The earliest Indo-European speaking settlers in present-day Sri Lanka, the Sinhalese, came late in the 6th century BC , probably from northern India. Later arrivals from India brought Buddhism beginning about 240 BC , and at such cities as Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa, the Sinhalese developed a great civilization, much of which was later destroyed by civil wars and by the incursions of Hindu Dravidian-speakers from across the Palk Strait, who established a Tamil kingdom in the northern part of the island.
The Portuguese East India Company brought the first European rulers in the early 16th century, and in time, the Portuguese conquered the entire island with the exception of the
Sinhalese kingdom in Kandy in the central plateau. By the middle of the 17th century, the Portuguese were driven out of Sri Lanka (and southern India) by the Dutch East India Company, which governed for more than 100 years, introduced plantation agriculture, developed trade, and left a legacy that includes Roman-Dutch law. But they too found themselves displaced.
Having won their struggle with France for mastery in India (and in North America), the British laid claim to Sri Lanka, which they called Ceylon, at the end of the 18th century after the Netherlands fell under French control. After a brief period as part of the British East India Company's Indian domain, Ceylon was designated a crown colony in 1802, and by 1815, the entire island was united under British rule. The British introduced coffee, tea, coconut, and rubber plantations, and efficient and enlightened administration.
With the development of a nationalist movement across the Palk Strait in India in the 20th century, nationalists in Ceylon also pressured for greater self-rule, leading to further democratic political reforms in constitutions enacted in 1910, 1920, 1924, 1931, and 1947; included in the 1931 enactment was limited self-rule under universal suffrage. In 1948, with little actual struggle, and a year after Indian independence, Ceylon became a self-governing dominion within the British Commonwealth.
The period from 1948 through 1970 saw the evolution of Ceylon's multiparty parliamentary system in which orderly and constitutional elections and changes of government took place. Beginning in 1970, executive power began to be highly centralized under Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike, who from 1971–77 ruled with the use of unpopular emergency powers in support of her socialist, pro-Sinhalese policies. She introduced a new constitution in 1972, converting the dominion of Ceylon to the republic of Sri Lanka, reaffirming a parliamentary system under a weak, ceremonial presidency, and making the protection of Buddhism a constitutional principle.
The Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) defeat in the July 1977 elections brought Junius Richard Jayewardene of the more moderate United National Party (UNP) to power. He became Sri Lanka's first elected executive president in February 1978, under a constitutional amendment of fall 1977 establishing a presidential form of government. Seven months later, a new, more liberal constitution came into effect, rejecting many of the authoritarian features of the 1972 constitution, introducing proportional representation, and defining the presidential executive system. As his prime minister, he chose Ranadive Premadasa, a long-time follower with lower caste support. In October 1982, Jayewardene was popularly elected to a new six-year term, and two months later, in a successful effort to avoid general elections, the life of the sitting parliament was extended through July 1989 by means of a constitutional amendment endorsed by popular referendum.
Since 1978, rising tensions and violence between the majority (mostly Buddhist) Sinhalese and minority (mostly Hindu) Sri Lankan Tamil communities that have long shared the island have dominated political life. Going back to 1956, when the Sinhalesedominated government had declared Sinhala the official language and replaced English with separate language tracks in education for Sinhala and Tamil speakers, a chasm had been developing between the communities. In the late 1970s, moderate Sri Lankan Tamils looked to the leadership in the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) and to negotiations with the new UNP government in 1978 to pursue changes aimed at protecting their cultural heritage by giving greater control to elected officials at the local level in Sri Lankan Tamil majority areas of the island.
By the early 1980s, their efforts had failed. Participation in parliament as a responsible opposition had brought no changes, despite government promises; and many rounds of talks with Jayawardene and the majority Sinhalese community had netted no progress in redressing Tamil grievances. Violence was on the rise, and a spasm of communal bloodletting in summer 1983 had left hundreds, if not thousands, dead in Colombo and elsewhere. By 1984–85, Sri Lankan Tamil leadership had fallen into the hands of extremists advocating violence, dooming to failure before it began the government's eleventh-hour convening of an All-Party conference in 1984 to seek a political solution to the ethnic conflict.
Fighting between the Sinhalese-dominated army and well-armed Sri Lankan Tamil separatists escalated in 1986 and 1987, with no solution in sight. It should be noted that the insurgency is limited to the larger group of Sri Lankan Tamils; the so-called Indian Tamils who were imported in the last century and continue to work the plantations in the highlands at the center of the island, and whose partial repatriation to India has been at times a subject for separate negotiations with India, have played no role in the insurgency.
In the spring of 1987, the government began a military offensive against Tamil forces in the Jaffna Peninsula in the Northern Province. India, sensitive to its own large Tamil population just across the strait, served as a base for rebels. Earlier, the Indian government had attempted to negotiate a settlement between the Sri Lankan government and the rebels, but in 1987 India reacted to the offensive by airlifting food and supplies to the rebels, creating considerable tension between the two countries. On 29 July, Jayewardene and Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi of India signed an agreement by which the Sri Lankan government reluctantly accepted the need for devolution of power to the provinces, agreed that Tamil would have official status, and conceded that a semiautonomous administrative unit would be created for the Tamils in the Northern and Eastern provinces, subject to a vote by the Eastern Province on joining such a unit. An Indian peacekeeping force which grew eventually to more than 100,000 troops was sent to Sri Lanka to implement the agreement and enforce a cease-fire. But it was already too late. In the fall of 1987, Tamil separatists—notably and most prominently, the extremist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Ealam (LTTE)—resumed their attacks, killing about 300 people. When they refused the protection of the Indian Peacekeeping Force (IPKF), the IPKF launched an offensive against the rebel stronghold in Jaffna. Fighting continued, inconclusively, between the IPKF and (mainly) the LTTE for 18 months thereafter, with heavy casualties on both sides.
Meanwhile, through 1988 and 1989, the government was under attack from the militant Sinhalese nationalist political party, Janatha Vimukhti Peramuna (JVP), which sought its overthrow for agreeing to the presence of Indian forces in Sri Lanka. The rebellion was put down firmly and brutally by President Premadasa, who succeeded Jayewardene in 1988 in a close race against Sirimavo Bandaranaike.
In 1990, V. P. Singh, who had replaced Rajiv Gandhi as Indian Prime Minister, agreed to Sri Lanka's request that India pull its forces out of the country; the Indian effort to crush the rebellion had failed at the cost of an estimated 1,200 Indian lives alone. With the JVP opposition eliminated and the Indians gone, Premadasa turned his attention to the possibility of expanding the new situation, including a de facto cease-fire with LTTE, into a negotiated settlement. But a new spasm of LTTE violence in the eastern province led him to order an all-out army and air force campaign against the north in the second half of 1990, and guerrilla warfare resumed. Through 1991 and 1992, Premadasa's government continued to pursue the possibility of a negotiated settlement with the LTTE, denying it sought a military solution. But the LTTE's Velupillai Prabhakaran, dominating the separatist side, rejected most government terms.
Under President Wijetunga, who replaced Premadasa when the latter was assassinated by Tamil rebels on May Day 1993, the warfare, and the search for a solution, continued inconclusively, with frequently announced cease-fires and resumptions. The death toll and the cost, reportedly $1 million per day, continued to mount.
Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, 49-year-old daughter of former prime minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike and widow of a Communist Party leader assassinated nearly a decade earlier, became prime minister when her seven-party alliance of leftist parties won a plurality in snap elections to parliament in August 1994. With President Wijetunga's approval, she made resolution of the conflict her first priority on taking office by arranging for the economic blockade of the insurgent-held Jaffna peninsula to be partially lifted and offering to restore electric power to the area. She also offered unconditional talks for a resolution of the dispute, actions welcomed by the LTTE's Prabhakaran, who responded by releasing ten police constables held prisoner by the LTTE since mid-1990. Talks were scheduled for mid-October 1994 and the situation calmed for a time. The optimism that characterized the political situation in Sri Lanka at the beginning of 1995 quickly vanished as the nation lapsed again into a savage civil war. Hostilities between the Sri Lankan government and ethnic separatist Tamil rebels came to a temporary end on 3 January 1995, when the parties announced a cease-fire. The war that raged for twelve years and killed over 34,000 people halted abruptly with government promises of negotiations and an $816 million aid package for the northern portion of the island.
The peace was shattered, however, after only three months. The LTTE had given the government a 19 April deadline to make additional concessions. When their demands were not met, rebels attacked and badly damaged two government gunboats, killing eleven sailors and wounding twenty-two. Before the end of May the Tamil Tigers had attacked an army base, ambushed two government military patrols, and shot down two troop transport planes, killing more than 350 government fighters. In response, on 22 May Sri Lankan President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga pronounced the peace talks dead and vowed to crush the Tamil rebels.
Full scale war continued through the summer of 1995 as the government went on the offensive. Incensed by a series of June terrorist attacks against targets in Hikkadawa and Colombo, President Kumaratunga asked the Indian government for assistance in setting up a naval blockade of the Tamil stronghold of Jaffna on the island's north coast. The Sri Lankan army then attacked rebel positions on the Jaffna peninsula, announcing on 15 July that the operation had left 300 Tamil troops dead in six days of fierce fighting. The government capped the offensive by unveiling in early August a plan to end the civil war by sharing power with eight new states, one of which would be reserved for the minority Tamils.
Rebel leader Vellupillai Prabhakaran rejected the proposal out of hand and ordered that the Tamil terror campaign continue. On 7 August a bomb destroyed a government building in Colombo, killing twenty-four and wounding fifty. At the end of the month rebels hijacked a ferry carrying 136 passengers and sank two government gunboats. During the first week of October, the Tamil Tigers blew up the house of Douglas Devananda, a Sri Lankan legislator and severe critic of the militant separatist group. Less than two weeks later rebels attacked three villages on the northeastern portion of the island, killing over 100 civilians.
Deaths of non-military personnel strengthened the government's resolve to end the fighting quickly. By the beginning of November the Sri Lankan army had marched to within three miles of Tamil headquarters at Jaffna, displacing at least a half million civilians in the process. After days of savage combat, government forces captured the rebel political capital, and sealed off the area, trapping over 2,000 guerrillas. At the end of November, Sri Lanka authorities offered to work out a political settlement with the separatists, but the Tamil fighters announced that they would resume talks only if government troops left Jaffna. Fighting continued, culminating in a 31 January rebel attack on the financial district in Colombo which killed more than 90 and wounded 1,400. By the end of 1996 the death count for almost 15 years of civil war had surpassed 50,000.
By late spring 1996 government forces again appeared to have the upper hand. Pushing further into rebel territory, Sri Lankan army officials claimed in mid-May to have control of the northern Jaffna peninsula. On 30 May, the government chief general offered amnesty to 20,000 deserters and announced plans to recruit 10,000 additional soldiers to end the civil war once and for all. Still, the war went on through the end of 1996 with no cease-fire in sight.
A strong showing in local elections in March 1997 was seen by the government as a mandate to continue with its plans for offering the Tamils limited autonomy. Despite opposition from the UNP, the government presented its proposals to Parliament in October. However, a series of bombing incidents diminished the prospects for peace. In mid-October a truck bomb exploded near a Colombo hotel, with foreign tourists apparently deliberately targeted by the LTTE. In late January 1998, following a suicide bombing in Kandy at the "Temple of the Tooth," Sri Lanka's most sacred Buddhist shrine, the government formally outlawed the LTTE. This, in effect, indicated that the government had put peace negotiations on hold and was leaning towards a military solution.
Following a spate of bombings and the assassinations of moderate Tamil leaders in Jaffna, the government declared a national state of emergency in August 1998. Its war against the LTTE, however, fared badly. In December 1998, the army abandoned its costly campaign to capture the main northern highway to Jaffna. Disaster struck in November 1999 when, in one week, Tamil guerrillas regained nearly all the territory lost during the previous two years. LTTE successes continued, with the capture of Elephant Pass in April 2000 trapping some 35,000 government troops on the Jaffna peninsula.
Citing the failure of parliament to accept her plan for regional autonomy for the Tamil areas in October 1999, President Kumaratunga decided to hold presidential elections 10 months ahead of schedule. Surviving an assassination attempt a few days before polling in December, Kumaratunga was returned to office for a second term as president.
Parliamentary elections were held 7 December 2001. They were the most violent held in 53 years, with 61 people killed and over 700 injured from 21 October to the election. The vote was also marked by allegations of intimidation and fraud. The army prevented tens of thousands of Tamil voters from traveling out of rebel-controlled areas to vote. It was a victory for the opposition United National Party (UNP) and its candidate Ranil Wickremasinghe, defeating President Kumaratunga's People's Alliance. Muslim and Tamil parties backed the UNP.
As of February 2003, the number of people killed in the fighting was approximately 65,000, and the number displaced was 1.6 million. In February 2002, Sri Lanka and the LTTE signed a cease-fire agreement that implied the two sides would move toward peace talks. The LTTE insisted the government lift its ban on the group before peace talks could begin. In May, the two sides held their first direct talks in 7 years. In early September, the Sri Lankan government lifted its ban on the LTTE, and on 16 September formal peace talks were held in Thailand. The most difficult issue to be resolved, whether the north and east will be independent or autonomous, was initially shelved. However, in four days of peace talks held in Oslo, Norway in December, the government and the LTTE agreed to share power in a federal system. The Tamils would have autonomy in the north and east of the island, but not a separate state. A round of talks held in February 2003 in Berlin, Germany focused on humanitarian issues, including a pledge by the rebels to cease recruiting child soldiers and to reintegrate them into society. The question of power sharing was due to take place in March in Japan. The issue is contentious since any formal agreement must be approved by President Kumaratunga, who says she supports the peace process, but has chided the government of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe for making concessions to the Tamil Tigers. That February, the two main opposition parties in parliament, the People's Alliance and the People's Liberation Front, agreed to join forces to attempt to replace Wickremasinghe's government. Wickremasinghe's coalition, led by his United National Party, held 114 seats in the 225-member parliament, and the two opposition parties controlled a total of 93 seats, making it unlikely the alliance would be able to obtain a majority. The two parties were upset with rising prices on commodities and concessions made to the LTTE.