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.
In November of 2003, President Kumaratunga suddenly took control of three
key ministries, triggering a serious cohabitation crisis. In January 2004,
the SLFP and the JVP formed a political grouping known as the United Peoples
Freedom Alliance (UPFA). In February, President Kumaratunga dissolved Parliament
and called for fresh elections. In these elections, which took place in
April 2004, the UPFA received 45% of the vote, with the UNP receiving 37%
of the vote. While it did not win enough seats to command a majority in
Parliament, the UPFA was able to form a government and appoint a cabinet
headed by Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse.
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
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 Government 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 negotiation
process in April 2003. At this time, the informal peace process continues
on the ground and both sides continue to observe the February 2002 ceasefire.
In May 2004, the new UPFA government and the LTTE committed themselves
in public and in discussions with the Norwegian facilitators to resuming
the negotiation track.
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 early March
2004, a faction of the LTTE from the east of the country broke off from
the main organization and declared itself an independent body. In April,
the main LTTE largely subdued this factional uprising in fighting that
left up to 30 people dead.
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,
most recently redesignating the group in October of 2003.