Sri Lanka Modern History

By | January 30, 2023

Sri Lanka is a country located in Southern Asia. With the capital city of Colombo; Sri Jayewardenepura Kotte, Sri Lanka has a population of 21,413,260 based on a recent census from COUNTRYAAH. The British colony of Ceylon became an independent state in 1948. During the first decade as a free nation, the contradictions between the country’s two largest ethnic groups increased: the majority people of Sinhalese and the Tamil minority. In 1972, the country became a republic under the name of Sri Lanka. In the 1970s, the Tamils’ demands for increased self-government were raised and the guerrilla Tamil Eelam’s Liberation Tigers (LTTE) launched an armed uprising for their own Tamil state. By 1983, the uprising had developed into a civil war. It was not until 2009 that the war ended, but not through a peace agreement but through the defeat of the LTTE militarily.

In February 1948, Ceylon became an independent state within the Commonwealth, with Stephen Senanayake as prime minister. Senanayake was also the leader of the right-wing United National Party (UNP) he founded in 1946. When Senanayake died in 1952, his son Dudley took over and the party won big in the parliamentary elections that year.

  • ABBREVIATIONFINDER: List of most commonly used acronyms containing Sri Lanka. Also includes historical, economical and political aspects of the country.

In the 1956 election, however, the Socialist Sri Lanka’s Freedom Party (SLFP), founded by Solomon Bandaranaike, won. SLFP largely won by playing on Sinhalese nationalist sentiments; contradictions between Sinhalese and Tamils ​​had grown stronger. Kravaller erupted when Bandaranaike made Sinhalese into the only official language shortly after the election (previously it was English). Check best-medical-schools for more information about Sri Lanka.

When Bandaranaike was assassinated in 1959, his widow Sirimavo took over. She became the world’s first female prime minister. The economy was governed in a more socialist direction, schools and companies were nationalized.

UNP and Dudley Senanayake returned to office in 1965, to be replaced again by Sirimavo Bandaranaike in 1970.

Left rebellion is knocked down

In 1971, an armed uprising broke out, led by students and activists in the left-wing Sinhalese nationalist movement People’s Liberation Front (JVP), who did not think the government’s policies were radical enough. The uprising was fought with great brutality by the police and the army. Over 1,200 people lost their lives.

By a new constitution, the country became a republic under the name of Sri Lanka in 1972. During the 1970s, Tamils ​​became increasingly discriminated against. Demands for increased self-government were increasingly replaced by demands for an own state in the north and east: Eelam. Several radical movements were formed. One group, the Tamil Eelam Liberation Tigers (LTTE), took to arms for their cause.

The 1977 elections led to the UNP returning to power. The following year, a new constitution was adopted and the presidential power significantly strengthened. UNP leader JR Jayawardena became president and also won the first presidential election in 1982. The UNP government opened the economy to foreign investment, allowed privatization of state enterprises and encouraged private enterprise in general. The government also cuts social grants. Growth increased, but so did the social gaps.

The Civil War erupts

From the late 1970s, political unrest increased, both from Tamil and Sinhalese. When the LTTE, or the “Tamil Tigers,” killed several Sinhalese soldiers in an assault in July 1983, the worst violence to date erupted in the country’s history. It was mainly Tamils ​​who fell victim to the anger of Sinhalese; Hundreds were killed. Over 100,000 Tamils ​​fled across the sea to India. In their attempts to defeat the LTTE, the military made great strides in the Tamil-dominated areas of the north and east. The Civil War was a fact.

Soon LTTE had control of large parts of the Jaffna peninsula in the north and also carried out several terrorist acts in the south. Step by step, the Tigers maneuvered other Tamil guerrilla groups and established a global contact network to support their fight.

In June 1987, a first peace agreement was signed between LTTE and the government, following the mediation of India’s Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. An Indian peace force was sent to Sri Lanka, but it soon ended up in guerrilla warfare. The force gradually increased to over 100,000 men. The Indian presence helped the Sinhalese nationalist JVP launch a terror campaign against supporters of the peace agreement.

In 1988, UNP candidate Ranasinghe Premadasa was elected new president. The UNP also won the next parliamentary election. In the same year, Tamil became the official language and Sinhalese, an important element of the peace treaty.

Rajiv Gandhi is murdered

But no peace existed. The Indian peacekeeping force was withdrawn in 1990. The same year, the military defeated the JVP, but at a high cost: large properties had been destroyed and thousands of lives were wasted. In the north, LTTE Muslims now attack. Hundreds were killed in massacres and tens of thousands were driven from northern Sri Lanka. Many were forced to flee over their heads, leaving large assets behind.

In May 1991, Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated during a suicide bombing in an Indian state of Tamil Nadu. The Tamil tigers were behind the deed which caused the guerrilla to lose its previous support in India.

LTTE continued with its terror: in a new suicide attack in Colombo in 1993, President Premadasa was killed. Concerns for increased political instability followed, but a successor could soon be appointed in legal order.

In 1994, SLFP returned to office. The party led an alliance that became the largest in parliament and in the presidential election its candidate Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga won. Her mother, veteran Sirimavo Bandaranaike, was appointed prime minister.


In the north, the civil war continued and the LTTE carried out terrorist attacks against central targets in Colombo and elsewhere. Prior to the 1999 presidential election, Kumaratunga was injured in a blast attack. She was re-elected a few days later.

In 2001, the guerrilla attacked the international airport outside Colombo. Half of Sri Lanka Airlines’ aircraft fleet was destroyed. The attack was a severe blow to the economy and the tourism industry. The government forces responded with air strikes in the north and LTTE countered with more suicide attacks.

New elections followed in December 2001 and now UNP became the largest in parliament. A UNP-led government was formed. A tense situation arose when President Kumaratunga of SLFP and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe of UNP were political arch enemies.

The UNP had already had contacts with the LTTE before the election and soon gave way to new mediation attempts, which had previously been initiated under Norwegian leadership. In February 2002, the government and the guerrillas signed an agreement on a ceasefire indefinitely. The LTTE stated that it abandoned the demand for full independence and negotiations started on regional autonomy. A Nordic observer force was added.

Exception laws are introduced

In April 2003, the LTTE interrupted the peace talks in protest against “failed promises”. The outlook for peace was further reduced in February 2004, when President Kumaratunga, who was strongly critical of the peace talks, dissolved the parliament and announced elections in April of that year. The winner of the election became the newly formed opposition alliance United Nations Freedom Alliance (UPFA), which, in addition to SLFP and other former alliance parties, also included JVP.

Sri Lanka was severely affected by the Indian Ocean flood disaster on December 26, 2004. Over 30,000 Lanes were killed and close to half a million became homeless in the tsunami that followed an earthquake off Indonesia’s coast. The greatest destruction was on the south coast and in the LTTE-controlled areas in the northeast. International organizations started a relief effort, but tensions soon arose between the government side and the LTTE in connection with the efforts being coordinated.

In August 2005, Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar, an ethnic Tamil, was assassinated by the LTTE. The government subsequently introduced exception laws.

When the presidential elections were held in November of that year, SLFP appointed incumbent Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa as its candidate. The LTTE announced that the election was “totally uninterested” for the Tamils ​​and kept the polling stations closed in the areas it controlled. Very few Tamils ​​voted, which contributed to Rajapaksa, known for a tougher attitude towards LTTE, winning over UNP’s candidate, Ranil Wickremasinghe, with just over 50 percent of the vote.

The military advances

Despite efforts to breathe life into the peace talks, the fighting escalated in 2006. The LTTE carried out several spectacular suicide attacks. The military carried out air strikes against Tamil positions. Several naval battles were fought between the guerrillas so-called sea tigers and the navy. Hundreds of people were killed and tens of thousands forced to flee the fighting.

The army invaded guerrilla-controlled areas in the east; Among other things, control of the strategically important port of Trincomalee was restored. One reason for the army’s success was support from the so-called Karuna faction that broke out of the LTTE and moved to the government side.

By July 2007, the security forces had secured control of virtually all of eastern Sri Lanka. Fierce fighting continued in the north, both on land and at sea.

In early 2008, the government formally terminated the 2002 standstill agreement, which in practice has long since ceased to function. The fighting in the north and the attacks in the rest of the country then intensified further. In September, the military launched an offensive and recovered step by step LTTE controlled land.

LTTE defeated

When the city of Kilinochchi fell in January 2009, President Rajapaksa called on the rebels to give up. The LTTE had for ten years had Kilinochchi as its “capital”. Soon the military occupied the entire Jaffna peninsula. Finally, the LTTE controlled only a small coastal strip near Mullaitivu on the northeast coast. There was great concern around the world for tens of thousands of civilians trapped in the area. The guerrillas were accused of using the civilians as human shields, and the government side to indiscriminately bomb the area. The appeal for a temporary cease-fire was rejected by the government, which said it was close to wiping out the LTTE. The UN Human Rights Commissioner accused both parties of war crimes.

In May 2009, Rajapaksa declared that the LTTE was defeated and announced that the guerrilla’s notorious supreme leader Velupillai Prabhakaran was dead. From the Tamil tigers came a statement that the armed struggle was over.

The price for peace was high. Thousands of people died during the last months of the offensive and hundreds of thousands fled. According to UN estimates, a total of 80,000 to 100,000 people were killed during the war.

When the fighting ended, up to 300,000 civilian locks ended up in government-controlled refugee camps. Soon, international criticism was heard for the refugees being trapped in the camps for months, often in miserable conditions. From human rights organizations also came accusations of war crimes committed by the military especially at the end of the war.

Violent choice

The victory over the LTTE strengthened UPFA’s popularity among the Sinhalese and President Rajapaksa took the opportunity to announce elections early. Ahead of the elections to be held in January 2010, the country’s weakened opposition merged into the United National Front (UNF), led by former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe. The presidential candidate of the opposition became General Sarath Fonseka.

Rajapaksa and Fonseka were close allies during the war, and until the end of the war, Fonseka was the country’s highest military leader. The two victors then became enemies and rivals, because both wanted to take on the honor of the victory over the guerrillas.

The election campaign turned violent. Over a thousand incidents were reported and four people lost their lives. Rajapaksa was re-elected with 58 percent of the vote against 40 percent for Fonseka. As a result, Rajapaksa’s victory margin had grown significantly compared to the 2005 election, when he defeated his opponent by just under two percent.

However, turnout was record low – only 50 percent voted and voted. Most of those who voted for Rajapaksa were Sinhalese, while the Tamils ​​and Muslims mainly supported Fonseka. Those who monitored the elections criticized the government for using the police, the media and the infrastructure to influence the outcome. In the north and east there were many refugees who could not reach the right polling station. It contributed to the low turnout and probably seemed to favor the government.

Rajapaksa vs. Fonseka

Fonseka claimed that the election was characterized by cheating and promised to go to court to have it annulled. He also said he was prepared to testify in an international war crimes tribunal on human rights violations committed by the government at the end of the war. The following day, Fonseka was arrested, accused of planning to overthrow the government.

Fonseka was eventually sentenced to several prison sentences, including for inciting allegations that the country’s defense minister, the president’s brother, would have ordered executions of captured Tamil tigers at the end of the war in May 2009. Since Fonseka’s health deteriorated, he was pardoned in May 2012 by President Rajapaksa.

The presidential election was followed by parliamentary elections in April 2010. Before the election, the opposition was further divided. A group of smaller parties, including the left-wing Sinhalese nationalist JVP, formed their own Alliance, the Democratic National Alliance (DNA), led by the detained Fonseka.

Partly with the help of the divided opposition, UPFA won a devastating victory, even if it did not suffice for a two-thirds majority that had made it possible to change the constitution on its own. The same criticism directed at the presidential election was repeated during the parliamentary elections, but the election campaign became much calmer.

Authoritarian rule

After the election, Rajapaksa himself seized a number of ministerial posts and two of his brothers also sat in the government. A growing number of positions in the state power were added with relatives to the president. Rajapaksa also undergone a constitutional change so that he could be re-elected an unlimited number of times and strengthened the president’s already great powers. Whoever was critical of his authoritarian rule lived dangerously. Human rights activists and other regime critics were harassed, and several murders of journalists remained unresolved.

After the war, the Tamil-dominated Northern Province was ruled directly by the government of Colombo. The military was the government’s extended arm in the north and controlled much of daily life there. As part of the government’s reconstruction project, the military confiscated land in the north and east. In areas of the seized land, so-called security zones were created. Elsewhere, agricultural products were grown for sale in the south. The government claimed that the presence of the military in the north was necessary to prevent the disbanded and banned Tamil guerrillas from resurrecting.

The Tamil refugee camps set up at the end of the war were eventually phased out, but tens of thousands of refugees were unable to return home. In some cases it was a risk of accidents with remaining mines and in other places the houses had been destroyed in the war or the land confiscated.

Already a year after Rajapaksa’s re-election, pressure on the government increased. The improvements expected by the Lankes through peace were not. The government was forced to introduce austerity measures to deal with a long-term budget deficit. Many got less in the wallet at the same time as prices rose and unemployment rose. Protests against the government’s policy became more and more frequent, and in several demonstrations the security forces used force, which sparked anger against the government.

Sri Lanka Modern History