Sri Lanka was populated by Sinhalese and Tamils from ca. The 500’s before our time calculation. Several different Buddhist kingdoms were established on the island. In the 16th century, Europeans began to colonize Sri Lanka. First out was Portugal, then the Netherlands and Denmark-Norway, without being able to establish themselves. Britain took over as a colonial power in the late 18th century, and from 1815 to 1848 Sri Lanka was a British colony. Since 1948, the country has been an independent state within the Commonwealth of Nations.
With the British came the Indian Tamils to Sri Lanka, as plantation workers from India. This marked the beginning of a protracted conflict between the Sinhalese and the Tamils, which in the 1980s led to civil war. The war ended in 2009 after the government defeated the Tamil Tigers (LTTE).
Sri Lanka has been known by many names over the years. The Indians called the island Tamraparni which in Greek became Taprobane, probably because they obtained copper (tamra) there. The Tamil people talked about the “pearl island”, the Chinese about “the land without sorrow” and Arab merchants about “the island of joy” (Serendib). See abbreviationfinder for geography, history, society, politics, and economy of Sri Lanka.
In ancient times, the island of Singhala was named after a legend of a princess from the land of the Vangas (Bengal, Northern India) who had twins with a lion (singha). These married and had their son Vijaya, the first king in Sri Lanka.
Singhala was transformed by the Portuguese into Ceylon, a name in use until 1972, when the country was given the name Sri Lanka. In Indian tradition, Lanka was a kingdom in the south where Ravana (see Ramayana) ruled. The national symbol is still a lion.
- COUNTRYAAH.COM: Provides latest population data about Sri Lanka. Lists by Year from 1950 to 2020. Also includes major cities by population.
The Sinhalese came from northern India from the 5th century BCE. and settled in Sri Lanka. Tamils from southern India also settled in Sri Lanka during this period. With the new settlers, the indigenous people (the woods) were displaced and retreated further and further into the jungle. The country’s new rulers spoke a language akin to Sanskrit.
Buddhism was introduced in the 20th century BCE, according to the tradition of Ashoka’s son Mahinda, and has been the Sinhalese religion ever since. Powerful ruins and remnants of magnificent irrigation systems testify to the high culture of the ancient Sinhalese empire. Anuradhapura, founded in 380 BCE, was the capital just until the 7th century when it was abandoned and sprouted with jungle.
In 1055 King Vijayabahu made Polonnaruwa a new capital. The new town was more central to the island. It also had powerful structures, both Buddhist and Hindu. Around 1500, the country gained yet another new capital, Kandy, in the mountains of the middle of the island, where a petty king had gained power and expanded his kingdom.
At about the same time, the Portuguese came and settled on the west coast with its headquarters in Colombo. Shortly after, the Dutch arrived, and they expelled the Portuguese in 1658. At first the Dutch were greeted as liberators, but quickly became as tyrannical as their predecessors. They controlled most of the island, except for the Kandy area. Other European powers also sought to gain a foothold in Ceylon. Denmark established itself in Trincomalee on the east coast in 1617. In 1618, Admiral Ove Gjedde wanted the king of Kandy to recognize Christian 4 as supreme lord. When this failed, he went to South India where he founded the colony Trankebar.
From the late 18th century the British took over as new colonial lords. By the end of the 18th century, the last king of Ceylon, Sri Wikrama, had set up a regime of terror that did not hold back the colonial powers. This gave the British a pretext to move into Kandy in 1815 to restore order. The pacification of Kandy is among the darkest chapters in British colonial history.
British rule (1815–1948)
When the resistance was broken, a long and peaceful period of development was interrupted by some unrest, such as the uprising in Kandy in 1845, when the peasants protested against the tax burden, and clashes with Muslim traders in 1915. Roads, railways and schools were built. In the 1870s, the coffee plantations were destroyed by mushrooms, and production changed to tea. When this required greater effort, the British introduced plantation workers from southern India. This is how the “Indian Tamils ” came to the country.
The British established large tea and rubber plantations, the introduced economy and the inhabitants had to pay taxes.
A small part of the population had gained voting rights with the new constitution of 1924, and in the 1930s came the first political parties. During World War II, there was a material boom.
In response to the colonial power, a liberation movement emerged demanding independence. The independence movement in India was also an inspiration. India gained its independence in 1947, and the following year (1948) Ceylon became an independent state in the British Commonwealth.
Ceylon became independent in 1948, with dominion status within the British Commonwealth, and with constitution according to British pattern. Ceylon was considered one of the most prosperous countries in Asia by its independence, but was soon characterized by financial problems and bitter strife between the Sinhalese, Buddhist majority and the large Hindu, Tamil-speaking minority. In 1959, the country’s prime minister, socialist Solomon Bandaranaike, was assassinated. The following year, his widow, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, became the world’s first female prime minister.
In the 1960s, there was social and political turmoil, including a failed coup attempt in 1961. Lack of rice caused widespread dissatisfaction with the government. The most important export goods – tea, rubber and coconuts – faced difficulties in the world market. In foreign policy, Ceylon was at the head of a group of Asian countries who wanted to be neutral in the East-West conflict.
In the 1964 election, the government of Bandaranaike suffered defeat and resigned. She was replaced as head of government by Dudley Senanayake of the Conservative United National Party (UNP). After new elections in 1970, Bandaranaike formed a coalition government consisting of the Socialist Party as well as two Ministers from the Trotskyist Communist Party and one from the Moscow-oriented Communist Party.
In April 1971, far-left youths launched a violent revolt against the Bandaranaike government. The rebellion movement Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (People’s Liberation Front), JVP, was defeated after bloody fighting with several thousand killed.
On May 22, 1972, Ceylon was proclaimed a republic under the name of Sri Lanka. The island thus broke its 157-year bond with the British crown, but continued as a member of the British Commonwealth. Throughout the 1970s, economic problems worsened and unemployment reached as much as 25 percent.
In the 1977 election, Bandaranaike suffered a devastating defeat. The right-wing opposition got a two-thirds majority in parliament. Junius Richard Jayewardene became prime minister and took over as president after a new constitution of 1978 gave the president far-reaching powers.
An economic liberalization program based on foreign investment with tax benefits led to significant growth and reduced unemployment, but the country entered a new economic crisis after the conflict between Sinhalese and Tamils erupted sharply in 1983. Work to build a free trade zone for foreign industrial establishments stagnated, and the tourism industry that had grown, experienced a setback.
Civil War (1983–2009)
In the conflict between the Sinhalese people and the Tamils, there were three decisions by the authorities in particular that caused Tamil dissatisfaction: a 1956 decision that Sinhalese should be the only official language (Tamil was granted the “national” language 1978), a 1970 decision on quota restriction for Tamil youth at higher education institutions, and a new law of 1983 that required all MPs to swear a oath of loyalty to a unified and unified Sri Lanka. This recently led the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), which had been the largest opposition party since 1977, to leave parliament. Militant Tamil organizations became increasingly assertive. The biggest was the Tamil Tigers(LTTE) under the leadership of Velupillai Prabhakaran.
Tensions between the ethnic groups broke out in 1983 in riots in which many hundreds of people, mostly Tamils, were killed. State of exception was declared. The Sri Lankan army was greatly expanded and defense spending burdened the country’s economy. India supported Tamil money with weapons and weapons, but also tried to mediate. In July 1987, India and Sri Lanka signed an agreement on extended autonomy for the Tamils in one third of the land area. India sent large troop forces to monitor a ceasefire and disarm the Tamil militia. Militant Tamils were dissatisfied because the agreement did not give them an independent Tamil state, and there was a battle between the Indians and the “liberation tigers” with heavy losses on both sides.
The 1987 peace treaty and the Indian intervention also caused discontent among Sinhalese nationalists, who believed the Tamils were over-granted; Among other things, Tamil was equated as an official language. The JVP movement, which had remained passive since the 1971 uprising, began again its ultranationalist propaganda and guerrillas against the Jayewardene government. In the fall of 1989, JVP was crushed by a massive offensive on the part of the security forces. The conflict was very bloody and is believed to have cost more than 25,000 people. The conflict between Tamils and Sinhalese was further intensified in the 1990s, and serious abuses were perpetrated by both parties.
Ranasinghe Premadasa, who had been Sri Lankan president since December 1988, was blasted into the air by a suicide bomber on May 1, 1993. Similar terrorist actions followed, including the use of car bombs that killed over 150 people in Colombo.
After 17 years in power, the UNP lost the majority in the parliamentary elections in August 1994. The People’s Alliance (PA), a leftist coalition led by Chandrika Kumaratunga, came to power. Kumaratunga also won the presidential election with 62 percent of the vote three months later. She left the prime minister’s post to her mother, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, who thus became the governor for the third time. Opposition candidate Gamini Dissanayake from UNP was killed by a suicide bomber who also killed 51 others.
Kumaratunga was chosen on a program where a peaceful solution to the bloody conflict with the Tamil tigers, LTTE, was the main issue. In January 1995, the ceasefire was for the first time in four years, and Norway made observers available. Peace talks stopped, and the war continued with increasing intensity. In the fall of 1995, the government army went on a major offensive on the Jaffna Peninsula, which for five years had been controlled and ruled as a kind of Tamil ministry by the LTTE with its own police, tax system and currency.
In December 1995, the city of Jaffna and most of the peninsula was conquered. The “Tigers” continued the war from bases further south. The ban on LTTE was abolished in 1995, but a new ban was proclaimed after the Sinhalese main sanctuary, the Temple of the Tooth, was blown up by suicide activists in January 1998. A key political issue was extended autonomy for Tamils in northern and eastern provinces.
Kumaratunga announced new elections for the December 1999 presidential election and secured a new six-year term. Three days before the election, she was blindfolded by a suicide bomber who killed 21 others. At the December 2001 parliamentary elections, the UNP withdrew the majority. Kumaratunga now had to rule the country with an opposition government and a parliament where her supporters were in the minority. Prime Minister became UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, who won the election on promises of progress in peace talks with LTTE, as well as liberalization of the economy.
In 1999, President Kumaratunga made a formal recommendation to Norway for assistance in finding a peaceful solution, after Norway had previously engaged informally in order to get the warring parties on speaking terms. Parliament representative Erik Solheim was engaged by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in March 2000 as a special envoy to Sri Lanka. However, it was only when Ranil Wickremesinghe became prime minister in 2001 that the process progressed. In February 2002, the government and the LTTE signed a ceasefire agreement indefinitely.
Then followed a more extensive dialogue. Apparent progress towards a compromise solution was made during a round of negotiations in Oslo in December 2002. The parties then agreed that a final solution must be within the framework of a unified Sri Lanka, based on a federal structure. On this occasion, the LTTE stated that it had stated the demand for Tamil Eelam, a separate, independent Tamil state.
The government made promises of far-reaching self-government for Tamils in northeastern regions. However, detailed proposals presented by the parties in early 2003 showed that the distance between them was still very large. The peace process stopped in April 2003, when the LTTE temporarily withdrew from the dialogue. Norway ceased operations in November 2003 after Kumaratunga accused Norway of taking the “Tamil Tigers” party.
At the 2004 parliamentary elections, Kumaratunga’s left-wing Alliance overturned the bourgeois Wickremesinghe government, which had more actively sought to broker peace with the LTTE. The peace process had been met with mistrust and protests from Sinhalese nationalists, especially from the Marxist-oriented JVP and the country’s influential Buddhist movements. In the new government, the president allied with the JVP, a sworn enemy of the LTTE.
Sri Lanka was the country that, after Indonesia, was hit hardest by the tsunami disaster on December 26, 2004. Over 35,000 people lost their lives. The disaster created further tension between the authorities and the LTTE on how to distribute international aid between the Tamil areas and the rest of the country.
The ceasefire agreement, which was signed with Norwegian aid in 2002, was largely complied with for the following four years. It was monitored by a Norwegian-led, Nordic Observatory Corps, Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM). However, after Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar was killed by a sniper in August 2005, a sharp increase in the violence occurred.
In the summer of 2006, more and more serious clashes and abuses were reported. In June 2006, the LTTE was officially condemned as a terrorist organization by the EU, having previously been labeled as terrorists by the United Kingdom and the United States. This created problems for the Observer Corps since the LTTE declared that participants from EU countries Denmark, Sweden and Finland could no longer be considered neutral and therefore had to leave the country. The EU ceasefire observers withdrew in August 2006.
From 2006, the number of clashes between the parties escalated. Hundreds of people were killed. During the same period, many civilians in various parts of Sri Lanka also became victims of terrorist attacks. In the fall of 2006, peace talks were held between the LTTE and the Geneva government, but these failed. In the summer of 2007, hundreds of Tamils were forced to leave the capital Colombo. The government claimed this was for security reasons. The government declared in January 2008 that it withdrew from the peace agreement with the LTTE.
At the beginning of 2009 there were intense fighting operations in the north of Sri Lanka. The government fought to recapture areas LTTE had controlled in recent years. The fighting resulted in great suffering for the civilian population in the area, and many were confined in the fighting areas. In January 2009, government troops annexed the city of Kilinochchi. The city is of great importance to the LTTE, which for ten years had its administrative headquarters there.
In May 2009, the government declared that it had defeated LTTE after the government took over the last LTTE-controlled area northeast of Sri Lanka. Tamil Tigers leader Velupillai Prabhakaran was shot and killed during the fighting as he tried to flee from government forces. In August 2011, the UN released a report claiming that both sides of the conflict were responsible for war crimes. The Sri Lankan authorities were critical of this report.
Development after the Civil War (from 2009)
At the 2010 presidential election, Mahinda Rajapaksa, from the sitting government party Freedom Alliance (UFPA), won a clear victory. A new government was formed after the parliamentary elections in April 2010. The government gained a majority in parliament with support from the SLFP and a number of the smaller parties.
In the 2015 presidential election, opposition candidate Maithripala Sirisena won a surprising victory, and Mahinda Rajapaksa had to step down after sitting for two periods.
Both candidates had originally been allies in the same party, but in 2014 Sirisena announced his candidacy against Rajapaksa which he believed ruled increasingly authoritarian. During the election campaign, a broad coalition mobilized against Rajapaksa.
The run-up to the election was characterized by violence, with several attacks on the opposition.
Sirisena went on to say that he wanted to reduce the power of the presidential office, strengthen the independence of central democratic institutions, secure freedom of the press, reduce living costs and fight corruption.
Parliamentary elections were also held in August 2015. The ruling party consolidated its position in this election, and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s center-right party (UNP) formed government.
The Sri Lankan government recognized for the first time, in June 2016, that around 65,000 people are missing after the country’s 26-year-long civil war. A separate unit was created to investigate what happened to the missing from the Civil War.
The country also partnered with the UN to establish a credible National Investigation Commission to document what happened in the last phase of the civil war. In July 2016, the Government announced its goal for Sri Lanka to be demilitarized by 2018.
In 2017, Sri Lanka was first hit by heavy floods and then drought. The flood was the worst in many years, and more than 200 people lost their lives. About 1.5 million people were directly affected by crops or houses being destroyed.
In the same year, violent clashes broke out between Buddhists and Muslims in southern Sri Lanka. The tension between the Buddhist majority and the Muslim minority had increased as some far-flung Buddhist groups accused Muslims of forcing people to convert to Islam.
In 2017, there were also violent clashes between police and protesters demonstrating against a plan to relocate locals to build a Chinese port facility near the port city of Hambantota.
A constitutional crisis arose in October 2018 due to disagreements between President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremsinghe. The disagreements were related, among other things, to economic policy and ended with President Sirisena dissolving the National Assembly and replacing Prime Minister Ranil Wickremsinghe with former President Mahindra Rajapaksa. The two have, among other things, been very much in disagreement over the government’s plans to lease a port terminal to neighboring India. Political observers believe the political unrest is due to conflicts between political factions that are either pro-India or pro-China.
Already after seven weeks, Rajapaksa resigned as prime minister to try to stabilize the country’s political situation, and Wickremsinghe was re-elected as prime minister.
On April 21 (Easter Sunday), 2019, Sri Lanka was subjected to terrorist attacks. Three churches in different parts of the country were attacked in addition to three Colombo hotels. About 250 people were killed and over 500 injured in the terrorist attacks.