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History of Sri Lanka

Traditionally, the recorded History of Sri Lanka boasts of 25 chronicled centuries. However, the inhabitation of the country goes back much further, to the Balangoda People, about 32,000 - 3000 BC. Most of Sri Lanka's History is based on the Book called Mahawamsa. However, there have been instances where historic rock inscriptions have been contrary to the Mahawamsa.


The Iron age in Sri Lanka begins about 1000 BC. Anuradhapura has been continuously settled since about 900 BC.

In the 6th century BC, Sri Lankans developed a unique hydraulic civilization, producing the largest reservoirs and dams up until the 20th century, enormous pyramid-like Stupa (Dagaba) architecture, within a culture nourished by Buddhism. It was forced to deal with South Indian invasions in the tenth century and European expansions in the sixteenth century).

Historical chronicles are found in stone writings ('sel lipi'), ola leaf writings ('Hela Atuva') and also in great Indian chronicles as Mahabharata and the Ramayana. The main historical written evidence is the Mahavamsa, also including Dipavamsa & Chulavamsa, their Burmese versions, as well as the parallel Indian records. The island presently known as "Sri Lanka" was originally known to the Sinhalese as "Sinhale" or "Heladiva".

In the 5th century B.C., Indo-Aryan emigrated from India, mixed with the Hela people and later Buddhism was established and helped develop the Sinhalese culture in Sri Lanka. According to Buddist scriptures the Buddha is said to have visited the island on three occasions to see the Naga Kings, thought to be Tamil speakers and who at one time time ruled various kingdoms throughout all of North and South India before being driven out by the Aryan invaders. Prior to this period in time. More than 70% of Sinhalese populace considers itself to be Buddhist. Along with the Sinhalese, there is a Tamil Hindu population on this island.

There is a long-standing relationship between Sinhalese, Tamils, Moors, Malayans, Burghers, Ja (Javanese), Veddahs and other hundreds of inhabitants and cultural groups of Sri Lanka, which has ensured an extremely close relationship between the groups and cultures.


The island is estimated to have been colonised by the Balangoda People (named after the area where their remains were discovered) about 34,000 years ago. They have been identified as a group of Mesolithic hunter gatherers who lived in caves. Several of these caves including the well known Batadombalena and the Fa-Hien Rock cave) have yielded many artefacts that points to them being the first inhabitants of the island.

The Balangoda People appear to have been responsible for creating Horton Plains, in the central hills, by burning the trees in order to catch game. However, discovery of Oats and Barley on the plains dating to about 15,000 BC suggest they may have engaged in agriculture.

Several minute granite tools of about 4 centimeters in length, earthenware and remnants of charred timber, and clay burial pots that date back to the Stone Age Mesolithic Man who lived 8000 years ago have been discovered during recent excavations around a cave at Varana Raja Maha vihara & also in Kalatuwawa area.

Cinnamon, which is native to Sri Lanka, was in use in Ancient Egypt in about 1500 BC, suggesting that there were trading links with the island. It is possible that Biblical Tarshish was located on the island (James Emerson Tennent identified it with Galle).

A large settlement appears to have been founded before 900 BC at the site of Anuradhapura and signs of an Iron Age culture have also been found. The size of the settlement was about 15 hectares at that date, but it expanded to 50 ha, to 'town' size within a couple of centuries. A similar site has been discovered at Aligala in Sigiriya.

It is suspected that the hunter gatherer people known as the Wanniyala-Aetto or Veddas, who still live in the Central, Uva and North-Eastern parts of the island, are relatively direct descendants of the first inhabitants (Balangoda man). They may have migrted to the island from the main land around the time humans spread from Africa to other parts of the world.

The Ramayana epic, composed possibly between the 2nd and 4th centuries BC, states that Lanka was created by the divine sculptor Vishwakarma for Kubera, the lord of wealth. Ravana, usurped the throne of Kubera after defeating him in a battle. Ramayana recounts how Rama invaded the island through the Mannar causeway with the help of Sugreeva (the king of a Vanara (monkey) Army) and Hanuman the minister of Sugreeva, to save his abducted wife Sita from Ravana, the King of Sri Lanka.

The earliest chronicles the Dipavamsa and Mahavamsa say that, before the migration of Vijaya, tribes of Yakkhas (demon worshippers), Nagas (cobra worshippers) and devas (god worshippers) inhabited the island.

Pottery has been found at Anuradhapura, bearing Brahmi script and non-Brahmi writing, dating back to 600 BC. One of the oldest examples of the script.

Legendary and early history (500 - 250 BC)

Pali Chronicles and the arrival of Vijaya

The Pali chronicles, i.e., the Dipavamsa, Mahavamsa, Thupavamsa and the Chulavamsa as well as a large collection of stone inscriptions, the Indian Epigraphical records, the Burmese versions of the chronicles etc., provide an exceptional record for the history of Sri Lanka from about the 6th century B.C. The Mahavamsa, written circa 5th century A. D. by the monk Nagasena, using the Deepavamsa, the Attakatha and other written sources available to him, correlates well with the Indian history of the period, with King Asoka's dates of reign actually discovered through the Mahavamsa. The account of the period prior to Asoka's coronation (given in the Mahavamsa as 218 years after the Buddha's death) seems to be part legend. Thus the history begins with the arrival of Vijaya and his 700 followers. Vijaya, is a Kalinga(ancient Orissa) prince, the eldest son of King Sinhabahu (means:-"Man with Lion arms") and Queen Sinhasivali, who were siblings born by a mythical union between a lion and a human princess. The historian contrives the chronology to claim that Vijaya landed on the same day as the death of the Buddha (See Geiger's preface to Mahavamsa), giving added significance to Vijaya's arrival. The story of Vijaya and Kuveni (the local reigning queen) is reminiscent of Greek legend, and may have a common source in Indo-European folk tales. Vijaya landed near Mahathitha (Manthota or Mannar), and, according to the Mahavamsa, named the Island "Thambaparni" ('copper-colored palms), a name which entered into Ptolemy's map of the ancient world. Tamirabharani is the old name for the second longest river (known as Malwatu Oya in Sinhala and Aruvi Aru in Tamil); it was a main supply route connecting the capital, Anuradhapura to Mahathitha (Mannar), used by Greek ships and Chinese ships travelling on the Silk Route. Mahathitha was an ancient port, linking the Indian coast and the Persian gulf with Sri Lanka, and frequented by seafaring people in pre-Vijayan times.

The present day Sihalese (and even some Tamils) are a mixture of the indegenous people and other groups that came to the island from various parts of India. The Sinhalese recognize the Vijayan Indo-Aryan influence/civilization and Buddism (that was already in existence prior to the arrival of Vijaya), that set them appart from other groups in neighbouring south India. One must take into consideration that Vijaya's subsequent queens were from Madurai, south India.


Ancient epigraphic inscriptions found at Anuradhapura and some other places in Sri Lanka attest Muridi (Muruda = Murunda), Meraya (Maurya? or else the inhabitants from Meru in Hindukush?) etc.


The Tamils are known to be the descendents of people that migrated from south Indian Cholan and Pandayan dynasties. It is not yet established if the Naga tribe were in fact early Tamils who has lived in Srilanka since pre-history. They are predominantly Hindu (or Catholic).

Senan and Guttakan were the first Tamil rulers (2nd century BC). They left no evidence except for the allusion in the Mahavamsa. The intermingling of Tamil and Sinhala people, especially after the 12th century is evidenced by the Sinhalization of many Tamil place names and the tamilization of Sinhala toponyms, see Place names in Sri Lanka. Although the Mahavamsa only mentions the name Sinhala after the 12th Century. It could also be said that the Sinhalese language is a diluted form of pali.

There is also a reference to Dravidian community Dameda (Damila or Tamil), and another reference to Jhavaka (?) and Mileka (=Mlechha).


Of these several ethnic groups, the Kaboja (or Kamboja, Kambodjin) find mention in seven or eight ancient inscriptions, whereas term Daemeda is referenced four times, Mileka occurs twice and the Muridi, Meraya and Jhavaka occur only once. The Sihalavatthu, a Pali text of about the fourth century, also attests a group of people called the Kambojas living in Rohana. The third story of this text, called Metteyya-vatthu, reveals that the Elder named Maleyya was residing in Kamboja-gama, in the province (Janapada) of Rohana on the Island of Tambapanni (Sri Lanka). Further, there is an ancient evidence from Mahavamsa that the Yonas or Yavanas (Greeks), the next door neighbors of the Kambojas in the north-west, had also their settlement in Pandukabhaya in Anuradhapura

The ancient inscriptions reveal that the Kambojas were actively involved in trade since there is reference to one 'Grand Trade Guild of the Kambojas' (Kabojhiya-mahapugiyana) and one 'Sangha of the Kambojas' (Gota-Kabojhi(ya]na) in Anuradhapura. Scholars have dated these epigraphic inscriptions to at least third century BCE (or probably earlier). This may imply that the Aryan speakers of Sri Lankan population may have materially descended from the north-western Kambojas and partly from the Saka (Murinda) and the Yavana colonists.. Plenty of evidence exists there that the Kambojas who inhabited a region bordering the upper Indus, had at one time established themselves in a country near Sind from where they, accompanied by the Yavanas, had finally reached Ceylon in pre-Christian times.

Feudal Sri Lanka (250 BC-1600 AD)

Anuradhapura dynasty

DEVANAMPIYA TISSA (250-210 BC). A Sinhalese King of Mauriya clan. His links with Emperor Asoka led to the introduction of Buddhism by Mahinda (son of Asoka) in 247? BC. Sangamitta, (sister of Mahinda) brought a Bodhi sapling via Jambukola(Sambiliturei). There is no evidence in the history of King Ashoka about his having had a son by the name of Mahinda (or by any other name) or a daughter by the name of Sangamitta (or by any other name). This king's reign was crucial to Theravada Buddhism, and for Sri Lanka.

ELARA 205-161 BC, a South Indian Tamil invader who ruled "Pihiti Rata", i.e., Sri Lanka north of the mahaweli, after killing King Asela. During Elara's time, KelaniTissa was a sub-king of Maya Rata (south-west) and KavanTissa was a regional sub-king of Ruhuna (South-east). Kavantissa built Tissa Maha Vihara, Dighavapi Tank and many shrines in Seruvila. DUTU GEMUNU (GAMINI) 161-137 BC – Eldest son of King Kavan Tissa, who was a young man 25 years of age, defeated the South Indian Tamil Invader Elara (over 64 years of age) in single combat, described in the Mahavamsa. Dutugamunu is depicted as a Sinhala "Asoka". The Ruwanwelisaya, built by this king is a dagaba of pyramid-like proportions. It was an engineering marvel.

Five Tamil Chiefs: PULAHATHA deposed by BAHIYA, deposed by PANAYAMARA, deposed by PILAYAMARA, murdered by DATHIYA 88 BC – deposed by Valagambahu, ending Tamil rule. VALAGAMBAHU I 89-77 BC – restored the Dutugamunu dynasty. The Mahavihara Theravada -Abhayagiri(pro-Mahayana) doctrinal disputes arose at this time. The Tripitaka was written in Pali at Aluvihara, Matale. CHORA NAGA (Mahanaga) 63-51 BC; poisoned by his consort Anula. Queen Anula 48-44 BC – Widow of Chora Naga and Kuda Tissa, first Queen of Lanka. She had many lovers who were poisoned by her. She was finally killed by: KUTTAKANNA TISSA. VASABHA 67-111 AD – Vallipuram gold plate; he fortified Anuradhapura and built eleven tanks; many edicts. GAJABAHU I 114-136 – invaded the Chola kingdom and brought back captives. He recovered the tooth relic of the Buddha.

MAHASENA 274-301 AD – The Theravada (Maha Vihara) was persecuted and Mahayana surfaced. Later the King returned to the Maha Vihara. Pandu 429 AD - first of seven Pandiyan rulers, ending with Pithya, 455; DHATUSENA 459-477 AD, his uncle, Mahanama wrote the Mahavamsa, he built "Kalaweva". His son KASHYAPA 477-495 AD, built the famous sigiriya rock palace. Some 700 rock graffiti give a glimpse of ancient Sinhala.


MANAVAMMA 684-718 AD – seized the throne with Pallava help. Manavamma introduced Pallava patronage for three centuries. By the 9th century, with the Pandyan ascendancy in southern India, Anuradhapura was sacked. However, the Sinhalese invaded Pandya using a rival prince, and Madurai itself was sacked. MAHINDA V 982-1029 AD – was the last Sinhala monarch of Anuradhapura. He fled to Ruhuna, where, in 1017, the Chola took him to prison and he died in India.

Chola empire

The great Raja Raja Cholan I, and his great son Rajendra Cholan I, defeated all of the Sinhalese kings and sub-kings who ruled over Sinhlala kingdoms on the island and brought the entire island under South Indian Tamil control. The Sinhala king Mahinda V and his family were captured and taken to Chola Naadu. Tamils ruled the entire island for the next 37 years (1018-1055).

Polonnaruwa rule

VIJAYABAHU I 1055-1110 AD, recaptured the whole Island, and established Polonnaruwa as the new capital. King Vijaya Bahu married from the Kalinga (Orissa) Royal Family a second queen, and had a son Vikrama Bahu and a daughter Ratnavali. His sister, Mitta, married a Pandya Prince who had three sons, the eldest being Manabharana. He married Ratnavali. Their son was PARAKRAMA BAHU I 1153-1186 AD – Grandson of Vijaya Bahu I, Prince of Sinhala-Pandyan-Kalinga descent, son of Manabharana and Vijaya Bahu’s sister, Mitta. He was a very powerful king, noted for his engineering, naval power, art, culture, many Sinhala inscriptions, and even a Tamil edict in Uruthota (Kayts). The Chulavamsa was written by Dharmakirthi, updating the Mahavamsa to include Parakramabahu. It was a great age since the epic Anradhapura period.

Dambadeniya kingdom

Jaffna kingdom

The Jaffna kingdom (யாழ்ப்பாண அரசு) (1215-1619 CE), also known as Kingdom of Aryacakravarti came into existence after the invasion of Magha, who is said to have been from Kalinga, in South India. It eventually became a tribute paying feudatory of the Pandyan Empire in modern South India in 1250, but later become independent with the fragmentation of the Pandyan control. For a brief period, in the early to middle fourteenth century, it was an ascendant power in the island of Sri Lanka when all regional kingdoms accepted subordination. However, the kingdom was eventually overpowered by the rival Kotte Kingdom, around 1450.

It was freed of Kotte control in 1467; its subsequent rulers directed their energies towards consolidating its economic potential by maximising revenue from pearls and elephant exports and land revenue. It was less feudal than most of other regional kingdoms in the island of Sri Lanka of the same period. During this period, important local Tamil literature was produced and Hindu temples were built including an academy for language advancement.

The arrival of the Portuguese colonial power to the island of Sri Lanka in 1505, and its strategic location in the Palk Strait connecting all interior Sinhalese kingdoms to South India, created political problems. Many of its kings confronted and ultimately made peace with the Portuguese colonials. In 1617, Cankili II, an usurper to the throne, confronted the Portuguese but was defeated, thus bringing the kingdom’s independent existence to an end in 1619.

Colonial era (1517-1948)

Portuguese era

The first Europeans to visit Sri Lanka in modern times were the Portuguese: Francisco de Almeida arrived in 1505, finding the island divided into seven warring kingdoms and unable to fend off intruders. The Portuguese founded a fort at the port city of Colombo in 1517 and gradually extended their control over the coastal areas. In 1592 the Sinhalese moved their capital to the inland city of Kandy, a location more secure against attack from invaders. Intermittent warfare continued through the 16th century.

Many lowland Sinhalese were forced to convert to Christianity while the coastal Moors were religiously persecuted and forced to retreat to the Central highlands. The Buddhist majority disliked Portuguese occupation and its influences and welcomed any power who might rescue them. In 1602, therefore, when the Dutch captain Joris Spilberg landed, the king at Kandy appealed to him for help.

Dutch era

It was in 1638 that the Dutch attacked in earnest, and not until 1656 that Colombo fell. By 1660 the Dutch controlled the whole island except the kingdom of Kandy. The Dutch persecuted the Catholics but left the Buddhists, Hindus and Moslems alone. However, they taxed the people far more heavily than the Portuguese had done. A mixed Dutch-Sinhalese people known as Burgher peoples are the legacy of Dutch rule.

In 1659, the British sea captain Robert Knox landed by chance on Sri Lanka and was captured by the king of Kandy. He escaped 19 years later and wrote an account of his stay. This helped to bring the island to the attention of the British.

British rule

During the Napoleonic Wars the United Kingdom, fearing that French control of the Netherlands might deliver Sri Lanka to the French, occupied the coastal areas of the island (which they called Ceylon) with little difficulty in 1796. In 1802 by the Treaty of Amiens the Dutch part of the island was formally ceded to Britain, and became a crown colony. In 1803 the British invaded the Kingdom of Kandy in the 1st Kandyan War, but were bloodily repulsed. In 1815 Kandy was occupied in the 2nd Kandyan War, finally ending Sri Lankan independence. Following the bloody suppression of the Uva Rebellion or 3rd Kandyan War in 1817–1818, a treaty in 1818 preserved the Kandyan monarchy (Nayaks of Kandy) as a British dependency.

The Kandyan peasantry were stripped of their lands by the Wastelands Ordinance, a modern enclosure movement and reduced to penury. The British found that the uplands of Sri Lanka were very suited to coffee, tea and rubber cultivation, and by the mid 19th century Ceylon tea had become a staple of the British market, bringing great wealth to a small class of white tea planters. To work the estates, the planters imported large numbers of Tamil workers as indentured labourers from south India, who soon made up 10% of the island's population. These workers had to work in slave-like conditions and to live in line rooms, not very different from cattle sheds.

The British colonialists favoured the semi-European Burghers, certain high-caste Sinhalese and the Tamils who were mainly concentrated to the north of the country, exacerbating divisions and enmities which have survived ever since. Nevertheless, the British also introduced democratic elements to Sri Lanka for the first time in its history. The Burghers were given some degree of self-government as early as 1833. It was not until 1909 that constitutional development began with a partly-elected assembly, and not until 1920 that elected members outnumbered official appointees. Universal suffrage was introduced in 1931, over the protests of the Sinhalese, Tamil and Burgher elite who objected to the common people being allowed to vote ,

Independence movement (1935 to 1970)

Ceylon National Congress (CNC) was founded to agitate for greater autonomy. The party soon split along ethnic and caste lines. Prof. K. M. de Silva, the famous Peradeniya historian has pointed out that the refusal of the Ceylon Tamils to accept minority status to be one of the main causes which broke up the Ceylon National congress. The CNC did not seek independence or "Swaraj". What may be called the independence movement broke into two streams, viz., the "constitutionalists", who sought independence by gradual modification of the status of Ceylon, and the more radical groups associated with the Colombo Youth League, Labour movement of Goonasinghe, and the Jaffna Youth Congress. These organizations were the first to raise the cry of Swaraj, or outright independence, following the Indian example, when Nehru, Sarojini Naidu and other Indian leaders visited Ceylon in 1926. The efforts of the constitutionalists led to the arrival of the Donoughmore Commission reforms (1931) and the Soulbury Commission recommendations, which essentially upheld the 1944 draft constitution of the Board of ministers headed by D. S. Senanayake. The Marxist Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP), which grew out of the Youth Leagues in 1935, made the demand for outright independence a corner stone of their policy Its deputies in the State Council, N.M. Perera and Philip Gunawardena, were aided in this struggle by other less radical members like Natesa Iyer and Don Alwin Rajapaksa. They also demanded the replacement of English as the official language by Sinhala and Tamil. The Marxist groups were a tiny minority and yet their movement was viewed with grave suspicion by the British administration. The heroic (but ineffctive) attempts to rouse the public against the British Raj in revolt would have led to certain bloodshed and a delay in independence. British state papers released in the 1950s show that the Marxist movement had a very negative impact on the policy makers at the Colonial office.

The Soulbury Commission was the most important result of the agitation for constitutional reform in the 1930s. The Tamil leadership had by then fallen into the hands of G. G. Ponnambalam who had rejected the "Ceylonese identity". Ponnamblam had declared himself a "proud Dravidian", and attempted to establish an independent identity for the Tamils. Ponnamblam was a politician who attacked the Sinhalese, and their historical chronicle known as the Mahavamsa. One such inflamed attack in Navalapitiya led to the first Sinhala-Tamil riot in 1939. Ponnambalam opposed universal franchise, supported the caste system, and claimed that the protection of Tamil rights requires the Tamils (15% of the population in 1931) having an equal number of seats in parliament to that of the Sinhalese (~72% of the population). This "50-50" or "balanced representation" policy became the hall mark of Tamil politics of the time. Ponnambalam also accused the British of having established colonization in "traditional Tamil areas", and having favoured the Buddhists by the buddhist temporalities act. The Soulbury Commission rejected these submissions by Ponnambalam, and even noted their unacceptable communal character. Sinhalese writers pointed out the large immigration of Tamils to the southern urban centers, especially after the opening of the Jaffna-Colombo railway. Meanwhile, Senanayake, Baron Jayatilleke, Oliver Gunatilleke and others lobbied the Soulbury Commission without confronting them officially. The unoffcial submissions contained what was to later become the draft constitution of 1944.

The close collaboration of the D. S. Senanayake government with the war-time British administration led to the support of Lord Mount-Batton. His dispatches and a telegram to the Colonial office supporting Independence for Ceylon have been cited by historians as having helped the Senanayake government to secure the independence of Sri Lanka. The shrewd cooperation with the British as well as diverting the needs of the war market to Ceylonese markets as a supply point, managed by Oliver Goonatilleke, also led to a very favourable fiscal situation for the newly independent government.

Second World War

During World War II, Sri Lanka was a front-line British base against the Japanese. The opposition to the war in Sri Lanka was orchestrated by the Marxist organizations. The LSSP leaders of the pro-independence agitation were arrested by the Colonial authorities. On 5 April 1942, The Japanese Navy bombed Colombo. This led to the fleeing of the Indian merchants who dominated the commercial sector in Colombo, removing a great political problem that had faced the Senanayake government. The Marxist leaders also escaped to India, where they participated in the struggle there. The movement in Ceylon was minuscule, limited to the English educated intelligentsia and trade unions, mainly in the urban centers. These groups were led by Robert Gunawardena, Philip's brother. In stark contrast to this "heroic" but ineffective approach to the war, the Senanayake government took advantage of the war to establish excellent rapport with the commanding elite. Ceylon became a main center of the war, with Mountbatten using Colombo as its headquarters. Oliver Goonatilleka successfully exploited the markets for the country's rubber and other agricultural products to replenish the treasury. They also used the war period to continue to agitate for independence, using the opportunities offered by the war to establish their "friendship" with Britain.

Meanwhile, the Marxists, who analysed that this was an imperialist war which should be followed by the proletarian revolution, followed a path of agitation totally unrelated to their negligible combat strength, and diametrically opposite to the "constitutionalist" approach of Senanayake and other leaders. A very small garrison on the Cocos Islands, manned by Ceylonese, mutinied. It has been claimed that the LSSP had some hand in it, although this is far from clear. Three of the mutineers were the only British Commonwealth troops to be shot for mutiny during the Second World War Two members of the Governing Party, Junius Richard Jayawardene and Dudley Senanayake held discussions with the Japanese with a view to collaboration to oust the British. Sri Lankans in Singapore and Malaysia formed the 'Lanka Regiment' of the Indian National Army.

However, the constitutionalists led by D. S. Senanayake succeeded in winning independence. The Soulbury constitution was essentially what Senanayake's board of ministers had drafted in 1944. The promise of Dominion status, and independence itself, had been given by the Colonial office.

Post war

The Sinhalese leader Don Stephen Senanayake left the CNC on the issue of independence, disagreeing with the revised aim of 'the achieving of freedom', although his real reasons were more subtle He subsequently formed the United National Party (UNP) in 1946 , when a new constitution was agreed on, based on the behind-the -curtain lobbying of the Soulbury commission. At the elections of 1947, the UNP won a minority of the seats in Parliament, but cobbled together a coalition with the Sinhala Maha Sabha of Solomon Bandaranaike and the Tamil Congress of G.G. Ponnambalam. The successful inclusions of the Tamil-communalist leader Ponnambalam, and his Sinhala counterpart Bandaranaike were a remarkable political balancing act by Senanayake. However, the vacuum in Tamil Nationalist politics created by Ponnamblam's transition to a moderate opened the field for the Tamil Arasu Kachchi, a Tamil soverignist party (renderd into English as the "Federal" party) led by S. J. V. Chelvanaykam, the lawyer son of a Christian minister.

Political independence

Dominion status, raised to independence itself followed on 4 February 1948, with military treaties with Britain (the upper ranks of the armed forces were initially British) and British air and sea bases remaining intact. Senanayake became the first Prime Minister of Sri Lanka. In 1949, with the concurrence of the leaders of the Ceylon Tamils, the UNP government disenfranchised the Indian Tamil plantation workers. This was the price that Senanayake had to pay, to obtain the support of the Kandyan Sinhalese who felt threatened by the demographics of the tea estates, where the inclusion of the "Indian Tamils" would have meant electoral defeat for the Kandyan leaders. Senanayke died in 1952 after falling from a horse. He was succeeded by his son Dudley Senanayake, the minister of Agriculture. However, in 1953 - following a massive general strike or 'Hartal' by the Left parties against the UNP, Dudley Senanayake resigned. He was followed by John Kotelawala, a very senior politician and an uncle of Dudley. Kotelawala did not have the enormous personal prestige or the adroit political acumen of D. S. Senanayake He brought to the fore, the issue of national languages that D. S. Senanayake had adroitly kept on the back burner. He antagonized the Tamils and the Sinhalese by stating conflicting policies with regard to the status of Sinhala and Tamil as official languages. He also antagonized the Buddhist lobby by attacking politically active Buddhist Monks who were Bandaranaike's supporters.

In 1956 the UNP was defeated at elections (being reduced to 8 seats in Parliament) by the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna, which included the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) led by Solomon Bandaranaike and the Viplavakari Lanka Sama Samaja Party of Philip Gunawardena. Bandaranaike was a politician who had nursed the Sinhala nationalist lobby since the 1930s. He replaced English with Sinahala Only as the official language. He was the chief Sinhalese spokesmen who attempted to counter the communal politics unleashed by G. G. Ponnambalam. In 1957 British bases were removed and Sri Lanka officially became a non-aligned country. The Paddy Lands Act, the brainchild of Philip Gunawardena was passed, giving those working the land greater rights vis-a-vis absentee landlords.

Bandaraike entered into a pact with Chelvanayagam of the Tamil-based Tamil Arasu Kachchi to secure more rights for the Tamils, but this was opposed by G. G. Ponnambalam and by JR Jayawardene of the UNP. The latter organised a "March to Kandy" in protest. This triggered hostility from the Tamil minority which soon led to disturbances, culminating in serious riots in 1958.

Philip Gunawardena, while in government, continued to organize strikes in the Colombo port. He was removed from the government as the right-wing of the governing coalition grew into the ascendent. The right-wing forces also conspired against the government. This was the time when McCarthyism was rampant in the United States, and Mossadeq had also been assassinated in Iran. Bandaranaike was assassinated in September 1959. His successor Wijayananda Dahanayake, an ex-LSSP member from Galle, was unable to hold the government together, and elections in March 1960 brought the UNP under Dudley Senanayake back to office, but without a working parliamentary majority.

Fresh elections in July saw Bandaranaike's widow, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, lead the SLFP to power and become the world's first elected female head of government. Her government avoided further confrontations with the Tamils, but its socialist policies of nationalization led to a cut-off of United States aid and a growing economic crisis. After an attempted coup-d'etat by right-wing Army and Police officers who were mainly non-buddhists, aimed at bringing the UNP back to power, Bandaranaike nationalised the oil companies. This led to a boycott of the country by the oil cartels, which was broken with aid from the Kansas oil producers co-operative. In 1964 she formed a coalition government with the LSSP, a Trotskyist party with Dr N.M. Perera as Minister of Finance.

Dissatisfaction with the economic situation brought the UNP under Senanayake back to office in 1965, but this government fared no better, since the underlying cause of Sri Lanka's problems were the declining market, the exploding population resulting from advanced health services and social welfare. Its traditional commodity exports, tea, coffee and rubber could not match the costs of importing food and maintaining the welfare economy. In 1968 Bandaranaike formed a coalition, the United Front with the LSSP and the Communist Party of Sri Lanka, which swept the 1970 polls on a platform of socialism.

Independent republic (1970 to present)

Under Bandaranaike the country became a republic, the Free Sovereign and Independent Republic of Sri Lanka, the Senate was abolished and the position of Sinhala as the official language (with Tamil as a second language) was confirmed. Full independence was established as the last remaining ties of subjection to the UK were broken (e.g. the Privy Council was no longer a body of appeal above the Supreme Court). The British-owned plantations were nationalised in order to fulfil the election pledges of the Marxist program and to "prevent the ongoing dis-investment by the owning companies".

An attempt was made at economic independence, with a five-year plan to achieve industrial development. However, this was stymied due to a shortage of foreign exchange, a very expensive welfare program, and the oil crisis of 1974. These were combined with an unprecedented drought which severely affected the harvest of rice, the staple food of the people. Strides forward were made in the fields of heavy industry, automotive spares and electronics. The strongly centralized economy, functioning via a set of state corporations grew very sluggishly.

In 1971 a group variously labelled Maoist or Guevarist, the People's Liberation Front (JVP) launched a rebellion. It was led by Rohana Wijeweera, a marxist who had his education at the Lumumba University in the Soviet Union. This movement was not connected with the traditional Sri Lankan Marxist parties which were then in power. Most of the "insurgents" were unemployed literate youth who were the product of the post-independence population explosion. Although the JVP rebellion was brutally suppressed, the JVP found a place in Sri Lankan politics as a voice of leftist Sinhalese nationalism, along with the right-wing movement in the UNP associated with Cyril Matthew. Militant Tamil Chauvinist movements, e.g., the Pulip Padai, had been launched in Trincomalee in 1965. The Jaffna university was "ethnically cleansed" of non-Tamils in 1976, and the city itself began to be subject to similar "ethnic cleansing", eliminating Muslim and Sinhala residents.

The extreme-Tamil groups rejected and physically eliminated the main Colombo-Tamil leadership of the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF). Tamil public servants or members of parliament working with the government were harassed. The mayor of Jaffna was assassinated in 1975. The militants claimed their independence, their rights, and their "traditional homeland", and formed armed separatist groups such as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam ('Tamil Tigers'), demanding an independent Tamil state called Eelam. Much of this had the implicit and material support of politicians in India. The country began to slide towards a civil war in which a unique cyanide-carrying suicide brigade appeared.

New constitution

By 1977 the voters were tired of Bandaranaike's socialist policies and elections returned the UNP to power under Junius Jayewardene on a manifesto pledging a market economy and "a free ration of 8 seers (kilograms) of cereals". The SLFP and the left-wing parties were virtually wiped out in Parliament (although they garnered 40% of the popular vote), leaving the Tamil United Liberation Front, led by Appapillai Amirthalingam, as the official opposition. This created a dangerous ethnic cleavage in Sri Lankan politics.

Bandaranaike had her civic rights removed by an act of Parliament. In 1978 Jayewardene introduced a new constitution making Sri Lanka a presidential 'Democratic Socialist' republic, with himself as executive President In 1980 he crushed a general strike by the trade-union movement, jailing its leaders. When the UNP member for the parliamentary constituency of Kalawana was removed on an election petition by his Communist opponent, Jayawardene allowed him to continue sitting in the house

In 1977, Colombo abandoned state controlled economic policies and its import substitution trade policy for market-oriented policies and export-oriented trade. This included the opening of free-trade zones with a heavy emphasis on exports of garments from these zones.

Elections to District Councils in 1981 were marred by the open theft of ballot boxes in Jaffna. The Jaffna Library, the repository of thousands of valuable documents was burned down by thugs alleged to be linked with the government.

President Jayawardene had the constitution amended (one of 13 amendments during his 10 years in office) to allow presidential elections to be held early, in 1982. The main opposition candidate, Hector Kobbekaduwa was garlanded with onions by the farmers of the Jaffna peninsular, impoverished by the policy of unrestricted imports.

The Presidential election, held amidst widespread acts of electoral malpractice (Hector Kobbekaduwa arrived at the polling station only to find his vote had already been cast) resulted in Jayawardene's re-election. He followed this with an infamous plebiscite on postponing parliamentary elections for six years. Associates of Kobbekaduwa, such as TB Ilangaratne and Vijaya Kumaratunga, were jailed as 'Naxalites', a political creed unheard of in Sri Lanka, before or since. The Commissioner of Elections, in his report on the referendum, reported that it was flawed.

In 1983 following a demonstration against the US establishment of a military base in Diego Garcia, former MP Vivienne Goonewardena was physically assaulted at a police station. Her fundamental rights application in this matter was upheld by the Supreme Court in an act of judicial independence Following this, thugs stoned the houses of the Supreme Court judges who had made the ruling and the police officer who had been convicted had his fine paid by the government and received a promotion.

Civil war (1983 to present)

In July 1983 communal riots took place due to the ambush and killing of 13 Sri Lankan Army soldiers by the Tamil Tigers. Using the voters list which contained the exact addresses of Tamils, the Tamil community faced a severe backlash from the Sinhalese rioters including the destruction of shops. It was rumoured that people behind the riots were government thugs supported by Jayewardene and his cabinet. While many Sinhalese were involved in the mob, many other Sinhalese kept Tamil neighbours in their homes to protect them from the rioters. During these riots the government did nothing to control the mob. Conservative government estimates put the death toll at 400 with 150,000 leaving the country resulting in a Tamil Diaspora in Canada, UK, Australia and other western countries.

Jayewardene held office until 1989, ruling as a virtual dictator under emergency powers. In 1987, following an army offensive in the Vadamarachchi peninsular, India started getting deeply involved in the ethnic conflict. A convoy sent by India was stopped in Sri Lankan waters by the Sri Lankan Navy and the Indian Air Force retaliated with an air drop of supplies onto the Jaffna peninsular. While the UNP organised street protests against India, Jayawardene declared that he would defend the country's independence to the last bullet.

However, the air drop also caused Jayawardene to reconsider his position and he then accepted the offer of Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi of a Peace Accord. Rajiv Gandhi's offer to send troops into Sri Lanka was deeply unpopular with the Sinhalese and, although initially popular with the Tamils, led to an outbreak of hostilities between the Tamil Tigers and the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) - Eelam War II.

In 1989 Jayewardene was succeeded by his own choice as President, Ranasinghe Premadasa, who asked for the Indian troops to be withdrawn - which was later done by Indian Prime Minister V.P. Singh. Premadasa was assassinated by a Tamil Tiger suicide bomber in 1993. Rajiv Gandhi had already met a similar fate in 1991.

Premadasa was succeeded by Dingiri Banda Wijetunga, with Ranil Wickremasinghe as Prime Minister. In August 1994 the People's Alliance under Bandaranaike's daughter Chandrika Kumaratunga won legislative elections on a platform of concessions to the Tamils and a 'balanced economy'. Kumaratunga became Prime Minister and in November she was elected President, appointing her 78-year-old (but still active) mother Prime Minister. A ceasefire ensued, which broke down after several months - the beginning of Eelam War III. Under the Bandaranaikes the war dragged on, with the military unable to defeat the separatists and the government opposed to negotiations. By 2000 an estimated 65,000 people had been killed in the conflict.

At Presidential elections in 1999, former Prime Minister Wickremesinghe of the UNP contested on a platform of no concessions to the Tamils, but was defeated by Kumaratunga. A 180-degree turn in UNP policy occurred and in December 2001 the UNP returned to office on a policy of a negotiated settlement with the Tigers, with Wickremasinghe as Prime Minister. A cease fire began, the first long cessation of hostilities since the beginning of the conflict. But the 1978 constitution left the Prime Minister with little power against a hostile President, and Kumaratunga did all she could to frustrate Wickremesinghe's government. In March 2004 she dismissed Wickremesinghe and called fresh elections, which returned the SLFP to office under Mahinda Rajapakse.

By 2005 there had been no further progress towards either a military or political solution. The assassination of Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar in August 2005, by the LTTE (although they denied responsibility), further hardened attitudes. His successor was Anura Bandaranaike, the President's brother and putative political heir. Twenty years of civil conflict had done immense damage to Sri Lankan society and the economy, which has fallen behind other Asian economies, although it remains the second most prosperous nation in South Asia.

In elections held on 17 November 2005, Mahinda Rajapakse, the son of Don Alwin Rajapaksa, was elected President, defeating Wickremasinghe. He appointed Ratnasiri Wickremanayake Prime Minister and Mangala Samaraweera Foreign Minister. Negotiations with the LTTE stalled and low-intensity conflict began. The violence dipped off after talks in February, but escalated in April and the conflict continues.

On August 2006 Red Cross evacuated 150 foreigners from Jaffna region after one month of fighting between the LTTE and the government.

See also


Books and magazines

  • Arsecularatne, S. N, Sinhalese immigrants in Malaysia & Singapore, 1860-1990: History through recollections, Colombo, KVG de Silva & Sons, 1991
  • Brohier, R. L, The Golden Age of Military Adventure in Ceylon: an account of the Uva Rebellion 1817-1818. Colombo: 1933
  • Crusz, Noel, The Cocos Islands Mutiny. Fremantle Arts Centre Press, Fremantle, WA, 2001
  • Deraniyagala, Siran, The Prehistory of Sri Lanka; an ecological perspective. (revised ed.), Colombo: Archaeological Survey Department of Sri Lanka, 1992
  • Liyanagamage, Amaradasa, The decline of Polonnaruwa and the rise of Dambadeniya. Department of Cultural Affairs, Government Press, Colombo, Sri Lanka. 1968.
  • Pieris, Paulus Edward, Ceylon and Hollanders 1658-1796. American Ceylon Mission Press, 1918.
  • Pieris, Paulus Edward, Ceylon and the Portuguese 1505-1658. American Ceylon Mission Press, 1920.
  • William Adair Nelson and R. Kumar de Silva, The Dutch Forts of Sri Lanka. Reprint: Sri Lanka - Netherlands Association, Colombo, 2004 (First ed. in 1984)
  • R. Kumar de Silva and Willemina G. M. Beumer, Illustrations and Views of Dutch Ceylon, 1602-1796. Serendib Publications, London, 1988.

External links

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