfare and food subsidy program.

In April 1971 a radical-left Sinhalese youth movement, the Janatha Vimukhti Peramuna (JVP), staged an insurrection to take over the government. The movement was quickly and ruthlessly suppressed by government forces. After the attempted insurrection, the government moved further left politically. In 1972 the government initiated land reforms with a law that limited the size of privately owned land and nationalized acreage in excess of the limit. In 1975 it amended the law to nationalize foreign-owned plantations. The government maintained a state of emergency until 1977.

Constitutional Change

The government ratified a new constitution in 1972. It changed the name of Ceylon to Sri Lanka, and changed its status from a dominion to a republic. Accordingly, it abolished the position of governor general, made the prime minister head of state, and created the office of president as an appointed position. Bandaranaike continued as prime minister, and William Gopallawa, the last governor general, was appointed president.

The Tamil community objected to the constitution’s lack of protection for the rights of minorities and its elevation of Buddhism to the status of a protected state religion. To represent their interests, Tamils organized the Tamil United Front (renamed the Tamil United Liberation Front, or TULF, in 1976).

Factionalism within the governing ULF coalition tore it apart, first with the expulsion of the LSSP in 1975 and then with the withdrawal of the CPSL in 1977. Lacking a parliamentary majority, Bandaranaike was forced to call general elections for July 1977.

Third UNP Government

The 1977 elections resulted in an overwhelming victory for the UNP, and the party’s leader, Junius Jayewardene, became prime minister. By this time Jayewardene had remade the UNP as a social-democratic party with a new emphasis on state intervention to improve the economy. The TULF campaigned on a new demand for an independent Tamil state. It became the largest opposition party in the legislature.

Constitutional and Economic Changes

In October 1977 the new UNP government amended the constitution to introduce a new presidential system of government. A directly elected president became the country’s most powerful official, and Jayewardene assumed the new office in February 1978. A new constitution adopted in September incorporated the amendment. It also made both Sinhala and Tamil the national languages of Sri Lanka.

The UNP government moved quickly to stimulate the stagnating economy. Sri Lanka became one of the first developing countries to adopt a program of economic liberalization in order to establish a free-market economy, abolishing the model of a state-controlled economy. The sweeping structural reforms ended the state’s monopoly in trade, encouraged foreign investment, and initiated privatization of state enterprises. Helped by high prices for tea in the world market, Sri Lanka entered a period of rapid economic growth. The growth was, however, accompanied by increased income inequalities and inflation.

In the 1982 elections, Jayewardene won a second six-year term as president. The TULF abandoned its separatist policy after negotiations with the government. Many Sri Lankan Tamils continued to support the demand for an independent Tamil nation, however. The Tamil separatist movement included a number of guerrilla groups who used violent tactics to make their demands known. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) emerged as the main Tamil separatist group.

Civil War

In an upsurge of ethnic violence in August 1983, Sinhalese mobs killed more than 300 Tamils and destroyed Tamil properties. More than 100,000 Tamils fled as refugees to the southern Indian state of Tamil Nādu. The LTTE launched a guerrilla war, violently attacking Sinhalese and Muslim civilians, as well as government security forces in northern and eastern Sri Lanka. Government forces responded with violent retribution.

The Indian government became involved in attempts to resolve the conflict. India’s predominantly Tamil southern states provided bases and supplies for the Sri Lankan Tamil guerrillas. By the terms of an agreement between the governments of India and Sri Lanka in July 1987, an Indian peacekeeping force replaced Sri Lankan troops in the Jaffna Peninsula. Other terms of the agreement included the eventual formation of a Tamil autonomous region in the Northern and Eastern provinces.

The JVP and SLFP vehemently opposed the agreement as an abandonment of Sri Lanka’s territorial integrity. Protesting against the deployment of foreign troops in Sri Lanka, the JVP launched a well-orchestrated guerrilla insurgency to destabilize the government. Despite massive disruption by the JVP, presidential elections were held in December 1988. Ranasinghe Premadasa of the UNP won the election by a narrow margin. The government subsequently crushed the JVP insurgency, capturing most of its leadership.

The Indian intervention failed to bring peace, and all Indian troops were withdrawn from Sri Lanka by April 1990. Several major battles were fought between the Sri Lankan army and the LTTE in 1991 and 1992. In May 1993 President Premadasa was assassinated during the annual May Day parade. The government alleged the assassin was a member of LTTE, but the LTTE denied the charge.

In November 1993 LTTE forces seized a government military base in Pooneryn, near Jaffna. Several days later government forces drove the rebel forces back and recovered the base. The fighting was some of the worst between the Sri Lankan government and Tamil guerrillas, with heavy casualties on both sides.

Fourth SLFP-Led Government

Following the assassination of President Premadasa, the incumbent prime minister, Dingiri Banda Wijetunga, took his place with the approval of Parliament. To fill the office of prime minister, Wijetunga appointed the minister for industrial development, Ranil Wickremesinghe of the UNP. Wijetunga then dissolved Parliament and called early legislative elections in August 1994, ahead of the presidential election scheduled for November, in an apparent bid to secure his nomination as the UNP’s presidential candidate. However, a new SLFP-dominated coalition, the People’s Alliance (PA), won a narrow victory in the legislative elections, ending 17 years of UNP dominance. Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, daughter of Solomon and Sirimavo Bandaranaike and leader of the PA, became prime minister. She immediately began unconditional peace talks with the LTTE.

Kumaratunga was selected by the PA to contest the presidential election in 1994. The candidate of the UNP, Gamani Dissanayake, was assassinated just prior to the election by a suspected LTTE suicide bomber. As a result, the government declared a state of emergency and suspended peace talks with the LTTE. Kumaratunga won the election with 62 percent of the vote, thereby securing the presidency for the PA. Kumaratunga appointed her mother as prime minister.

After taking office, Kumaratunga started peace talks with the LTTE. The negotiations soon crumbled, however, and the civil war escalated. By the end of 1995, government forces captured the city of Jaffna, which had been held by the LTTE since 1985. By mid-1996 the government secured control of the entire Jaffna Peninsula, but the LTTE maintained a strong presence there. The LTTE continued to launch guerrilla attacks on government forces in the north, while also conducting numerous suicide bombings in Colombo and other cities that resulted in many civilian casualties.

In October and November 1999, the LTTE inflicted a series of defeats on the Sri Lankan army and regained control over large areas of territory in the north that the army had previously secured. Days before the December 1999 presidential elections, which were being held almost a year ahead of schedule, Kumaratunga was injured in a suicide-bombing assassination attempt attributed to the LTTE. The elections proceeded, and Kumaratunga was reelected to a second six-year term with 51 percent of the vote. In the 2000 legislative elections, the PA won a slim majority in Parliament. Bandaranaike had resigned as prime minister prior to the elections. In her place, Kumaratunga appointed a close confidante, Ratnasiri Wickremanayake, and he retained the premiership after the elections. Meanwhile, fierce fighting continued between government forces and the LTTE guerrillas.

Fourth UNP Government

Faced with a possible no-confidence vote, Kumaratunga dissolved the legislature in October 2001 and called for new elections in December. The elections gave the UNP a majority of seats in the legislature. The leader of the UNP, Ranil Wickremesinghe, became prime minister a second time.

The UNF government proceeded cautiously in establishing a basis for peace talks with the LTTE. Both sides upheld a mutual cease-fire declared in February 2002. The government and the LTTE entered a new round of negotiations in September 2002, with the Norwegian government mediating. Both parties expressed desire for reconciliation and peace. The peace talks broke off in 2003, although the ceasefire remained in place.

Fifth SLFP-Led Government

In parliamentary elections in March 2004, the SLFP-led United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) won 105 of the 225 seats and named Mahinda Rajapakse the prime minister. Although it lacked an absolute majority, the alliance was able to form a coalition. The elections ended the rivalry that had existed when the UNP controlled the legislature and the UPFA controlled the presidency. Because Prime Minister Rajapakse was appointed by Kumaratunga as the leader of the alliance, Kumaratunga was expected to emerge as an even more powerful figure, controlling both the executive and legislative branches of government. However, new complications were created by the strong showing of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the political wing of the LTTE, which won 22 seats in Parliament.

Kumaratunga promised to seek new peace talks with the LTTE rebels. The TNA responded to her overture by saying peace talks should be resumed on the basis of the LTTE’s proposal for self-rule. The LTTE threatened to resume fighting if this proposal did not form the basis for talks. The TNA statement also demanded that the LTTE be recognized as the sole representative of the Tamil minority. In the past Kumaratunga had rejected both ideas. Meanwhile, the LTTE faced its own issues of internal dissent as it fought with a breakaway faction known as the Karuna Group, named for a colonel in the LTTE army who defected.

Tsunami Disaster of 2004

On December 26, 2004, the world’s most powerful earthquake in 40 years struck deep under the Indian Ocean. The magnitude 9.0 earthquake was centered off the northwestern coast of the Indonesian island of Sumatra. The earthquake triggered a tsunami (massive waves), which spread across the Indian Ocean and crashed into the coasts of 14 countries from Southeast Asia to the eastern coast of Africa. Killer waves hit the coast of Sri Lanka about two hours after the quake. Due to the absence of a tsunami early warning system in the Indian Ocean, coastal communities in the region were not forewarned of the impending disaster.

The tsunami was the deadliest in recorded history. The International Committee of the Red Cross reported a death toll of more than 250,000 people as a result of the tsunami and the earthquake. Indonesia, nearest the epicenter of the quake, suffered the largest loss of life. Sri Lanka was the second hardest-hit country, with more than 30,000 people reported dead or missing. High death tolls were also reported in Thailand and India. In addition, millions of survivors were left in desperate need of food, water, shelter, and medical care. International humanitarian organizations and governments responded to the widespread devastation with one of the largest relief efforts in modern history.

Presidential Election of 2005

In the November 2005 presidential election Prime Minister Rajapakse of the SLFP narrowly won the presidency, defeating former prime minister Wickremesinghe of the UNP. Rajapakse campaigned on a platform of economic nationalization and said he would seek to renew peace talks with the LTTE. He promised voters that he would not agree to one of the LTTE’s chief demands, which called for power-sharing in the government. Rajapakse’s campaign drew the support of the Marxist JVP and the nationalist National Heritage Party (JHU), both of which opposed negotiations with the LTTE. His narrow victory in the elections may have been made possible by an unofficial boycott of the election in the Jaffna peninsula, the area with the greatest concentration of ethnic Tamils, where only 1.2 percent of 700,000 registered voters showed up at the polls. The boycott was promoted by Vellupillai Prabhakaran, the founder and leader of the LTTE.

In December, Rajapakse named his new cabinet, which excluded members of the JVP and JHU. Political observers said the move was intended to provoke early parliamentary elections in which Rajapakse hoped to increase the number of seats held by the SLFP and thereby reduce the need for an alliance with the JVP and JHU. Meanwhile, a spokesperson for the LTTE reportedly told international truce monitors that the group was ready to resume peace talks with the new government.

Apparent End of the Civil War

But instead of following through on peace negotiations, the LTTE began ambushing government forces, breaking the ceasefire and angering Rajapakse. The Karuna Group breakaway faction joined with government forces and helped rout the LTTE in the Eastern Province, leaving it with control only in the Northern Province. Then in 2008 government forces broke through rebel lines, and a major offensive began. The LTTE lost control of areas in the north that they had dominated for decades. In May 2009 Rajapakse declared victory over the LTTE. Sri Lanka’s military commanders reported the deaths of Prabhakaran and four other top-level LTTE leaders, including Prabhakaran’s eldest son. The government said that for the first time it had cut off LTTE’s access to the sea. Shortly after Rajapakse’s declaration of victory, a spokesperson for the LTTE posted a statement to the rebel group’s Web site that said, “This battle has reached its bitter end. We have decided to silence our guns.” Although the statement fell short of outright surrender, the remaining rebels were believed to number only a few hundred and were confined to a tiny area.

The civil war cost an estimated 80,000 to 100,000 lives, including many civilians caught up in the fighting, according to a United Nations (UN) estimate. As many as 7,000 people were killed just in the period from January to May 2009, according to the UN. Human rights groups charged that the government intentionally targeted civilians during the final stages of its offensive, firing artillery shells indiscriminately into predominantly civilian areas. The government countered that the LTTE was using civilians as “human shields.” The military banned journalists from refugee camps and the area around the war zone, making it difficult to assess the charges and countercharges. International relief organizations and the UN estimated that about 280,000 people had been made homeless by the fighting.

Rajapakse reached out to the Tamil minority during his victory speech, but political observers said it remained to be seen whether concrete measures would be taken, including aid to help rebuild the predominantly Tamil provinces ravaged by the civil war. Some Tamil leaders, who had opposed the LTTE, called for the government to implement the 1987 peace accord between the governments of India and Sri Lanka that called for greater autonomy in the predominantly Tamil Northern and Eastern provinces.

© The Globe Encyclopedia. All rights reserved. Distributed by ASThemesWorld