The history of Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka's history is shrouded in a controversy that has largely defined today's violent ethnic conflict that pits the island's majority Sinhalese community against the minority Tamils.
Sri Lankan ethnic Tamils hold banners and placards with messages to save their relatives in Wanni, during a demonstration in Jaffna peninsula, Sri Lanka, Sunday, Feb. 1, 2009. (Associated Press)

Even ancient history can be contentious in Sri Lanka.

Faced with a dearth of primary historical sources, scholars have turned to religious texts and archaeology to help them determine patterns of settlement on the large island that lies off the southeastern tip of India.

The two ethnic groups at loggerheads in modern times — the majority Sinhalese and minority Tamils — have their own versions of how the island was settled, each backed by often-selective academic research.

Each point of view can refer to scholarly accounts that casts one community as indigenous, or at least the first to be dominant in what would become Sri Lanka. The archaelogical record, religious texts and ancient tales give an ambiguous picture where neutral consensus is strained in the face of today's bitter inter-ethnic dispute.

It's not even clear that the two communities were hugely distinct from one another in bygone times, although they have clearly emerged over millennia as groups that perceive themselves as entirely separate.

Quick facts:

Government type: republic

Capital: Colombo

Area: 65,610 sq km

Population: 20,450,000 ( 2009 estimate)

Independence: Feb. 4, 1948 (from Britain)

Former name:  Ceylon (from the 16th century until 1972)

Chief of state: President Mahinda Rajapaksa (since November 19, 2005)

Ethnic groups: Sinhalese 74%, Tamil 18%, Moors 7%,  other .8% (1981 census)

Religions: Buddhist 70%, Hindu 15%, Muslim 7.5%, Christian 7.5% (1981, 2001 census)

GDP per capita: $2,053 US (2009 estimate)

Sirimavo Bandaranaike, thrice Sri Lanka's prime minister, waves to supporters in Colombo in this undated photo. Bandaranaike, who became the world's first woman prime minister when she was elected head of Sri Lanka's government four decades ago, retired from office on Aug. 10, 2000 at age 84. ((Associated Press))
Statistics Source: Sri Lanka Dept. of Census and Statistics 

Over time, the two communities have seen their relations range from co-existence to outright hostility.

Enter colonialism

In addition, the divide is clouded — indeed aggravated — by the intervention of Asian and European colonial powers from the 15th century onwards.

In 1411, Chinese forces briefly occupied part of the island, which had been partitioned into a number of petty kingdoms — led by both Sinhalese and Tamil dynasties.

In the 1500s, the Europeans began arriving, first the Portuguese, interested in money to be made in the spice trade. They quickly monopolized the industry. By 1597, they controlled most of the island.

However, they couldn't control the powerful Sinhalese kingdom of Kandy, which persuaded the Dutch to help it throw out the Portuguese in 1658.

The Dutch parlayed that alliance into a very profitable business arrangement — until 1795. By then, the Netherlands was under French control, which allowed Britain to add most of Sri Lanka to its growing list of colonies.

Kandy continued to resist, but by 1815, the entire island was under British control. Coffee, tea, cinnamon and coconut plantations (worked by Tamil labourers imported from southern India) sprang up, and English was introduced as the national language.

Gaining independence

In 1931, Britain granted the local population a degree of self-government. And — 16 years later — the nation of Ceylon came into being when Britain granted the island independence. The new country was no longer a colony of the British Empire, but a member of the British Commonwealth.

The government leaned towards socialism and promoted Sinhalese interests. It made Sinhalese the national language and effectively reserved the best jobs for the Sinhalese.

The move was meant to level the playing field between the majority Sinhalese and the English-speaking, Christian-educated elite. But it also worried the Tamil Hindu minority, which began to press for greater autonomy in the main Tamil areas of the north and east.

A Tamil rebel takes aim with a rocket propelled grenade in the troubled Jaffna peninsula in northern Sri Lanka on Jan. 22, 1987. ((David McKaige/Reuters))

The country's ethnic and religious conflicts escalated as competition for wealth and work intensified. When Prime Minister Solomon Bandaranaike was assassinated in 1959 trying to reconcile the two communities, his widow, Sirimavo, succeeded him, becoming the first woman in the world to hold the job of prime minister.

A year later, she became the first woman in the world to win a national election. Her government was defeated in 1964, but she was back as prime minister in 1970.

She maintained close ties with China and then Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi — and moved the country to the left politically. In 1972, she declared the country a republic and changed its name to Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka.

Rising tensions

By the 1970s, tensions between the majority Sinhalese and minority Tamils were escalating. Civil unrest led to a state of emergency in Tamil areas, and a Tamil secessionist movement emerged.

The Tamil New Tigers militia was formed in 1972 to seek an independent homeland for ethnic Tamils in the north and east. Four years later, the group changed its name to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), commonly known as the Tamil Tigers.

In 1983, members of the LTTE massacred an army patrol in the north. Sinhalese mobs went on a two-day rampage, killing several thousand Tamils and burning and looting property.

Many Tamils fled embattled neighbourhoods of Colombo for parts of the country where their community formed the majority. There were also large concentrations of Tamils and Tamil-speaking Muslims on the east coast. Tamil secessionists claimed the northern third of the country and parts of the east coast.

A lot of Sri Lankan Tamils in Canada and other countries moved abroad because of the hostilities that began in the early 1980s.

Most of the actual fighting over the years was confined to the north, although suicide bombings in the capital, Colombo, brought the conflict to the heart of Sri Lankan society. Many politicians and activists were assassinated, including high-profile Tamils who rejected violence even as they worked for the betterment of their community.

Repeated attempts have been made by the international community to reach a solution to the problem. The violence, which the UN estimates has cost 80,000-100,000 lives, has hurt the country's economy and discouraged tourism.

Ceasefire attempts

In December 2001, Norwegian intermediaries helped broker the first ceasefire in seven years between the government and the rebels, hoping it would end two decades of civil war. The agreement came into effect in February 2002.

Skirmishes continued despite the truce.

Civil strife was mainly set aside in the wake of the tsunami that struck on Dec. 26, 2004. More than 30,000 people were killed in the country's worst-ever natural disaster. In the aftermath of that tragedy, long-simmering tensions encouraged hardliners in both communities to further their conflict.

Human rights in Sri Lanka

Human rights groups have expressed serious concern about the situation in Sri Lanka.

Earlier this month The Elders, an independent group of retired global leaders currently chaired by South African Desmond Tutu, issued a statement on Sri Lanka. "The ongoing persecution and disappearances of human rights activists, journalists and government opponents is truly terrifying," Tutu said.

The Elders also expressed concern about the detention of about "8,000 suspected ex-combatants without charge or access to legal representation, their families or independent monitors," the continuation of wartime emergency laws, as well as the "lack of action by the government to address the political marginalization of ethnic minorities that was at the root of Sri Lanka’s 30 years of war."

In May, the international Crisis Group issued a report on war crimes in Sri Lanka. They found, "reasonable grounds to believe the Sri Lankan security forces committed war crimes with top government and military leaders potentially responsible. There is evidence of war crimes committed by the LTTE and its leaders as well, but most of them were killed and will never face justice."

Crisis Group says they have credible evidence that government forces engaged in the intentional shelling of civilians, hospitals and humanitarian operations.

Former Canadian Supreme Court justice Louise Arbour heads Crisis Group.

Last year the U.K.'s Channel 4 presented video  that it claimed showed the summary execution of naked Tamils by Sri Lankan soldiers near the end of the war. The Sri Lankan government said they conducted four separate investigations that determined the video was "fake."  But in January a UN investigation concluded the evidence strongly suggests that the video is authentic.

According to Human Rights Watch, "the Sri Lankan government has failed to undertake any meaningful investigation of violations of the laws of war."

According to the Sri Lankan government's website, Foreign Minister Gamini Peiris, "has slammed the International Crisis Group, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and other such groups." Peiris said they "don't have the moral authority 'to tell us what to do.'"

In their statement, The Elders expressed concern about the response to Sri Lanka's actions, which they called "a deafening global silence that may encourage other states to act in a similar way." 

In January 2008, Sri Lanka's government formally withdrew from the truce, even though the past two years had seen a resurgence of fighting that rendered it largely redundant.

Amnesty International accused both sides of appearing to violate the laws of war by endangering civilians. Independent verification of reports is hard to obtain since journalists are barred from travelling in the war zone.

Human rights groups have also accused the Sri Lankan government of harassing and targeting local journalists who  report on military excesses. A leading editor, Lasantha Wickrematunge, murdered in Colombo in early 2009, accused the government of wanting to kill him in a chilling column published posthumously  in newspapers around the world.

Tamil Tigers defeated

By the end of 2008 the Sri Lankan military had the Tamil Tigers on the run.  In January 2009, the army took control of the Tigers' de facto capital, Kilinochchi, and then Mullaitivu, their last stronghold.

About 250,000 civilians lived in the jungle battle zone where the Sri Lankan government was trying to defeat the Tamil Tigers.

In early February 2009, the government said it was poised to defeat the rebel group, after reportedly capturing its last airstrip and effectively grounding the rebels' tiny air force.

By mid-May, the government declared victory over the rebels and announced the death of its leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, seen as a key part of eliminating the insurgents.

Although the government heralded the end of the 26-year-long civil war, some Tamil activists said the community's ongoing grievances have yet to be resolved.

Postwar developments

About 300,000 Tamil civilians were herded into internment camps. Faced with international criticism and a threat by the EU to impose trade sanctions over the slow pace of release from the camps, the government sped up the release rate in October.

Early presidential elections took place on Jan. 26 with President Mahinda Rajapaksa facing a challenge from Gen. Sarath Fonseka, the army commander who led the defeat of the Tamil Tigers. Rajapaksa won but Fonseka claimed there had been widespread vote rigging. 

A few weeks later Fonseka was arrested, accused of conspiracy to overthrow the government. He was eventually charged with  preparing the groundwork for his presidential campaign while still in military uniform and violating regulations in purchasing military hardware. At the time Amnesty International said, "Fonseka's arrest continues the Rajapaksa government's post-election crackdown on political opposition."

On Aug. 13, Fonseka was convicted on the first charge and still faces the second.