An island in the Indian Ocean off the southeast tip of India, Sri Lanka is about half the size of Alabama. Most of the land is flat and rolling; mountains in the south-central region rise to over 8,000 ft (2,438 m).
Indo-Aryan emigration from India in the 5th century B.C. came to form the largest ethnic group on Sri Lanka today, the Sinhalese. Tamils, the second-largest ethnic group on the island, were originally from the Tamil region of India and emigrated between the 3rd century B.C. and A.D. 1200. Until colonial powers controlled Ceylon (the country's name until 1972), Sinhalese and Tamil rulers fought for dominance over the island. The Tamils, primarily Hindus, claimed the northern section of the island and the Sinhalese, who are predominantly Buddhist, controlled the south. In 1505 the Portuguese took possession of Ceylon until the Dutch India Company usurped control (1658–1796). The British took over in 1796, and Ceylon became an English Crown colony in 1802. The British developed coffee, tea, and rubber plantations. On Feb. 4, 1948, after pressure from Ceylonese nationalist leaders (which briefly unified the Tamil and Sinhalese), Ceylon became a self-governing dominion of the Commonwealth of Nations.
S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike became prime minister in 1956 and championed Sinhalese nationalism, making Sinhala the country's only official language and including state support of Buddhism, further marginalizing the Tamil minority. He was assassinated in 1959 by a Buddhist monk. His widow, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, became the world's first female prime minister in 1960. The name Ceylon was changed to Sri Lanka (“resplendent island”) on May 22, 1972.
The Tamil minority's mounting resentment toward the Sinhalese majority's monopoly on political and economic power, exacerbated by cultural and religious differences, erupted in bloody violence in 1983. Tamil rebel groups, the strongest of which were the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or Tamil Tigers, began a civil war to fight for separate nation.
President Ranasinghe Premadasa was assassinated at a May Day political rally in 1993, when a Tamil rebel detonated explosives strapped to himself. Tamil extremists have frequently resorted to terrorist attacks against civilians. The next president, Chandrika Kumaratunga, vowed to restore peace to the country. In Dec. 1999, she was herself wounded in a terrorist attack. By early 2000, 18 years of war had claimed the lives of more than 64,000, mostly civilians.
A Brief, Ineffectual Cease-Fire
After Dec. 2001 elections, Ranil Wickremesinghe, a longtime bitter rival of President Kumaratunga, was sworn in as prime minister. Wickremesinghe's victory precipitated a formal cease-fire with the Tamil rebels, signed in Feb. 2002. In September talks, the government lifted its ban on the group, and the Tigers dropped their demand for an independent Tamil state. Another significant breakthrough came in December when the Tigers and the government struck a power-sharing deal that would give the rebels regional autonomy. But negotiations in 2003 achieved little.
Intense political rivalry threatened the peace process. In Nov. 2003, President Kumaratunga, convinced that Prime Minister Wickremesinghe was too soft in his negotiations with the Tigers, wrested away some of his powers. In Feb. 2004, the president dissolved parliament and called for elections in the hope of further eroding the power of the prime minister. The gamble paid off for Kumaratunga—her United People's Freedom Alliance won April's parliamentary elections, and Wickremesinghe was replaced by a new prime minister, Mahinda Rajapaksa, a high-ranking member of Kumaratunga's party.
On Dec. 26, 2004, a tremendously powerful tsunami ravaged 12 Asian countries. About 38,000 people were reported killed in Sri Lanka. President Kumaratunga and the Tamil Tigers reached a deal in June 2005 to share about $4.5 billion in international aid to rebuild the country. But intensifying violence in the eastern part of the country threatened the cease-fire and jeopardized the aid package. In Aug. 2005, Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar was assassinated and the government declared a state of emergency.
Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa won November's presidential elections, taking 50% of the vote to former prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe's 48%. Rajapaksa is expected to take a hard line with the Tamil Tigers. Rajapaksa appointed Ratnasiri Wickremanayaka as prime minister.
Civil War Breaks Out
In 2006, repeated violations of the 2002 cease-fire on both sides turned into outright war. Since April 2006, about 1,000 soldiers and civilians have been killed, and 135,000, mostly Tamils, have been displaced. Efforts by Norway, which brokered the 2002 cease-fire, to bring both sides to the negotiating table were unsuccessful throughout the summer.
Fighting between the rebels and government troops continued into 2007. After a weeks of deadly battles, the military took control of rebel-held regions of eastern Sri Lanka in March, leaving tens of thousands more civilians displaced. In April, the Tamil Tigers launched their first air raid, using small airplanes to bomb an air force base near Colombo. An attack by the Sri Lankan air force in November killed the leader of the Tigers' political wing, S. P. Tamilselvan. Amid continued fighting, the government abrogated the cease-fire in January 2008.
Sri Lanka was rocked by a series of suicide bombs on the eve of and during the country's celebration of its 60th anniversary of independence in February. Nearly 40 people died in the attacks. April was a particularly bloody month in Sri Lanka. Indeed, highways minister Jeyaraj Fernandopulle was killed in a bombing attributed to Tamil Tiger rebels. Later in the month, more than 40 soldiers and 100 Tamil Tiger rebels died in a battle in the Jaffna peninsula.
Tamil Tigers Routed by Government Troops
The conflict between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers reached a pivotal point in the fall of 2008, when the military launched an airstrike on Tamil headquarters in early October in Kilinochi. In addition, ground troops were closing in on the rebels. In January 2009, the Sri Lankan government captured the northern town of Kilinochchi, which for ten years had been the administrative headquarters of the Tamil Tigers.
Under the direction of defense chief Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, the brother of the president, the Sri Lankan army continued to pursue the Tigers relentlessly in early 2009. By April, the Tigers were cornered on a small stretch of coastline in the north-east of the country. Civilian Tamils streamed out of the area into refugee camps that struggled to provide food and medical attention, while the Tiger fighting force was down to as few as 1,000 members.
In early May 2009, a UN spokesperson called the situation on the beach a "bloodbath." International human rights organizations claimed that the Sri Lankan army killed at least 500 Tamil civilians in the early days of May 2009 alone. That brings the Tamil civilian death toll to at least 8,000 since the beginning of the year, according to the UN. According to its own count, the Sri Lankan army lost at least 3,800 soldiers over the course of the 18-month offensive.
On May 18, 2009 the conflict effectively ended when Velupillai Prabhakaran, the leader of the Tamil Tigers, was killed in fighting in which government troops took the last bit of rebel-held territory. Early elections were called in October and held in January 2010. President Rajapaksa won the election in a landslide, defeating former army chief Gen. Sarath Fonseka, 57.9% to 40.2%. Fonseka presided over the final battle that crushed the Tamil Tigers. He was arrested in March on charges of plotting to overthrow the government. Also in March, Rajapaksa dissolved Parliament, paving the way for elections.
President Rajapaksa's Government Tries to Rebuild
In April 2010's parliamentary elections, Rajapaksa's governing coalition won another landslide victory. In Sept., Parliament endorsed a proposal to rewrite Sri Lanka's constitution to allow Rajapaksa to run for a third term.
Nearly a year after his successful reelection bid in Jan. 2010, President Mahinda Rajapaksa, was inaugurated in a coronation-like ceremony. Slightly marring his new administration was a UN-sponsored report concerning the final days of Sri Lanka's civil war. A panel advising the UN secretary-general found "credible evidence" that war crimes were committed by both sides in 2009, and that the Sri Lankan army killed tens of thousands of civilians.
After two years in jail, former Sri Lankan army chief Sarath Fonseka was released on May 21, 2012. The order to free the man whom the U.S. labeled a political prisoner was signed by President Rajapaksa in an apparent effort to improve Sri Lanka's human rights record.
In an effort to win an increase in pay and a decrease in government involvement in campus life, academics in Sri Lanka effected a two-month-long strike, which ended in August with the government's answer: closure of 13 of the island's 15 state-funded universities.
2012 Report Shows United Nations Mishandled Civil War
On November 14, 2012, a report was released on how the United Nations handled the last months of the 2009 civil war in Sri Lanka. The report, which was an internal review, found "a sustained and institutionalized reluctance" by U.N. staff in Sri Lanka "to stand up for the rights of the people they were mandated to assist." In summary, the report concluded that "many senior U.N. staff simply did not perceive the prevention of killing of civilians as their responsibility." The report was written by an investigative panel, led by a former U. N. official, Charles Petrie.
The report also blamed senior U.N. staff in New York City, saying that those officials failed to speak up about "broken commitments and violations of international law." The U.N. published one version of the report on November 14, 2012, but it was missing several sections. The Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice posted the missing sections on their web site.
Chief Justice Dismissed
In December 2012, a parliamentary committee found Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake guilty of corruption. Bandaranayake was not allowed to cross examine witnesses, and she criticized the rapid pace of the proceedings. A court of appeals threw out the verdict and ordered parliament to take no further action against her. Nevertheless, parliament ignored the ruling and voted in January 2013 to impeach her. President Mahinda Rajapakse ratified parliament's decision and dismissed Bandaranayake. The Supreme Court ruled that the proceedings were illegal. In September 2012, the Supreme Court struck down part of a law that would have expanded the power of the economic development minister, the position held by Rajapaksab.