|Background: Occupied by the Portuguese in the 16th century and
the Dutch in the 17th century, the island was ceded to the British in
1802. As Ceylon it became independent in 1948; its name was changed in
1972. Tensions between the Sinhalese majority and Tamil separatists
erupted in violence in the mid-1980s. Tens of thousands have died in an
ethnic war that continues to fester.
Government type: republic
Currency: 1 Sri Lankan rupee (LKR) = 100 cents
Geography of Sri Lanka
Location: Southern Asia, island in the Indian Ocean, south of India
People of Sri Lanka
The Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka (formerly known as Ceylon) is an island in the Indian Ocean approximately 28 kilometers (18 mi.) off the southeastern coast of India with a population of about 19 million. Density is highest in the southwest where Colombo, the country's main port and industrial center, is located. The net population growth is about 1.4%.
Sri Lanka is ethnically, linguistically, and religiously diverse. Sinhalese make up 74% of the population and are concentrated in the densely populated southwest. Ceylon Tamils, citizens whose South Indian ancestors have lived on the island for centuries, total about 12% and live predominantly in the north and east.
Indian Tamils, a distinct ethnic group, represent about 6% of the population. The British brought them to Sri Lanka in the 19th century as tea and rubber plantation workers, and they remain concentrated in the "tea country" of south-central Sri Lanka. In accordance with a 1964 agreement with India, Sri Lanka granted citizenship to 230,000 "stateless" Indian Tamils in 1988. Under the pact, India granted citizenship to the remainder, some 200,000 of whom now live in India. Another 75,000 Indian Tamils, who themselves or whose parents once applied for Indian citizenship, now wish to remain in Sri Lanka. The government has stated these Tamils will not be forced to return to India, although they are not technically citizens of Sri Lanka.
Other minorities include Muslims (both Moors and Malays), at about 7% of the population; Burghers, who are descendants of European colonists, principally from the Netherlands and the U.K.; and aboriginal Veddahs.
Most Sinhalese are Buddhist; most Tamils are Hindu. The majority of Sri Lanka's Muslims practice Sunni Islam. Sizable minorities of both Sinhalese and Tamils are Christians, most of whom are Roman Catholic. The 1978 constitution, while assuring freedom of religion, grants primacy to Buddhism.
Sinhala, an Indo-European language, is the native tongue of the Sinhalese. Tamils and most Muslims speak Tamil, part of the South Indian Dravidian linguistic group. Use of English has declined since independence, but it continues to be spoken by many in the middle and upper middle classes, particularly in Colombo. The government is seeking to reverse the decline in the use of English, mainly for economic but also for political reasons. Both Sinhala and Tamil are official languages.
Population: 20,064,776 (July 2005 est.)
SOURCES: The World Factbook, U.S. Department of State
Mother Earth Travel > Country Index > Sri Lanka > Map Economy History