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"
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.