The History of Sri Lanka
Below is a brief history of Sri Lanka. To find information other than history for Sri Lanka then visit
the Sri Lanka Country Page.
Sri Lanka Government
Sri Lanka People
Sri Lanka Geography
Sri Lanka Economy
Sri Lanka Government
Sri Lanka People
Sri Lanka Geography
Sri Lanka Economy
Sri Lanka History
The actual origins of the Sinhalese are shrouded in myth. Most believe they came to Sri Lanka from northern India during the 6th century BC. Buddhism arrived from the subcontinent 300 years later and spread rapidly. Buddhism and a sophisticated system of irrigation became the pillars of classical Sinhalese civilization (200 BC-1200 AD) that flourished in the north-central part of the island. Invasions from southern India, combined with internecine strife, pushed Sinhalese kingdoms southward.
The island's contact with the outside world began early. Roman sailors called the island Taprobane. Arab traders knew it as "Serendip," the root of the word "serendipity." Beginning in 1505, Portuguese traders, in search of cinnamon and other spices, seized the island's coastal areas and spread Catholicism. The Dutch supplanted the Portuguese in 1658. Although the British ejected the Dutch in 1796, Dutch law remains an important part of Sri Lankan jurisprudence. In 1815, the British defeated the king of Kandy, last of the native rulers, and created the Crown Colony of Ceylon. They established a plantation economy based on tea, rubber, and coconuts. In 1931, the British granted Ceylon limited self-rule and a universal franchise. Ceylon became independent on February 4, 1948.
Sri Lankan politics since independence have been strongly democratic. Two major parties, the United National Party (UNP) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), have generally alternated rule.
The UNP ruled first from 1948-56 under three Prime Ministers--D.S. Senanayake, his son Dudley, and Sir John Kotelawala. The SLFP ruled from 1956-65, with a short hiatus in 1960, first under S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike and then, after his assassination in 1959, under his widow, Sirimavo, the world's first female chief executive in modern times. Dudley Senanayake and the UNP returned to power in 1965.
In 1970, Mrs. Bandaranaike again assumed the premiership. A year later, an insurrection by followers of the Maoist "Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna" (JVP, or "People's Liberation Front") broke out. The SLFP government suppressed the revolt and declared a state of emergency that lasted 6 years.
In 1972, Mrs. Bandaranaike's government introduced a new constitution, which changed the country's name from Ceylon to Sri Lanka, declared it a republic, made protection of Buddhism a constitutional principle, and created a weak president appointed by the prime minister. Its economic policies during this period were highly socialist and included the nationalization of large tea and rubber plantations and other private industries.
The UNP, under J.R. Jayewardene, returned to power in 1977. The Jayewardene government opened the economy and, in 1978, introduced a new constitution based on the French model, a key element of which was the creation of a strong executive presidency. J.R. Jayewardene was elected President by Parliament in 1978 and by nationwide election in 1982. In 1982, a national referendum extended the life of Parliament another 6 years.
The UNP's Ranasinghe Premadasa, Prime Minister in the Jayewardene government, narrowly defeated Mrs. Bandaranaike (SLFP) in the 1988 presidential elections. The UNP also won an absolute majority in the 1989 parliamentary elections. Mr. Premadasa was assassinated on May 1, 1993 by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam ("LTTE" or "Tigers"), and was replaced by then-Prime Minister Dingiri Banda Wijetunga, who appointed Ranil Wickremesinghe Prime Minister.
The SLFP, the main party in the People's Alliance (PA) coalition, returned to power in 1994 for the first time in 17 years. The PA won a plurality in the August 1994 parliamentary elections and formed a coalition government with Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga as Prime Minister. Prime Minister Kumaratunga later won the November 1994 presidential elections and appointed her mother (former Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike) to replace her as Prime Minister. President Kumaratunga won re-election to another 6-year term in December 1999. In August 2000, Mrs. Bandaranaike resigned as Prime Minister for health reasons, and Ratnasiri Wickramanayaka was appointed to take her place. In December 2001, the UNP assumed power, led by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe. Chandrika Kumaratunga remains as President. Thus, two politically opposed parties govern Sri Lanka in a delicate cohabitation situation.
Historical divisions continue to have an impact on Sri Lankan society and politics. From independence, the Tamil minority has been uneasy with the country's unitary form of government and apprehensive that the Sinhalese majority would abuse Tamil rights. Those fears were reinforced when S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike triumphed in the 1956 elections after appealing to Sinhalese nationalism. His declaration that Sinhala was the country's official language--an act felt by Tamils to be a denigration of their own tongue--was the first in a series of steps over the following decades that appeared discriminatory to Tamils. Tamils also protested government educational policies and agriculture programs that encouraged Sinhalese farmers from the south to move to newly irrigated lands in the east. The decades following 1956 saw intermittent outbreaks of communal violence and growing radicalization among Tamil groups. By the mid-1970s Tamil politicians were moving from support for federalism to a demand for a separate Tamil state--"Tamil Eelam"--in northern and eastern Sri Lanka, areas of traditional Tamil settlement. In the 1977 elections, the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) won all the seats in Tamil areas on a platform of separatism. Other groups--particularly the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE or Tamil Tigers)--sought an independent state by force.
In 1983, the death of 13 Sinhalese soldiers at the hands of the LTTE unleashed the largest outburst of communal violence in the country's history. Hundreds of Tamils were killed in Colombo and elsewhere, tens of thousands were left homeless, and more than 100,000 fled to south India. The north and east became the scene of bloodshed as security forces attempted to suppress the LTTE and other militant groups. Terrorist incidents occurred in Colombo and other cities. Each side in the conflict accused the other of violating human rights. The conflict assumed an international dimension when the Sri Lankan Government accused India of supporting the Tamil insurgents.
By mid-1987, India intervened in the conflict by air-dropping supplies to prevent what it felt was harsh treatment and starvation of the Tamil population in the Jaffna Peninsula caused by an economic blockade by Colombo. Under a July 29, 1987, accord (the Indo-Lanka Accord) signed by Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and President Jayewardene, the Sri Lankan Government made a number of concessions to Tamil demands, which included devolution of power to the provinces, merger--subject to later referendum--of the northern and eastern provinces, and official status for the Tamil language. India agreed to establish order in the north and east with an Indian Peace-Keeping Force (IPKF) and to cease assisting Tamil insurgents. Militant groups, although initially reluctant, agreed to surrender their arms to the IPKF.
Within weeks, however, the LTTE declared its intent to continue its armed struggle for an independent Tamil Eelam and refused to disarm. The IPKF found itself engaged in a bloody police action against the LTTE. Further complicating the return to peace was a burgeoning Sinhalese insurgency in the south. The JVP, relatively quiescent since the 1971 insurrection, began to reassert itself in 1987. Capitalizing on opposition to the Indo-Lankan Accord in the Sinhalese community, the JVP launched an intimidation campaign against supporters of the accord. Numerous UNP and other government supporters were assassinated. The government, relieved of its security burden by the IPKF in the north and east, intensified its efforts in the south. The JVP was crushed but at a high cost in human lives.
From April 1989 through June 1990, the government engaged in direct communications with the LTTE leadership. In the meantime, fighting between the LTTE and the IPKF escalated in the north. India withdrew the last of its forces from Sri Lanka in early 1990, and fighting between the LTTE and the government resumed. Both the LTTE and government forces committed serious human rights violations. In January 1995, the Sri Lankan Government and the LTTE agreed to a cessation of hostilities as a preliminary step in a government-initiated plan for peace negotiations. After 3 months, however, the LTTE unilaterally resumed hostilities. The government then adopted a policy of military engagement with the Tigers, with government forces liberating Jaffna from LTTE control by mid-1996 and moving against LTTE positions in the northern part of the country called the Vanni. An LTTE counteroffensive begun in October 1999 reversed most government gains and by May 2000 threatened government forces in Jaffna. Heavy fighting continued into 2001.
In December 2001, with the election of a new UNP government, the LTTE and government declared unilateral cease-fires. In February 2002, with Norwegian facilitation, the two sides agreed to a joint cease-fire accord. The peace process has continued apace, affecting Sri Lankans politically, economically, and socially in numerous and overwhelmingly positive ways. After holding six rounds of talks, the LTTE withdrew from the talks in April 2003. Talks appeared likely to recommence in late 2003, but the cohabitation impasse between the President and the Prime Minister intervened and, as of December 2003, talks had not been rescheduled. Although the Norwegian-facilitated negotiations have stalled, the peace process continues on the ground and both sides continue to observe the February 2002 ceasefire.
LTTE violence, including the assassination of approximately 40 Tamil alleged opponents from 2002 through 2003, is largely confined to the north and eastern provinces, which are 6 to 8 hours by road from the capital. Before the advent of the peace process, LTTE-perpetrated terrorist bombings directed against politicians and civilian targets were common in Colombo, Kandy, and elsewhere in the country. In July 2001, an LTTE suicide squad attacked the Bandaranaike International Airport outside of Colombo and destroyed a large number of military and civilian aircraft. In October 1997, the U.S. Government designated the LTTE as a foreign terrorist organization under provisions of the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 and has maintained this designation since then.