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History of Sri Lanka

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The original inhabitants of Sri Lanka were the Veddahs, but little is known about their history. Around 500 BC, an Indo-Aryan group led by Prince Vijaya migrated to Sri Lanka and formed a small kingdom. The present-day Sinhalese descended from this group. In 307 BC, the Indian prince Mahinda, son of the great Buddhist king Asoka, introduced Buddhism to the Sinhalese. While Buddhism later floundered in India, it remained strong in Sri Lanka. Hindu Tamils also came to the island at an early date and have kept some cultural and religious ties with the state of Tamil Nadu in India. A second Tamil migration occurred in the 19th century when the British brought them from India to work on tea plantations.

Sri Lanka was well-known to other nations throughout history, including the Romans and early Arabs (who called the island Serendip). Coastal areas came to be dominated by various European powers, including the Portuguese (16th century), Dutch (17th century), and British (beginning in 1796). Inland areas remained autonomous until the 19th century. In1815, the British won control of the entire island by defeating the last native ruler, the King of Kandy. Britain then established the island as the Crown Colony of Ceylon.

The island peacefully obtained independence from Britain in 1948. The nation has held successive free elections since that time. A 1971 Maoist uprising, which was forcibly suppressed, helped initiate a new constitution that changed the name of the country from Ceylon to Sri Lanka (“resplendent island”) and introduced limited socialist measures such as industry nationalization. Another constitution in 1978declared the country a democratic socialist republic and created a strong presidency. About the same time, ethnic Tamil factions seeking an independent Tamil state (Tamil Eelam) in northern Sri Lanka began an insurgency against the government. In the 1980s, Tamil clashes with ethnic Sinhalese led to thousands of deaths. At the same time, Sinhalese Maoists again attempted to overthrow the government at the cost of some 60,000 lives.

Violence peaked in 1987. The government granted the Tamil language official status, implemented other reforms, and accepted India’s offer to send troops into Tamil areas to establish peace. Although the separatists had originally agreed to turn their arms over to the Indian forces in exchange for autonomy, they instead began fighting the Indian troops. By 1988,the Sinhalese were violently protesting the presence of the Indians, and a new government under President Ranasinghe Premadasa negotiated the withdrawal of Indian troops in 1990.

Premadasa’s actions won the short-term cooperation of Tamil guerrillas, who halted militant activities to participate in elections. Moderates gained several seats in Parliament, but fighting broke out again. Entire villages were massacred by opposing ethnic groups. By the end of 1991, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) had taken control of many areas north of Vavuniya, including Jaffna. In 1993, Tiger terrorists assassinated Premadasa, and his United National Party (UNP) lost subsequent elections in 1994.

Heading a leftist coalition called the People’s Alliance (PA)was Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party. Elected president on a platform of bringing peace to the country, she immediately opened talks with the LTTE. Hopes for peace were high until 1995, when negotiations collapsed and fighting erupted once more. In a massive offensive, government troops recaptured many parts of the Jaffna peninsula, and the president offered a peace proposal to grant limited autonomy to Tamils and revise the constitution. By 1997, however, war still raged and the government increased military spending to counter rebel advances.

In the 1998 local council elections in the north, former Tamil rebels gained majorities in most areas. Despite this step toward greater Tamil autonomy, the LTTE continued its war and sponsored deadly terrorist attacks in Colombo. A Tiger offensive retook the Jaffna peninsula and other areas, forcing the government to withdraw. The government and LTTE signed a cease-fire agreement in February 2002 and began peace talks in September that year. The talks broke down in 2003, but the cease-fire largely held. In the 2005 presidential race, candidate Mahinda Rajapakse promised to take a tough stance in the peace process and ruled out Tamil autonomy. When he narrowly won the election, fighting between rebels and government troops rapidly escalated. Peace talks resumed in October2006, but the two sides failed to reach any consensus.


Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka.” CultureGrams World Edition. 2008.

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