Sri Lanka, known formerly as Ceylon, is an island of some 65,000 square kilometres located in the Indian Ocean off the south-eastern coast of the Indian subcontinent. There is evidence that the island has been inhabited for several millennia, and that there was considerable interaction with traders and settlers from nearby regions. The arrival in 1505 of the Portuguese on the island ushered in a period of 450 years of colonial rule. The Dutch drove the Portuguese from the island in the mid-1600s and the British gained control at the turn of the nineteenth century.
A century and half of British rule had a significant impact on the colony's political institutions, economic structure and ethnic make-up. By the 1830s the British had unified the island under a single colonial administration and began in earnest the development of a plantation economy based on export crops. Much of the requirement for plantation labour was met by indentured labour brought largely from Tamil-speaking parts of India. This added to an already diverse population which included Sinhalese (who spoke Sinhala and were predominantly Buddhist), Tamils (who had been resident primarily in the north-east of the island, spoke Tamil and were predominantly Hindu), Muslims (most of whom were resident in the eastern coastal districts and spoke Tamil), and mixed descendents of Europeans (sometimes called Burghers).
After limited self-government from the 1920s, Ceylon emerged as an independent country in 1948. Since then the country's leaders have wrangled with the twin challenge of achieving sustainable economic development and ensuring political harmony, particularly between the main ethnic groups. Progress on both fronts has been mixed. Sri Lanka has out-performed its regional neighbours in term of economic growth, and has achieved substantial improvements in human development. However, despite strong growth, the country has lagged behind many of the South-East Asian economies which, though similarly placed in the 1950s and 1960s, have experienced very rapid development in recent decades. On the political front, while Sri Lanka has managed to maintain a fairly robust democratic system, the country's political institutions have failed to prevent or ameliorate growing inter-ethnic tensions in the decades since independence. By the 1970s the Tamils in the north-east had begun agitating for self-determination and, by the early 1980s, several Tamil militant groups had emerged. A tragic episode of anti-Tamil rioting in 1983 left several thousand Tamils dead and generally marks the beginning of a cycle of violence and war from which the country has yet to emerge. Two decades on, a ceasefire signed in 2002 between the state and the LTTE, the largest and most dominant Tamil militant group, marks the end of the war, but the political settlement of the conflict still seems way off.
- Timeline from Accord - http://www.c-r.org/accord/sri/accord4/chronology.shtml
- Timeline from the BBC - http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/south_asia/country_profiles/1166237.stm
Sri Lanka's population is highly heterogeneous: differentiated across ethnic, religious, linguistic, caste and regional lines. Yet, despite this diversity, Sri Lanka's population is most often differentiated, through both official ascription and collective self-identification, along ethnic or communal lines. In numerical terms, at the time of the last available island-wide census in 1981, the Sinhalese made up around 74 per cent of the population, while north-eastern Tamils (13 per cent), Muslims (7 per cent), and up-country Tamils (6 per cent) were the most significant other groups. An important distinction is drawn between those Tamil-speaking people of Sri Lanka who reside in or originate from the island's north-east (often called 'Sri Lankan Tamils' in official literature) and those who live in up-country areas in the south (sometimes called 'Indian Tamils' or 'estate Tamils' because the ancestors of many migrated from India during British rule to work on tea estates). In political terms, these groupings have tended be the basis for most, though by no means all, political conflict in Sri Lanka. Table 1 indicates some of the similarities within groups and diversity between groups.
|Group (per cent of total population)||Religion (per cent of group)||Language
Language figures may not add up to 100 per cent because of multi-lingual and illiterate respondents.(per cent of group literate in language)
|Region (per cent of group resident in region)|
Rest of the country 97.5
|North-eastern Tamil 12.6||
Rest of the country 65.0
|Indian Tamils 5.5||
Estate areas include the up-country districts of Kandy, Nuwara Eliya & Badulla.58.3
- Description of ethnic groups, mirrored from Library of Congress - http://countrystudies.us/sri-lanka/38.htm
- Regional map of ethnic groups and religion, Library of Congress - http://lcweb2.loc.gov/frd/cs/sri_lanka/lk02_02b.pdf
Sri Lanka has a proud early record of democratization. By 1931, when Ceylon became the first British colony in Asia to have a system of universal suffrage, the colony had limited self-government through a State Council consisting mostly of elected members (fifty out of sixty-one). In the period since independence there were frequent and peaceful changes of government: there was a change of government on six occasions after the seven general elections between independence in 1948 and the late 1970s.
This volatility was mostly due a first-past-the-post electoral system in place since 1931 and the dominance of two major, largely Sinhalese-based parties. The leftist United Front (UF) coalition, led by the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), swept to power, securing around 75 per cent of the seats in Parliament with around half of the popular vote, in 1970, and used its super-majority to enact a new Constitution in 1972. The new Constitution changed the country's name to Sri Lanka and made it a republic with a figurehead president as head of state. The situation was dramatically reversed in 1977, when the main opposition party, the United National Party (UNP), managed to win some 83 per cent of parliamentary seats with just over half of the total vote. Another overhaul in 1978 resulted in the enactment of the Constitution that is still in effect today. Under this system, Sri Lanka has a semi-presidential system of government, with a directly elected executive president as well as a directly elected legislative chamber. Currently, the unicameral 225-member legislature is elected through a party-list proportional representation system from twenty-two multi-member seats, and from party-nominated regional and national lists. The prime minister and cabinet come from the party or coalition commanding a majority in the legislature.
The UNP retained both the presidency and a parliamentary majority from 1977 to 1994. From 1994 to 2001, an SLFP-led coalition was in power, and between December 2001 and April 2004, Sri Lanka experienced an uncomfortable 'co-habitation' in which the president, Chandrika Kumaratunga, belonged the SLFP while the prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, was from the UNP. The rivalry between these parties and two personalities, meant that relations between the arms of government were not smooth and, towards late 2003, began to hamper progress in the peace talks with the LTTE. Elections in April 2004 did produce a clear majority but a coalition including the SLFP and the leftist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) has maintained a parliamentary majority, thus ending the period of co-habitation.
Apart from the two major Sinhalese-dominated parties, there are several other political parties which have regularly won parliamentary seats. This includes several Tamil parties, which are currently in coalition under the banner of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and won some twenty-two seats in the April 2004 elections, several Muslim parties (including the Sri Lankan Muslim Congress, SLMC, which has been part of governing coalitions), and several smaller Sinhalese nationalist parties.
- Information on president, parliament and government - http://www.priu.gov.lk/index.html
- Links to political parties - http://www.politicalresources.net/sri_lanka.htm
The rise of Tamil nationalism
One of the most notable features of political developments in Sri Lanka since independence has been growing ethnic tensions between the largest ethnic group, the Sinhalese, and the next biggest group, the north-eastern Tamils. These 'communal' tensions were fuelled by Sinhalese perceptions that Tamils had been favoured by the British colonialists and were, on average, richer, better educated, more likely to be literate in English, and heavily over-represented in higher education and public sector employment. Successive Sri Lankan governments enacted a series of discriminatory policies aimed at 'correcting' Tamil advantage in education and employment. Changes in the Constitution have also been enacted to give the Sinhala language and the Buddhist religion a prominent place.
Tamil political leaders began to voice concerns over their exclusion from political power and the discriminatory nature of language, education, and employment policies. Several incidents of anti-Tamil violence starting in 1956, growing Tamil frustration at the broken promises of Sinhalese leaders, and anger over state-sponsored Sinhalese settlement of Tamil areas served to compound Tamil fears of Sinhalese domination and fuelled Tamil nationalism.
During the 1970s Tamil protests changed in their nature and intensity. The stated aim of Tamil political aspirations went from equality under the rubric of a single (unitary or federal) state to one of secession. In the same period those aspirations were increasingly being sought beyond electoral means and through militancy. Several militant groups emerged during the 1970s and, allegedly with the financial and technical support of sections of the Indian government, began to carry out increasingly daring attacks on the Sri Lankan armed forces. One such attack in July 1983 resulted in the deaths of thirteen Sri Lankan soldiers near Jaffna, Sri Lanka's second largest city and the capital of the Tamil-dominated Northern Province. Capitalizing on the ensuing hysteria in the Sinhalese-dominated South, mobs of Sinhalese targeted Tamil residents and businesses in Colombo. The resulting pogrom is estimated to have left several thousand Tamils dead.
The events of 1983 mark the watershed in the island's descent into a separatist civil war. Intermittent encounters between the Sri Lankan armed forces and several Tamil militant groups became more regular and intense through the 1980s. The militants sought an independent state of 'Tamil Eelam' covering about one-third of the island's area, an aspiration that has been unacceptable to successive governments in Colombo and an overwhelming majority of the Sinhalese polity. The challenge of accommodating Tamil aspirations and dealing with Tamil militants has dominated the Sri Lankan political landscape for over two decades, and continues to do so.
- Historical context from Accord - http://www.c-r.org/accord/sri/accord4/background.shtml
- Sri Lankan Tamil society and politics from Tamil Canadian - http://www.tamilcanadian.com/cgi-bin/php/page.php?index=75
When Ceylon emerged from colonial rule in 1948, the country seemed poised for considerable economic success. Much of the southern part of the island is blessed with a double monsoon and conditions well-suited for agricultural production, the plantation economy was generating valuable export earnings and economic growth, and the population enjoyed a relatively high quality of life compared with other developing countries.
Sri Lanka's progress since then can be characterized in one of two ways: that of sub-optimality or relative robustness. The former view highlights the problems that have resulted from factors such as policy inconsistencies, corruption and the impact of war. Sri Lanka's average GDP growth per capita between 1975 and 2001 was 3.4 per cent per annum, while the East Asia and Pacific region grew at 5.9 per cent per annum When compared to the rapidly industrializing 'tiger' economies of South-East Asia with which Sri Lanka was once favourably compared, the country has done poorly. The latter view highlights Sri Lanka's relatively high growth rates and human development achievements despite these challenges. When compared with its South Asian neighbours, Sri Lanka has done relatively well, especially in meeting the basic needs of most of its population.
Whatever one's judgement may be, two decades of war have come at considerable cost. On the macro scale, there has been significant loss, disruption, and curtailment of production. Sri Lanka's military expenditure, consistently running at around 5 per cent of GDP during the late 1990s, has been the highest in South Asia and one of the highest in the world. At the micro scale, local economies, especially in the north-east, have been seriously constrained, individuals have found it difficult to pursue their livelihoods, and there have been limited opportunities for human development, particularly because of the disruption to education. There have also been significant costs associated with the destruction of economic infrastructure and the disruption of economic life due to such things as curfews and road closures, particularly in the war-affected north-east. The total costs of the war, including forgone investment and tourism, runs into billions of dollars and have severely limited Sri Lanka's economic development. Current average per capita income is around US$850, placing Sri Lanka at the lower end of middle-income countries.
- The Economic Development of Sri Lanka: A Tale of Missed Opportunities, report by Donald Snodgrass (1998) - http://www.cid.harvard.edu/hiid/637.pdf
- Sri Lanka: Recapturing Missed Opportunities, report by World Bank (2000) - http://lnweb18.worldbank.org/sar/sa.nsf/8b211d2239d56913852567d7005d8e54/a3666e0769cab4a0852569290044bc39?OpenDocument
- Statistics on the cost of war - http://payson.tulane.edu/ices/Ethnic_Conflict/cost_of_war.htm