Island in the Indian Ocean, off the southeast coast of India.
Government Sri Lanka is a multiparty democracy, with a president and prime minister ‘dual executive’, similar to that in France. Under its 1978 constitution, the head of state, chief executive and commander-in-chief of the armed forces is the president, directly elected by universal suffrage for six-year terms, with a limit of two terms and voting is by the single transferable vote system. The president appoints and dismisses cabinet ministers, including the prime minister, who leads government business in parliament, and may dissolve parliament. The parliament or legislature is the single-chamber National State Assembly. It comprises 225 members, directly elected for six-year terms by proportional representation: 196 from multi-member constituencies and 29 on the basis of parties' national share of the vote. A two-thirds parliamentary majority, followed by approval in a national referendum, is required to alter the constitution. The president may be removed from office by a two-thirds vote of parliament and the agreement of the supreme court. There are nine provinces, each administered by a directly-elected provincial council. In the Tamil-dominated north, power is devolved to an elected provincial council.
History The aboriginal people, the Vedda (of which only 2000 remained in 1995), were conquered about 550 BC by the Sinhalese from India under their first king, Vijaya. In the 3rd century BC the island became a centre of Buddhism. The spice trade brought Arabs, who called the island Serendip, and Europeans, who called it Ceylon. Portugal established settlements in 1505, taken over by the Netherlands in 1658, and by Britain in 1796. Ceylon was ceded to Britain in 1802 and became a crown colony.
Sinhalese/Tamil conflict Under British rule Tamils (originally from south India but long settled in the north and east) took up English education and progressed rapidly in administrative careers. Many more Tamils immigrated to work on new tea and rubber plantations in central Sri Lanka. Conflicts between the Sinhalese majority and the Tamils surfaced during the 1920s as nationalist politics developed. In 1931, universal suffrage was introduced for an elected legislature and executive council in which power was shared with the British, and in February 1948 independence was achieved. In 1948 nearly 1 million Tamils, settled during British rule, were disenfranchised.
Dominion status Between 1948 and 1972, Sri Lanka remained a dominion within the British Commonwealth with a governor general as titular head of state. Its politics became dominated by two political parties: the conservative United National Party (UNP) and the left-of-centre Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). The UNP, led consecutively by Don and Dudley Senanayake, held power until 1956, when the radical socialist and more narrowly SLFP, led by Solomon Bandaranaike, gained electoral victory and established Sinhalese rather than English as the official language to be used for entrance to universities and the civil service. This precipitated Tamil riots, culminating in the prime minister's assassination in September 1959. Bandaranaike's widow, Sirimavo, became the world's first female prime minister and held office until 1977, except for UNP interludes in 1960 and 1965–70. She implemented a radical economic programme of nationalization and land reform, a pro-Sinhalese educational and employment policy, and an independent foreign policy as part of the non-aligned movement.
Tamil separatist movement and start of civil war In 1972 Buddhism was made the national religion, Sinhalese the official language, and the new national name Sri Lanka (‘Resplendent Island’) was adopted. Economic conditions deteriorated, while Tamil complaints of discrimination bred a separatist movement calling for the creation of an independent Tamil state (Eelam) in the north and east, where the Tamil minority was concentrated. In 1975 the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) (see Tamil Tigers) was formed by Velupillai Prabharakan to fight for independence and the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) coalition, in 1976, to campaign politically.
The July 1977 general election was won easily by the UNP, led by Junius Jayawardene, although the TULF became the second largest party in parliament. Jayawardene's government embarked on a new free-market economic programme and, in 1978, introduced a presidentialist constitution. However, guerrilla activity by the Tamil Tigers from 1977 led to the start of a bloody civil war which was to continue over the next 30 years. In response, in 1979 the Prevention of Terrorism Act gave the security forces broad powers of arrest and detention. Thousands of Tamils were arrested, some disappearing while in custody, and LTTE guerrilla activities in the north and east provoked the frequent imposition of a state of emergency. In October 1980 Sirimavo Bandaranaike was deprived of her civil rights for six years for alleged abuses of power. In 1982 Jayawardene was re-elected president, although the SLFP claimed there had been polling irregularities, and the life of parliament was prolonged by referendum.
Intensification of the civil war The violence escalated in 1983 when the LTTE ambushed and killed 13 soldiers near Jaffna. In riots by the Sinhalese and retaliatory actions, more than 400 people, mainly Tamils, were killed in the Jaffna area. This prompted legislation outlawing separatist organizations, including the TULF. The civil war cost thousands of lives and blighted the country's economy; the tourist industry collapsed, foreign investment dried up, and aid donors became reluctant to support a government seemingly bent on imposing a military solution.
Colombo Accord All-party talks with Indian mediation repeatedly failed to solve the Tamil dispute, but in July 1987, amid protest riots, President Jayawardene and the Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi signed a peace pact. It proposed to make Tamil and English official languages, create a semi-autonomous homeland for the Tamils in the north and east, recognize the Tigers (once disarmed) as their representatives, and hold a referendum in 1988 in the eastern province, which has pockets of Sinhalese and 32% Muslims. To police this agreement, a 7,000-strong Indian peacekeeping force (IPKF) was despatched to the Tamil Tiger-controlled Jaffna area.
Continued fighting The employment of Indian troops fanned unrest among the Sinhala community, who viewed the Colombo Accord as a sell-out to Tamil interests. Protest riots erupted in the south and senior UNP politicians, including President Jayawardene, were targeted for assassination by the People's Liberation Front (JVP), a Marxist guerrilla group which fought for the interests of the Sinhala majority. In the north, the IPKF failed to capture the Tigers' leader Velupillai Prabhakaran, who continued to wage a guerrilla war from fresh bases in the rural east.
Reconciliation attempts The December 1998 presidential elections were won by Prime Minister Ranasinghe Premadasa, standing as the candidate for the ruling UNP party, defeating Sirimavo Bandaranaike of the SLFP, after a campaign marred by JVP-induced violence. In parliamentary elections in February 1999 the UNP also secured an overall majority and finance minister D B Wijetunge became prime minister. Round-table negotiations were held with Tiger leaders in June 1989 and India withdrew its peacekeeping troops in March 1990. Despite these reconciliatory moves, the civil war, with its two fronts in the north and south, continued, with the death toll exceeding 1,000 a month, and around 100 people a week being detained under the emergency laws.
In August 1991 the Sri Lankan army secured a major victory against the Tamil Tigers at Elephant Pass, the gateway between the Tigers' stronghold of Jaffna peninsula and the Sri Lankan mainland, killing 2,552 Tamil Tiger guerrillas for the loss of 153 soldiers. This weakened the Tamil Tigers and the level of inter-ethnic violence was reduced to 150 killings a day. In June 1992 several hundred Tamil Tiger guerrillas were killed in a major Sri Lankan army offensive, code-named ‘Strike Force Two’ and aimed at sealing off the Jaffna peninsula.
Political leaders assassinated In April 1993 the leader of the Democratic United National Front (DUNF), a party formed in December 1991 by UNP dissidents, was assassinated. Both the UNP and DUNF claimed that the government was responsible. The following month President Premadasa was assassinated by a Tamil Tiger suicide bomber, along with several of his closest aides. He was succeeded by acting premier Dingiri Banda Wijetunge and Ranil Wickremasinghe became prime minister.
President Wijetunge attempted to impose a military, rather than negotiated, solution to the Tamil separatist conflict. However, in October and November 1993, Tamil Tigers repulsed government offensives in the Jaffna Peninsula, inflicting a number of heavy defeats.
SLFP return to power In August 1994 Chandrika Kumaratunga, leader of the left-wing SLFP-led People's Alliance and daughter of Sirimavo Bandaranaike, became prime minister after parliamentary elections in which the UNP was narrowly defeated. She pledged to press for a return to a parliamentary system of government and a ‘balanced economy’ and opened talks with the Tamil Tiger guerrillas. There was a temporary ceasefire, but this soon broke down.
In October 1994 the UNP candidate for the forthcoming presidential elections, Gamini Dissanayake, was assassinated. Chandrika Kumaratunga was elected Sri Lanka's first female president in November 1994. She appointed her mother, 78-year-old Sirimavo Bandaranaike, as prime minister, with the intention that they would exchange roles once the presidency had become a purely ceremonial position.
The civil war continues In July 1995 the government proposed the creation of a federal republic, comprised of eight substantially autonomous regions with extensive fiscal and legislative powers as a possible solution to the Tamil problem. Concurrently, it launched a major military offensive, ‘Operation Leap Forward’, to drive the Tigers from the Jaffna peninsula. A renewed bombing campaign by the Tigers followed, and a further government offensive, ‘Operation Sunshine’, was launched mid October. The Tamil stronghold of Jaffna was captured in late 1995. Heavy casualties were sustained and more than 500,000 refugees created.
Further plans to devolve power to the Tamil minority were unveiled by President Kumaratunga in January 1996. The following month Colombo city centre was targeted by the Tigers when more than 80 were killed and 1,300 injured by a suicide bomber. In April 1996 a state of emergency, previously restricted to the northeast and Colombo, was extended across the whole country.
A military offensive by government forces in the northern Jaffna peninsula met with considerable success and the Tigers were driven back to the Indian mainland by May 1996. In August government forces launched a major offensive against the town of Kilinochchi, the new headquarters of the Tamil Tigers since December 1995 when they had been driven out of Jaffna. More than 200 people were killed in March 1997 when Tamil Tiger guerrillas overran a military base and attacked the air force's eastern headquarters. Severe fighting continued in 1997–98. In December 1998 the defence ministry announced that 19,457 had died in the on-going civil war in the four years since the government of President Chandrika Kumaratunga had come to power, promising peace.
In 1999, the Sri Lankan army suffered a series of military setbacks as the Tamil Tigers captured several northern garrisons. However, in December 1999 Kumaratunga was re-elected president, after surviving an attack by a Tamil Tiger suicide bomber. In April 2000 the Tamil Tigers forced the Sri Lankan army to surrender a key military base on the route to the island's northern Jaffna peninsula. As guerrillas moved closer to Jaffna city and battles with government forces intensified, more than 200,000 civilians (a third of the population) fled. Suicide bombings in Colombo also became more frequent in 2000. 4,000 people were killed in the civil war in 2000, bringing the death toll to 64,000 since 1983.
Death of Bandaranaike The ruling SLFP-led People's Alliance coalition won the October 2000 parliamentary elections, but, with 107 out of 255 seats, fell short of an overall majority. It stayed in power by forming a coalition with a moderate Tamil group. On the day of the elections, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, died. She had resigned her position in August 2000 because of poor health, and was replaced as prime minister by Ratnasiri Wickremanayake.
New parliamentary elections of December 2001 were won by the UNP, which was able to form a majority with the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC). President Kumaratunga swore in her rival, UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, as prime minister.
Tamil Tiger ceasefire The UNP, which in 1999 had called for no concessions to the Tamils, had changed its policy in 2001 to one of a negotiated settlement. Its victory opened the way for talks with the Tamil Tiger rebels. In late December 2001, the Tamil Tigers declared a month-long ceasefire, which the government said it would match. In January 2002, the government also ended a ban on goods destined for areas controlled by the Tamil Tigers as a goodwill gesture. In February 2002, the government and the Tamil Tigers agreed a permanent ceasefire, negotiated by Norway, and in August 2001 the government lifted its ban on the LTTE. This paved the way for direct negotiations, which began in Thailand, in September 2002.
In these talks both sides made concessions by agreeing to a federal solution, with the LTTE dropping its insistence on full independence. However, President Kumaratunga was now wary of a federal solution, as she did not trust the LTTE. In April 2003, the Tamil Tigers pulled out of further talks as they were dissatisfied at a lack of progress in improving security in the Tiger-held areas of the northeast. Splits also began to emerge within the LTTE, between a northern wing and an eastern wing, led by Colonel Karuna, which broke away. However, the ceasefire continued to broadly hold during 2003 and 2004.
The country's 1978 constitution left the president with substantial power and in March 2004 Kumaratunga dismissed Wickremesinghe and called new parliamentary elections. These were won by the SLFP-led United People's Freedom Alliance and brought to power Mahinda Rajapaksa, a former human rights lawyer, of the SLFP as prime minister. The new government pledged to halt privatization and create new jobs.
Tsunami On 26 December 2004 the Indian Ocean tsunami (tidal wave caused by an earthquake) hit Sri Lanka, killing more than 30,000 people and leaving half a million displaced and homeless. Aid poured in from donor countries, but there were criticisms that not enough got through to Tamil regions under LTTE control. After the tsunami, violence increased in the north.
New elections The November 2005 presidential elections were won by Rajapaksa, who called for a tougher line against the LTTE and a renegotiation of the ceasefire, and narrowly defeated Wickremesinghe, who advocated the reopening of talks with the LTTE. Violence and intimidation by the LTTE stopped many Tamils from voting, which may have been decisive in the result. Rajapaksa appointed Wickremanayake to serve as prime minister again. The government had to rely on the hard-line JVP for a majority in parliament, until, in January 2007, defections of some members of the UNP gave it a majority without this support.
The government crushes the Tamil Tigers to end the civil war Tamil Tiger violence resumed in December 2005, but the Norwegians brokered further peace talks between the government and the LTTE in February 2006. These made little progress and LTTE violence increased from mid 2006, bringing the country close to civil war again.
After unsuccessful peace talks in Geneva, Switzerland in October 2006, Rajapaksa's government embarked on a harder line. In January 2008 it withdrew from the 2002 ceasefire agreement and in early 2009 it launched a major military offensive against the Tamil Tigers. This succeeded in crushing the Tigers, whose leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, was killed, along with 7,000 Tamil civilians, while 135,000 were displaced to refugee camps. In May 2009, President Rajapaksa formally declared the civil war over.
Rajapaksa re-elected president Rajapaksa called an early general election for January 2010 to capitalize on ending the civil war and was re-elected president, with 58% of the vote. He defeated General Sarath Fonseka who had led the army in the final campaign against the Tamil Tigers. In February 2010, Fonseka disputed the result and was soon arrested on a range of charges and imprisoned until May 2012.
The SLFP-led United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA) won a landslide victory in parliamentary elections in April 2010. Dissanayake Jayaratne of the SLFP became prime minister and in September 2010 parliament amended the constitution to allow Rajapaksa to stand for an unlimited number of terms. This, and other developments – including intimidation of journalists and strained relations with the judiciary – led opponents to claim that Rajapaksa was becoming increasingly dictatorial.
In August 2011, President Rajapaksa announced the ending of 40-year-old emergency laws, but introduced new powers allowing detention without charge of people suspected of terrorism. He rejected calls, during 2012–13, by the UN Human Rights Council that Sri Lanka should investigate allegations that war crimes were committed during the final phase of the civil war. And in January 2013, the Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake was impeached and removed from office.
Meanwhile, elections were held in September 2013 to a devolved provincial council in the north and were won convincingly by the main Tamil opposition party, the Tamil National Alliance.
Sirisena achieves shock win to became president In November 2014, Maithripala Sirisena, who had been health minister since 2010 and was general secretary of the SLFP, left the government and ruling party to become the opposition coalition's candidate in the January 2015 presidential elections. Like the president, Sirisena came from the majority Sinhala Buddhist community, but his defection encouraged others to follow and he united an opposition which included ethnic minority Tamils and Muslims, Marxists, and centre-right parties. Public resentment against the authoritarianism of Rajapaksa and government corruption enabled Sirisena to defeat Rajapaksa by a 51% to 48% margin.
Sirisena was sworn in as president in January 2015 and also became defence minister. He immediately appointed as prime minister the UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, at the head of a national unity government. This was Wickremesinghe's third period as prime minister (after 1993–94 and 2001–04). President Sirisena pledged to serve only one term and in April 2015 secured an amendment to the constitution which, repealing the previous amendment, limited a president to two terms and transferred some executive powers to parliament.
President Sirisena also launched a 100-day reform programme against corruption. This resulted, in April 2015, in Basil Rajapaksa, the younger brother of the former president, being arrested for alleged misappropriation of funds.
UNP increases vote share in parliamentary elections Parliamentary elections in August 2015 saw a sharp rise in support for Wickremesinghe's UNP-dominated United National Front for Good Governance (UNFGG) alliance, winning 46% of the vote (up 16%), while the SLFP-dominated UPFA fell 18% to 42% of the vote. Wickremesinghe continued as prime minister, heading a UNFGG-UPFA national unity government, while Rajavarothiam Sampanthan, leader of the Tamil National Alliance, became the first parliamentary leader of the opposition from the ethnic Tamil minority in 32 years.
In June 2016, the government publicly acknowledged for the first time that the 26-year-long war with Tamil Tiger rebels and a separate Marxist insurrection had left 65,000 people missing. In August 2016 an office was set up to trace the thousands who had disappeared.
In July 2016, the government announced its goal was for the country to be full demilitarized by 2018.
Foreign relations Sri Lanka is a member of the Commonwealth and the non-aligned movement and joined the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation in 1985.
Nayaja Buddhist temple
snake, palm viper
Sri Lankan dancers
Sri Lanka (known as Ceylon until 1972) is an independent island state situated off the southeast tip of the Indian sub-continent in the...
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