The actual origins of the Sinhalese are shrouded in myth. Most believe
that 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
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 Dutch were ejected by the British 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 universal franchise. Ceylon became
independent on February 4, 1948.
Post-Independence Politics. 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
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,
Sirima. Dudley Senanayake and the UNP returned to power in 1965.
In 1970, Mrs. Bandaranaike 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 would last
six 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.
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 presidency.
President Jayewardene was elected president by parliament in 1978 and by
nationwide elections in 1982. By a 1982 referendum, the life of
parliament was extended by another six 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, and was replaced by then-Prime Minister Dingiri Banda Wijetunga,
who appointed Ranil Wickremesinghe to be 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 People's
Alliance 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
Sirima Bandaranaike) to replace her as Prime Minister.
Communal Crisis. 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 wary 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. Declaring Sinhala the
country's official language--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.
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. In the 1977 elections, the separatist TULF won all
seats in Tamil areas. Other groups--particularly the "Liberation Tigers
of Tamil Eelam" (LTTE)--sought an independent state by force.
In 1983, the death of 13 Sinhalese soldiers at the hands of Tamil
militants 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. Members of the TULF lost their seats in parliament
when they refused to swear a loyalty oath. 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 Tamil insurgents.
Indian Peace-keeping. By mid-1987, the situation had reached an
apparent impasse. In an attempt to break the deadlock, Sri Lanka
brought India directly into its communal dispute. Under a July 29,
1987, 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
Within weeks, however, the LTTE declared its intent to continue its
armed struggle for an independent Tamil Eelam and refused to surrender
arms. The 50,000-strong IPKF found itself engaged in a bloody police
action against the LTTE.
Meanwhile, the Government of Sri Lanka moved ahead with the promised
devolution of power. By late 1988, all eight provincial council
elections had been held. 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 had escalated in the north. Finally,
India withdrew all of its forces from Sri Lanka by May 1990, and
fighting between the LTTE and the government recommenced. Both the
LTTE and government forces have been accused of 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.
Separatist violence is largely confined to the Northeastern province,
which is 6 to 8 hours by road from the capital. However, terrorist
bombings directed against politicians and others have occurred in
Colombo and elsewhere in the country.
source: U.S. State Department Background Notes 1995