History of Sri Lanka in Brief

Historical Map of Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka's first settlers were the nomadic Veddahs. Legend relates them to the Yakkhas, demons conquered by the Sinhalese around the 5th or 6th century BC. A number of Sinhalese kingdoms, including Anuradhapura in the north, took root across the island during the 4th century BC. Buddhism was introduced by Mahinda, son of the Indian Mauryan emperor Ashoka, in the 3rd century BC, and it quickly became the established religion and the focus of a strong nationalism. Anuradhapura was not impregnable. Repeated invasions from southern India over the next 1000 years left Sri Lanka in an ongoing state of dynastic power struggles.

The Portuguese arrived in Colombo in 1505 and gained a monopoly on the invaluable spice trade. By 1597, the colonizers had taken formal control of the island. However, they failed to dislodge the powerful Sinhalese kingdom in Kandy which, in 1658, enlisted Dutch help to expel the Portuguese. The Dutch were more interested in trade and profits than religion or land, and only half-heartedly resisted when the British arrived in 1796. The Brits wore down Kandy's sovereignty and in 1815 became the first European power to rule the entire island. Coffee, tea, cinnamon and coconut plantations (worked by Tamil laborers imported from southern India) sprang up and English was introduced as the national language.

Then known as Ceylon in History, Sri Lanka finally achieved full independence in 1948. The government adopted socialist policies, but promoted Sinhalese interests, making Sinhalese the national language and effectively reserving the best jobs for the Sinhalese, partly to address the imbalance of power between the majority Sinhalese and the English-speaking, Christian-educated elite. It prompted the Tamil Hindu minority to press for greater autonomy in the main Tamil areas in the north and east.

The country's ethnic and religious conflicts escalated as competition for wealth and work intensified. When Bandaranaike was assassinated in 1959 tryingto reconcile the two communities, his widow, Sirimavo, became the world's first female prime minister. She continued her husband's socialist policies, but the economy went from bad to worse. A Maoist revolt in 1971 led to the death of thousands. One year later, the country became a republic and made Sri Lanka its official name.

In 1972 the constitution formally made Buddhism the state's primary religion, and Tamil places at university were reduced. Subsequent civil unrest resulted in a state of emergency in Tamil areas. Sinhalese security forces faced off against young Tamils, who began the fight for an independent homeland. Junius Richard Jayewardene was elected in 1977 and promoted Tamil to the status of a 'national language' in Tamil areas. He also granted Tamils greater local government control, but violence escalated.

When Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) secessionists massacred an army patrol in 1983, Sinhalese mobs went on a two-day rampage, killing several thousand Tamils and burning and looting property. This marked the point of no return. Many Tamils moved north into Tamil-dominated areas, and Sinhalese began to leave the Jaffna area. Tamil secessionists claimed the northern third of the country and the eastern coast. They were clearly in the majority in the north but proportionately equal to the Sinhalese and Muslims in the east. Violence escalated with both sides guilty of ethnic cleansing.

By 1985, there were 50,000 internal refugees, 100,000 Tamil exiles in India, no tourism, slumping tea prices and dwindling aid (because of human rights abuses). Government gains in 1987 led to Tamil unrest in India, prompting concerns of an Indian invasion. The two governments agreed that the Sri Lankan Army would retreat and an Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) would maintain order in the north and disarm the Tigers. The agreement led to Sinhalese and Muslim riots in the south over the government 'sell-out' and Indian 'occupation'. Sri Lanka became a quagmire of inescapable violence.

A 1989 Sinhalese rebellion broke out in the south and the Marxist JVP orchestrated a series of strikes and political murders. The country was at a standstill. When the government's talks with the JVP failed, it unleashed death squads that killed JVP suspects and dumped their bodies in rivers. A three-year reign of terror resulted in at least 30,000 deaths. The IPKF withdrew in 1990. The Tigers had agreed to a ceasefire but violence flared almost immediately when a breakaway Tamil group unilaterally declared an independent homeland.

Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated by a Tamil suicide bomber in 1991 and Premadasa suffered the same fate in 1993. Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga became prime minister in 1994, and president in 1995, and for the second time her mother Sirimavo Bandaranaike became prime minister.

Chandrika Kumaratunga won a second term in office in December 1999. Days before the vote, the president and People's Alliance coalition leader was the target of a LTTE suicide bomb attack in which she lost the sight in one eye. In December 2001, Ranil Wickramasinghe, who lost the 1999 elections, became prime minister when the United National Party swept parliamentary elections. This could have led to deadlock between Parliament and the executive in dealing with high inflation, high unemployment, poor infrastructure and, of course, the 18-year-old civil war, but unexpectedly promising peace talks with the LTTE have facilitated cooperation in the political process.

Peace talks brokered by a Norwegian delegation inspired a one-month cease-fire beginning 24 December 2001 (the first in seven years), renewed in January 2002. With the lifting of a seven-year-old embargo on LTTE-controlled territory, it seems peace is not a pipe dream.

Historical Kings and Queens of Sri Lanka