History of Sri Lanka

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SRI LANKA'S HISTORICAL AND CULTURAL HERITAGE covers more than 2,000 years. Known as Lanka--the "resplendent land"--in the ancient Indian epic Ramayana, the island has numerous other references that testify to the island's natural beauty and wealth. Islamic folklore maintains that Adam and Eve were offered refuge on the island as solace for their expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Asian poets, noting the geographical location of the island and lauding its beauty, called it the "pearl upon the brow of India." A troubled nation in the 1980s, torn apart by communal violence, Sri Lanka has more recently been called India's "fallen tear."

Sri Lanka claims a democratic tradition matched by few other developing countries, and since its independence in 1948, successive governments have been freely elected. Sri Lanka's citizens enjoy a long life expectancy, advanced health standards, and one of the highest literacy rates in the world despite the fact that the country has one of the lowest per capita incomes.

In the years since independence, Sri Lanka has experienced severe communal clashes between its Buddhist Sinhalese majority-- approximately 74 percent of the population--and the country's largest minority group, the Sri Lankan Tamils, who are Hindus and comprise nearly 13 percent of the population. The communal violence that attracted the harsh scrutiny of the international media in the late 1980s can best be understood in the context of the island's complex historical development--its ancient and intricate relationship to India's civilization and its more than four centuries under colonial rule by European powers.

The Sinhalese claim to have been the earliest colonizers of Sri Lanka, first settling in the dry north-central regions as early as 500 B.C. Between the third century B.C. and the twelfth century A.D., they developed a great civilization centered around the cities of Anuradhapura and later Polonnaruwa, which was noted for its genius in hydraulic engineering--the construction of water tanks (reservoirs) and irrigation canals, for example--and its guardianship of Buddhism. State patronage gave Buddhism a heightened political importance that enabled the religion to escape the fate it had experienced in India, where it was eventually absorbed by Hinduism.

The history of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, especially its extended period of glory, is for many Sinhalese a potent symbol that links the past with the present. An enduring ideology defined by two distinct elements--sinhaladipa (unity of the island with the Sinhalese) and dhammadipa (island of Buddhism)-- designates the Sinhalese as custodians of Sri Lankan society. This theme finds recurrent expression in the historical chronicles composed by Buddish monks over the centuries, from the mythological founding of the Sinhalese "lion" race around 300 B.C. to the capitulation of the Kingdom of Kandy, the last independent Sinhalese polity in the early nineteenth century.

The institutions of Buddhist-Sinhalese civilization in Sri Lanka came under attack during the colonial eras of the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British. During these centuries of colonialization, the state encouraged and supported Christianity- -first Roman Catholicism, then Protestantism. Most Sinhalese regard the entire period of European dominance as an unfortunate era, but most historians--Sri Lankan or otherwise--concede that British rule was relatively benign and progressive compared to that of the Dutch and Portuguese. Influenced by the ascendant philosophy of liberal reformism, the British were determined to anglicize the island, and in 1802, Sri Lanka (then called Ceylon) became Britain's first crown colony. The British gradually permitted native participation in the governmental process; and under the Donoughmore Constitution of 1931 and then the Soulbury Constitution of 1946, the franchise was dramatically extended, preparing the island for independence two years later.

Under the statesmanship of Sri Lanka's first postindependence leader, Don Stephen (D.S.) Senanayake, the country managed to rise above the bitterly divisive communal and religious emotions that later complicated the political agenda. Senanayake envisioned his country as a pluralist, multiethnic, secular state, in which minorities would be able to participate fully in government affairs. His vision for his nation soon faltered, however, and communal rivalry and confrontation appeared within the first decade of independence. Sinhalese nationalists aspired to recover the dominance in society they had lost during European rule, while Sri Lankan Tamils wanted to protect their minority community from domination or assimilation by the Sinhalese majority. No compromise was forthcoming, and as early as 1951, Tamil leaders stated that "the Tamil-speaking people in Ceylon constitute a nation distinct from that of the Sinhalese by every fundamental test of nationhood."

Sinhalese nationalists did not have to wait long before they found an eloquent champion of their cause. Solomon West Ridgeway Dias (S.W.R.D.) Bandaranaike successfully challenged the nation's Westernized rulers who were alienated from Sinhalese culture; he became prime minister in 1956. A man particularly adept at harnessing Sinhalese communal passions, Bandaranaike vowed to make Sinhala the only language of administration and education and to restore Buddhism to its former glory. The violence unleashed by his policies directly threatened the unity of the nation, and communal riots rocked the country in 1956 and 1958. Bandaranaike became a victim of the passions he unleased. In 1959 a Buddhist monk who felt that Bandaranaike had not pushed the Buddhist-Sinhalese cause far enough assassinated the Sri Lankan leader. Bandaranaike's widow, Sirimavo Ratwatte Dias (S.R.D.) Bandaranaike, ardently carried out many of his ideas. In 1960, she became the world's first woman prime minister.

Communal tensions continued to rise over the following years. In 1972 the nation became a republic under a new constitution, which was a testimony to the ideology of Sirimavo Bandaranaike, and Buddhism was accorded special status. These reforms and new laws discriminating against Tamils in university admissions were a symbolic threat the Tamil community felt it could not ignore, and a vicious cycle of violence erupted that has plagued successive governments. Tamil agitation for separation became associated with gruesome and highly visible terrorist acts by extremists, triggering large communal riots in 1977, 1981, and 1983. During these riots, Sinhalese mobs retaliated against isolated and vulnerable Tamil communities. By the mid-1980s, the Tamil militant underground had grown in strength and posed a serious security threat to the government, and its combatants struggled for a Tamil nation--"Tamil Eelam"--by an increasing recourse to terrorism. The fundamental, unresolved problems facing society were surfacing with a previously unseen force. Foreign and domestic observers expressed concern for democratic procedures in a society driven by divisive symbols and divided by ethnic loyalties.


Sri Lanka was not immune to the spirit of the global and monumental change that swept the world in the late 1980s, promising to usher in a new international order in the 1990s. Indeed, at this writing events on the troubled island nation somehow seemed more under control than they had been in the immediate past. Yet Sri Lanka still had to cope with many of the same daunting and unresolved security problems that it faced in 1983, when a vicious separatist war broke out in the north--a situation later aggravated by an altogether different but equally debilitating insurrection in the south.

Sri Lanka's descent into violence was especially disturbing because for many years the nation was considered a model of democracy in the Third World. A nation with one of the world's lowest per capita incomes, Sri Lanka nevertheless had a nascent but thriving free-market economy that supported one of the most extensive and respected education systems among developing countries. Sadly, in 1990 the recollection of a peaceful and prosperous Sri Lanka seemed a distant memory.

Prospects for an enduring peace, however remote, lingered as the new decade began. On February 4, 1990, as Sri Lanka celebrated its forty-second Independence Day, the president, Ranasinghe Premadasa, who had assumed power a little over one year before, once again appealed directly to the island nation's more than 16 million people for an end to the long-standing communally based friction between the majority Sinhalese and the largest ethnic minority group, the Sri Lankan Tamils. He also pleaded for a cessation of the internecine struggle among competing groups within the Tamil community and of the open warfare by Sinhalese extremists against the government. The collective strife on the island nation, according to international human rights groups, had over the previous year alone taken as many as 20,000 lives and over the span of a decade killed thousands more. The economy was crippled, the democratic values of the country threatened, and the national memory scarred.

Soothsayers had characterized Premadasa's assumption of power in early 1989 as auspicious. Sri Lanka needed a person of stature and vision to guide the country in its healing process. Many thought Premadasa could fill that role. For the first time since independence, Sri Lanka had a leader who did not belong to the island's high-born Sinhalese Buddhist caste, the Goyigama. Premadasa came instead from more humble origins and was viewed by many Sri Lankans as more accessible than his predecessor, Junius Richard (J.R.) Jayewardene, under whom he had served as prime minister for ten years. One of Premadasa's first actions on assuming office in January 1989 was to lift the five-and-a-half- year state of emergency declared by his predecessor. Six months later, Premadasa was praised by both the Tamils and the Sinhalese for his unyielding opposition to the presence of the Indian Peacekeeping Force (IPKF), a military contingent sent into Sri Lanka in 1987 after an agreement between former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi and Jayewardene. The IPKF, originally a small force tasked with performing a police action to disarm Tamil separatists in the north, became increasingly entangled in the ethnic struggle and guerrilla insurrection and had grown at one point to as many as 70,000 troops.

By mid-1989 Premadasa was demanding from a sullen India the quick withdrawal of the remaining 45,000 Indian soldiers then on the island. Considering the resentment most Sri Lankans--both Sinhalese and Tamil--had by then developed toward India, the entreaty was both popular and politically expedient. Yet, having to rely on the Sri Lankan military's questionable ability to control the island's mercurial political milieu was a calculated gamble. Still, in June 1989, hopes soared as delicate negotiations were initiated between the government and the most powerful of the Tamil separatist groups, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). But by then Premadasa was faced with more immediate challenges. A spate of assassinations in the south and a nationwide transportation strike were orchestrated by Sinhalese extremists who had been in the forefront of political agitation against the presence of Indian troops on the island and also against any concessions the government made to Tamil demands for increased autonomy. Premadasa was forced to take urgent action, and he reimposed a national state of emergency, giving his security forces new and draconian powers of enforcement. As bickering between the Sri Lankan and Indian governments over a timetable for the Indian troop withdrawal continued, the Sri Lankan government unleashed a brutal campaign against the Sinhalese extremists. Reports of "death squads" composed of army and police officers who in their zealous pursuit of the subversives also claimed the lives of many innocent victims attracted the attention and ire of Amnesty International and other international human rights groups.

In late March 1990, India withdrew its last troops from Sri Lanka, thereby ending its much maligned three-year period of foreign entanglement, which had inflamed rather than defused the island's communal and political passions. The pullout created a power vacuum in the island's Tamil-dominated Northeastern Province that was expected to be filled by the resurgent Tamil Tigers. The Tamil Tigers, represented by their own political party, The People's Front of the Liberation Tigers--cautiously recognized by the government--were expected to combine political as well as military pressure against the rival Tamil groups favored by the Indians. Without waiting for the completion of the Indian departure, the Tamil Tigers already were reasserting their control, waging a vigorous and thus far successful military offensive against the Eelam People's Revolutionary Liberation Front, which headed the provincial government, and several secondary Tamil politico-military groups and their allied militia--the India-armed and trained Tamil National Army. Politically, their prestige enhanced by a reputation honed by their prolonged and skillful combat against the Indians, and what they called their Tamil "quislings," the feared Tamil Tigers were in a good position to win the elections for the Northeastern Provincial Council to be held later in 1990.

In their dialog with the government, the Tamil Tigers no longer emphasized full secession and seemed instead to be more intent, in the absence of their Indian adversaries, on consolidating their military and political power over rival Tamil groups. The government, aware that the Tamil Tigers had not formally renounced the concept of a separate Tamil state, however, realized that the hiatus in fighting could end in renewed fighting and in what could ultimately be the "Lebanization" of the country.

What went so tragically wrong for the beautiful island sometimes referred to as Shangri-la? The answer is elusive and can only partly be explained by the duress experienced by a multifaceted traditional culture undergoing rapid change in an environment restrained by limited resources. A close reckoning also would have to be made of the island's troubled past--both ancient and recent.

Sri Lanka claims the world's second-oldest continuous written history--a history that chronicles the intermittent hostility between two peoples--the Indo-Aryan Sinhalese or "People of the Lion," who arrived from northern India around 500 B.C. to establish magnificent Buddhist kingdoms on the north-central plains, and the Tamils of Dravidian stock, who arrived a few centuries later from southern India. The Tamil symbol became the tiger, and during one brief juncture in the island's history during the tenth century, Sri Lanka was ruled as a province by the Tamil Chola dynasty in southern India. The ancient linkage of northern Sri Lanka with the Tamil kingdoms of southern India has not been forgotten by today's Sinhalese, who cite as a modern embodiment of the historical threat of Tamil migration, the proximity of India's southern Tamil Nadu state and its 55 million Tamils--a source of psychological and military support for Tamil separatists on the island.

In the sixteenth century, the island was colonized by the Portuguese, later to be followed by the Dutch, and finally, and most significantly, the British in the late eighteenth century. The British succeeded in uniting the island, which they called Ceylon. They established and then broadened a colonial education system centered in British liberalism and democratic values, which would eventually groom the generation of native leaders who had successfully lobbied for independence. The British favored the Tamils somewhat over the Sinhalese, enabling them to take better advantage of what educational and civil service opportunities were available. By the time independence was attained in 1948, a body of able Sri Lankans, pooled from both the Sinhalese and Tamil elites, was ready to take control from the British in a peaceful and well-orchestrated transfer of power.

In its early post-independence years, Sri Lanka was fortunate to be led by Don Stephen Senanayake. He was a Sinhalese who was leader of the United National Party (UNP), an umbrella party of disparate political groups formed during the pre-independence years and one of the two political parties that has since dominated Sri Lankan politics. Senanayake was a man scrupulously evenhanded in his approach to ethnic representation, but his vision of communal harmony survived only for a short time after his death in 1952. He was succeeded briefly by two UNP successors, one of whom was his son Dudley. In 1956 control of the government went to the opposition Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) led by Solomon West Ridgeway Dias (S.W.R.D.) Bandaranaike, who became the island's fourth prime minister after winning an emotionally charged election.

The 1956 election marked the first instance of serious communal disharmony since independence and presaged the troubled years to come. Symbolically, the election coincided with the 2,500th anniversary of the death of the Buddha and also that of the arrival of Vijaya--the legendary founder of the Sinhalese people--on the island. Emotions became dangerously overwrought because Bandaranaike ran primarily on a "Sinhala Only" platform, which decreed that the language of the Sinhalese would be the only official language, with both English and Tamil branded as cultural imports. Bandaranaike also proclaimed that he would restore Buddhism to its historically elevated place in Sri Lankan society. The argument can be made that the 1956 election and its attendant emotionalism marked the beginning of the great division between what have become two completely separate and mutually hostile political systems in Sri Lanka, one Sinhalese and Buddhist, the other Tamil and Hindu. Post-election emotions escalated, and it was not long before tragedy followed. In 1958 an anti-Tamil rumor was all that was needed to trigger nationwide riots in which hundreds of people, most of whom were Tamils, died. The riots marked the first major episode of communal violence after independence and left a deep psychological rift between the two major ethnic groups.

In the years after the death of S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike in 1959, the SLFP has been headed by his widow Sirimavo, who led her left of center party to victory in the election of 1960 and again in 1970. Popularly regarded as a woman with a mandate to carry on her husband's legacy, she was esteemed by many Sinhalese who heeded her political guidance even when she was out of power. While in office, she vigorously enforced legislation such as the Official Language Act, which openly placed Sinhalese interests over Tamil, further dividing the body politic. During Bandaranaike's last tenure in power, from 1970 to 1977, the deteriorating security situation on the island intensified. In 1971 her new government sanctioned university admissions regulations that were openly prejudicial to Tamils. In the following year, she promulgated a new constitution that declared Sri Lanka a republic, but that was notorious for its lack of protection for minorities.

In 1972 a serious new threat to the stability of the island appeared. Established in the late 1960s, the People's Liberation Front (Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna--JVP), a violent movement alternatively described as Maoist and Trokskyite but one indisputably chauvinist in its championship of Sinhalese values, launched its first major offensive in 1972. The JVP attempted a blitzkrieg operation to take over the country within twenty-four hours; it was suppressed only after considerable fighting during a protracted state of emergency declared by the government. In the late 1980s, an invigorated JVP would arise and gather strength from the anti-Indian sentiment that followed the Indo- Sri Lankan Accord and the arrival of Indian troops in 1987.

In 1977 the UNP, led by J.R. Jayewardene, easily defeated Bandaranaike, whose Common Programme with its loosely administered socialist politics had proven so injurious to the economy. Declaring that his government would inaugurate an era of dharmishta, or righteous society, Jayewardene crafted a new constitution the following year, changing the previous Westminster-style parliamentary government to a new presidential system modeled after that of France. The 1978 Constitution, unlike its predecessor, made substantial concessions to Tamil sensitivities. The most blatant excesses of the Bandaranaike government were stopped, especially the discriminatory university admissions criteria aimed at Tamils and the refusal to give Tamil national language status. Yet these measures appeared to be a classical case of too little too late. The political disillusionment of Tamil youth, which had grown during the Bandaranaike years, continued unabated, and the separatist call for a Tamil Eelam, or "Precious Land," became increasingly accompanied by attacks on government targets.

Jayewardene, widely admired as one of the most learned leaders in South Asia, nevertheless was criticized for his inability--or reluctance--to recognize the disturbances in Sri Lanka as something more profound than merely a law and order problem. In 1979 with communal unrest growing steadily worse, his government passed the Prevention of Terrorism Act, at first a temporary, but later a permanent, piece of legislation that gave unbridled powers of search and arrest to the police and military. Government abuses soon followed, attracting the harsh scrutiny and condemnation of international human rights organizations. In time, Jayewardene was forced to broaden his assessment of the deteriorating security situation, and he initiated a series of negotiations on increased autonomy with the major Tamil political organization on the island, the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF). While the TULF and the government pressed for a conference of all appropriate bodies--a peace forum to represent all the religious and ethnic groups in the country--the Tamil Tigers escalated their terrorist attacks, provoking a Sinhalese backlash against Tamils and precluding any successful accommodation resulting from the talks. Thereafter, the talks took place intermittently and at best with only partial representation between representatives of the heterogeneous Tamil community and the government.

Important opportunities for a constructive dialog on Tamil and Sinhalese concerns continued to be missed as negotiators, driven by events seemingly beyond their control, hardened their positions. Under steady pressure from Tamil extremists and in their abhorrence of the Prevention of Terrorism Act, the moderate Tamil political organizations, notably the TULF, decided to boycott the 1982 presidential election. When the government proposed the following year to amend the Constitution to ban all talk of separatism, all sixteen TULF members of parliament were expelled for refusing to recite a loyalty oath. The government lost its vital link to mediation.The fissures in Sri Lankan society also grew wider with each new episode of communal violence. Serious rioting again broke out in 1977 and 1981, but the magnitude of unrest and violence that exploded in the July 1983 riots could not have been anticipated. The riots unleashed an unprecedented wave of violence that engulfed the island and divided Sri Lankan society. The aftermath of that social conflagration was still felt in the early 1990s.

The 1983 riots were in response to the ambush and killing of thirteen Sinhalese soldiers by the Tamil Tigers on the outskirts of Jaffna, the capital of Sri Lanka's Tamil-dominated Northern Province. A five-day rampage ensued, with lynchings and summary executions occurring all over the island. As many as 1,000 people, mostly Tamils, were slaughtered. Carefully carried out attacks by Sinhalese rioters in possession of voter lists and addresses of Tamils suggested collusion by some members of Sri Lanka's military and security forces.

Shortly after the riots Jayewardene hurriedly convened an All Party Conference, which was envisioned as a series of ongoing talks with the aim of bringing Tamils and Sinhalese together to negotiate a political settlement of their communal confrontation. The conference, which was first convened in January 1984, resulted in a series of proposals. These proposals, however, were rejected by several of the major Tamil opposition parties, including the TULF. In July 1985, the government, now joined by the active participation of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi of India, reopened a dialog with the TULF and other smaller Tamil political groups in a series of proposals and counter-proposals. Tamil demands focused on the issues of the devolution of central legislative, administrative, and judicial authority. Progress in the talks soon proved illusory, however, because the moderate TULF had little credibility among the militants, especially the powerful Tamil Tigers, who were steadfast in their opposition to any settlement with the government short of the establishment of a Tamil Eelam.

Jayewardene notified India and the TULF in 1986 that he would significantly devolve state powers, a concession he was previously unwilling to make. Jayewardene's proposed plan offered all nine provinces substantial autonomy, with many of the central government powers pertaining to law and order, representation, and land settlement transferred to provincial councils. The proposed devolution of central powers at that time fell short of meeting Tamil demands for a merger of the Northern and Eastern provinces into a single Tamil-speaking unit. Predictably, the Jayewardene Plan was attacked by Bandaranaike, who also refused to participate in the 1986 All Party Conference through which Jayewardene had hoped to achieve a national consensus.

By early summer 1987 Jayewardene, sensing that Tamil Tiger guerrilla activities against the government were an insurmountable impediment to his efforts at a negotiated peace settlement, launched a military campaign to dislodge them from their stronghold in the north. The Sri Lankan military succeeded in wresting a good proportion of the Jaffna Peninsula from the Tamil Tigers, who then withdrew to the city of Jaffna relying on the consummate guerrilla tactic of using a sympathetic citizenry to insulate them from pursuing troops. When the troops continued to advance and threatened to enter the Tamil stronghold, India, pressured by its Tamil politicians, warned that it would militarily intervene to prevent them from doing so.

New Delhi accused Colombo of employing starvation tactics against the people of Jaffna in its anti-Tiger military operations and demanded to be allowed to send humanitarian relief. Insulted, Sri Lanka refused the demand. In response, India sent a small flotilla of fishing vessels, carrying supplies of food and medicine. Sri Lanka's tiny but tenacious navy turned it away, however, changing India's gesture into a public relations fiasco. Perhaps because of wounded pride, India sent cargo planes escorted by fighters into Sri Lanka's airspace dropping a few symbolic supplies over Jaffna. Sri Lanka, vociferously protesting that its territorial sovereignty had been violated, labeled India a regional bully. While Tamil separatists applauded India's move, most others in Sri Lanka were incensed. Relations between the two countries plummeted.

Good relations with India had been of great importance to Sri Lanka since independence, but the ethnic crisis between the Sinhalese and the Tamils, which culminated in the mid-1980s, poisoned relations between the two states. India had been particularly strident in its accusations of alleged atrocities by the Sri Lankan security forces against the Sri Lankan Tamils and once went so far as to declare that the Sri Lankan government's "genocide" was responsible for the flight of thousands of refugees to India. Sri Lanka accused India of encouraging Tamil separatism and providing Tamil guerrillas sanctuary and training facilities in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu since the early 1980s. Jayewardene specifically leveled his public outrage at Tamil Nadu, calling the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam guerrillas a private army of the late M.G. Ramachandran, then the Tamil Nadu chief minister. Ranasinghe Premadasa, as Jayewardene's prime minister, did not distinguish Tamil Nadu's role from that of India, calling that country's alleged support of Sri Lanka's Tamil separatism the "terrorist equation."

Overcoming much bitterness, both Gandhi and Jayewardene eventually agreed that a confrontational approach would never address the complicated security and bilateral issues linking the two nations. On July 29, 1987, within two months of the airdrop incident, an agreement, henceforth referred to as the Indo-Sri Lankan Accord, was signed between the Indian and Sri Lankan leaders with the purpose of establishing peace and normalcy in Sri Lanka. The accord was timely and politically advantageous to both leaders. Jayewardene in Colombo was increasingly perceived as isolated from the events in the north, and his instrument of influence there, the Sri Lankan military, was depicted by the international media as an ill-trained and poorly disciplined force. He agreed to a plan of devolution that would give Sri Lankan Tamils more autonomy over a newly created Northeastern Province but would at the same time safeguard Sri Lanka's unitary status. Gandhi's government, reeling from an arms scandal, was able to trumpet a foreign relations victory as regional peacekeeper. Gandhi's strategy was to exercise India's military clout to weaken the separatist insurgency in Sri Lanka by collecting weapons from the same Tamil militant groups that it was accused of having previously trained and equipped. Furthermore, it was agreed that India would expel all Sri Lankan Tamil citizens resident in India who were found to be engaging in terrorist activities or advocating separatism in Sri Lanka. To enforce this new state of cooperation between the two nations, the Indian Navy and Indian Coast Guard would assist the Sri Lankan Navy in intercepting arms from Tamil militants based in India.

The Indo-Sri Lankan Accord had another, lesser known aspect, the importance of which Indian officials acknowledged afterwards, which bears on India's geopolitical perception of itself as a regional superpower. India, wary of competing influence in the Indian Ocean region, insisted that the accord be accompanied by documents which assured New Delhi veto power over what foreign nation could use the harbor facilities at Trincomalee in the northeast. Sri Lanka also was asked to cancel an earlier agreement with the United States that gave the Voice of America rights to expand its transmission installations on the island.

New Delhi was able to obtain the agreement of the TULF, as well as some of the lesser Tamil political groups, and for a brief time the acquiescence of the powerful LTTE, for a cease- fire. Within forty-eight hours of the signing of the agreement in Colombo, the cease-fire went into effect and the first troops of the IPKF arrived in northern Sri Lanka. Yet implementation of the accord proved problematic. Rioting Sinhalese mobs, inspired by anti-accord rhetoric voiced by Bandaranaike, disrupted the capital. At the farewell ceremony for Gandhi, following the signing of the accord, in a circumstance that proved more embarrassing than dangerous, a Sri Lankan honor guard clubbed the Indian leader with his rifle butt. Against this backdrop, it is not surprising that the accord held for less than three months.

By early September, violence was breaking out in Eastern Province where Sinhalese and Muslims were protesting the provisional merger of the Northern and Eastern provinces effected for the purpose of electing a single provincial council. The Sinhalese and Muslims felt that because the Northern Province was overwhelmingly Tamil, a merger of the two provinces would result in their minority status. Bandaranaike's SLFP skillfully capitalized on this atmosphere of panic, allying itself with influential Buddhist monks, who together mounted a well publicized campaign against the government's "betrayal" of the non-Tamil population of the Eastern Province.

In October 1987, the accord was repudiated outright by the LTTE following a bizarre episode in which seventeen Tamil Tigers were arrested for trying to smuggle in a cache of weapons from India. While in transit to Colombo, fifteen of the seventeen Tamil Tigers committed suicide by swallowing cyanide capsules. The LTTE, claiming that the prisoners had been forced to take such a desperate action while in custody, immediately made a number of retaliatory attacks on Sinhalese settlements in the east. The IPKF, ill suited to counter-guerrilla warfare, was accused by many Sinhalese of allowing the attacks to take place. Jayewardene angrily declared that if the Indians could not protect the citizenry, he would order the IPKF to withdraw from the province and put his own soldiers on the job. India denounced the Tamil Tigers for attempting to wreck the accord and declared its determination to maintain law and order. The IPKF then began what was the first of its many operations against the Tamil Tigers. The Jaffna operation was costly, taking the lives of over 200 Indian soldiers and bringing home to India the realization that it had underestimated the strength and persistence of the Tamil Tigers. Taking advantage of the distractions in the north, Sinhalese extremists of the JVP gained strength in the south, successfully carrying out several arms raids on military camps. The most spectacular attack the JVP attempted occurred in August 1987 during a government parliamentary group meeting, when a hand grenade exploded near the table where President Jayewardene and Prime Minister Premadasa were sitting.

In 1988 Jayewardene continued working toward the controversial merger of the Northern and Eastern provinces, where the Tamil separatists had long been active. The merger, initially a temporary measure, was a central part of the 1987 Indo-Sri Lankan Accord under which India sought to ensure that an elected provincial council in the Tamil majority areas enjoyed substantial power to administer Tamil affairs. Although the LTTE boycotted the provincial election and tried to disrupt it, as did the JVP, there was a surprisingly high voter turnout. Still, few Sinhalese voted, and without LTTE participation, the credibility of the provincial council was limited. Furthermore, many viewed the resulting provincial government, dominated by the Tigers's main rival group, the Eelam People's Revolutionary Liberation Front, as a creation of India.

As 1988 drew to a close, Jayewardene announced he would retire and not run in the presidential election scheduled for December. Premadasa, the UNP's candidate, ran against two others, the SLFP's Bandaranaike and a relative political unknown. As the presidential election approached, JVP subversives concentrated on crippling essential services such as buses and trains, fuel supplies, and banking. The UNP's presidential candidate, Premadasa, stated that this was a battle between the ballot and the bullet and that the bullet must not win. The election proved to be the bloodiest in Sri Lanka's history, but the ballot did in fact prevail, with voters defying threats from Tamil as well as Sinhalese extremists. Despite predictions that the voter turnout would not exceed 30 percent in contrast to the 80 percent turnout in the past presidential election, well over 50 percent of the nations's 9.4 million eligible voters showed up at the polls. Premadasa won by a large margin over his closest rival, Sirimavo Bandaranaike.

One of Premadasa's first problems when he took over on January 2, 1989, was what to do about the JVP, which was believed responsible for numerous assassinations the year before. In his victory speech, Premadasa appealed to the JVP to enter into talks with him. The Sinhalese extremists initially were willing to distinguish between him and the outgoing president, Jayewardene, whom they had earlier tried to assassinate. The JVP, which unleashed a steady barrage of anti-Indian propaganda against "Indian expansionism, invading Indian armies," was impressed by Premadasa's anti-Indian rhetoric and even went so far as to praise him as a patriotic leader. Encouraged, Premadasa used the occasion of Sri Lanka's Independence Day celebrations to make an impassioned appeal for an end to the killings on the island and proceeded a little more than a week later to hold the nation's first parliamentary elections in eleven years. The nation had endured another challenge to its democratic institutions despite the killing of substantial numbers of candidates of various parties and their supporters by the LTTE and JVP.

In May 1989 LTTE guerrillas decided to negotiate with the new government of Premadasa, holding the first direct peace talks between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tiger separatist fighters since July 1985. The unexpected decision underscored the fundamental changes that had been taking place among Sri Lanka's Tamil political groups. Political differences among the groups had widened, with some former separatist groups now represented in the Northeastern Provincial Council and in the national Parliament. The LTTE, the remaining guerrilla army in the field, had been isolated and weakened by prolonged combat with Indian troops. Premadasa, stating that he wanted to settle the Tamil problem among Sri Lankans, circumvented Indian participation in the talks. On June 1, Premadasa abruptly called for the withdrawal by the end of July of 45,000 Indian soldiers still in Sri Lanka. Gandhi, for his part, was determined not to lose face by having his forces hurried out of Sri Lanka too quickly in an election year. Yet, India's participation in the struggle had been costly in human, military, and diplomatic terms. The Indian troops were viewed suspiciously by most Sri Lankans, and India's police action had made its neighbors in South Asia uneasy. The Indians, with more than 1,200 casualties, accepted that it was time to go--but at their own pace.

There were critics who believed that Premadasa, who in June 1989 was forced to reimpose a state of national emergency after having lifted it for the previous six months, was making unrealistic demands on India to withdraw quickly; they also believed that he was unwisely pandering to prevalent anti-Indian emotions in order to recover from an early period of unpopularity. Although the argument was made that the longer the IPKF stayed in Sri Lanka, the stronger the support would be for the JVP, it was questionable whether the Sri Lankan military, which admittedly had grown dramatically since 1983, could have successfully controlled the ferocity of both the Tamil Tigers and the JVP without Indian help. Yet, as one Sri Lankan politician admitted, the president was in the unenviable position of having the "IPKF holding his legs and the JVP at his throat."

The Tamil Tigers, despite their truce with the government, remained a ruthless and effective military force. It was not known in 1990 how long their gesture of conciliation would last. The JVP had lost its charismatic leader, Rohana Wijewera, in November 1989, when he was captured and subsequently killed by government security forces, and it had been brutally suppressed by the government in late 1989 and early 1990. The group, however, still was active and might ultimately pose the most dangerous long-term threat to Sri Lanka's national security.

Premadasa placed much faith in his poverty alleviation plan-- his remedy for much of the unrest plaguing the island. But the plan as originally unveiled alarmed both foreign lenders and many Sri Lankan technocrats and would have greatly burdened the already huge government budget. After a period of mounting defense expenditures, systematic destruction of the economic infrastructure by subversives, a worldwide decline in demand for Sri Lanka's traditional raw products, and the partial eclipse of its once robust tourist industry, Premadasa's plan, while well intentioned, was perceived as economically unfeasible.

As Sri Lanka entered the 1990s, there were no clear answers as to whether its democratic institutions could survive another onslaught of anarchy, terror, and violence. As India withdrew its last troops from the island amid charges that it had failed to perform its primary task of disarming Tamil separatists, it, too, accused Sri Lanka of not having fully implemented the 1987 Indo- Sri Lankan Accord--charging that there had not been an adequate devolution of central power. Yet Premadasa has declared that "Sri Lanka's problems must be settled among Sri Lankans."

May 1, 1990
Peter R. Blood

SOURCE: Country Studies/Area Handbook by the US Library of Congress

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