Sri Lanka’s history is a source of great pride to both Sinhalese and Tamils, the country’s two largest ethnic groups. The only problem is, they have two completely different versions. Every historical site, religious structure, even village name seems to have conflicting stories about its origin, and those stories are, in turn, blended over time with contrasting religious myths and local legends. The end results are often used as evidence that the island is one group’s exclusive homeland; each claims first dibs.
In fact, the island’s location – its position along hundreds of ancient trade routes and its proximity to India – has resulted in a potpourri of visitors, immigrants, invaders, missionaries, traders and travellers, mostly from India, but also from East Asia and the Middle East. Many stayed on, and over the generations they assimilated and intermarried, converted and converted back again. The island’s history, like that of its ethnicities, is one of constant flux and shifting dominance. Nonetheless, the contemporary Sri Lankan take on history is deeply political and marked by deep ethnic divides – divides that may be totally artificial.
Legend and history
Prehistory & Early Arrivals Legend and history are deeply intertwined in the early accounts of Sri Lanka. Did the Buddha leave his footprint on Adam’s Peak (Sri Pada) while visiting the island that lay halfway to paradise? Or was it Adam who left his footprint embedded in the rock while taking a last look at Eden? Was the chain of islands linking Sri Lanka to India the same chain that Rama crossed to rescue his wife Sita from the clutches of Rawana, demon king of Lanka, in the epic Ramayana?
Whatever the legends, the reality is that Sri Lanka’s original inhabitants, the Veddahs (Wanniyala-aetto, called Yakshas in the Pali chronicles), were hunter-gatherers who subsisted on the island’s natural bounty. Much about their origins is unclear, but anthropologists generally believe that they are descended from people who migrated from India, and possibly Southeast Asia, and existed on the island as far back as 32,000 BC. It’s also likely that rising waters submerged a land bridge between India and Sri Lanka in around 5000 BC.
Historians and archaeologists have differing interpretations of its origins, but a megalithic culture emerged in the centuries around 900 BC with striking similarities to the South Indian cultures of that time. Also during this Early Iron Age, Anuradhapura began to grow as a population centre.
Objects inscribed with Brahmi (an ancient ‘parent’ script to most South Asian scripts) have been found from the 3rd century BC; parallels to both North Indian and South Indian Brahmi styles have been made, though Tamil words are used in many of those found in the north and east of the island. Sri Lankan historians debate these details fiercely, as do many Sri Lankans, but rather than there being two distinct ethnic histories, it is more likely that migrations from West, East and South India all happened during this time and that those new arrivals all mixed with the indigenous people.
Anuradhapura The 5th-century-AD Pali epic, the Mahavamsa, is the country’s primary historical source. But although it is a somewhat faithful record of kingdoms and Sinhalese political power from around the 3rd century BC, its historical accuracy is much shakier – and indeed full of beautiful myths – before this time. Nonetheless, many Sinhalese claim that they are descended from Vijaya, an immoral 6th-century-BC North Indian prince who, according to the epic, had a lion for a grandfather and a father with lion paws who married his own sister. Vijaya was banished for bad behaviour, with a contingent of 700 men, on dilapidated ships from the subcontinent.
Rather than drowning, they landed near present-day Mannar, supposedly on the day that the Buddha attained enlightenment. Vijaya and his crew settled around Anuradhapura, and soon encountered Kuveni, a Yaksha (probably Veddah) who is alternately described as a vicious queen and a seductress who assumed the form of a 16-year-old maiden to snag Vijaya. She handed Vijaya the crown, joined him in slaying her own people and had two children with him before he kicked her out and ordered a princess – along with wives for his men – from South India’s Tamil Pandya kingdom. (That, by this account, the forefathers of the Sinhalese race all married Tamils is overlooked by most Sri Lankans.) His rule formed the basis of the Anuradhapura kingdom, which developed there in the 4th century BC.
Buddhism arrived from India in the 3rd century BC, transforming Anuradhapura and possibly creating what is now known as Sinhalese culture. Today the mountain at Mihintale marks the spot where King Devanampiya Tissa is said to have first received the Buddha’s teaching.
The earliest Buddhist emissaries also brought to Sri Lanka a cutting of the bodhi tree under which the Buddha attained enlightenment. It survives in Anuradhapura, now garlanded with prayer flags and lights. Strong ties gradually evolved between Sri Lankan royalty and Buddhist religious orders. Kings, grateful for monastic support, provided living quarters, tanks (reservoirs) and produce to the monasteries, and a symbiotic political economy between religion and state was established, a powerful contract that is still vital in modern times.
Buddhism underwent a further major development on the island when the original oral teachings were documented in writing in the 1st century BC. The early Sri Lankan monks went on to write a vast body of commentaries on the teachings, textbooks, Pali grammars and other instructive articles, developing a classical literature for the Theravada (doctrine of the elders) school of Buddhism (p285) that continues to be referenced by Theravada Buddhists around the world. The arrival of the tooth relic of the Buddha at Anuradhapura in AD 371 further reinforced the position of Buddhism in Sinhalese society. Buddhism gave the Sinhalese a sense of national purpose and identity, and inspired the development of their culture and literature.
The Anuradhapura kingdom covered the whole island during the 2nd century BC, but it frequently fought, and coexisted with, other dynasties on the island over the centuries, especially the Tamil Cholas. The boundaries between Anuradhapura and various South Indian kingdoms were frequently shifting, and Anuradhapura was also involved in conflicts in South India. A number of Sinhalese heroes arose to repel South Indian kingdoms, including Vijayabahu I (11th century AD), who finally decided to abandon Anuradhapura and make Polonnaruwa, further southeast, his capital.
For centuries the kingdom was able to rebuild after its battles through rajakariya, the system of free labour for the king. This free labour provided the resources to restore buildings, tanks and irrigation systems and to develop agriculture. The system was not banished from the island until 1832, when the British passed laws banning slavery.
Polonnaruwa The next capital, at Polonnaruwa, survived for more than two centuries and produced two more notable rulers. Parakramabahu I (r 1153–86), nephew of Vijayabahu I, was not content simply to expel the South Indian Tamil Chola empire from Sri Lanka, but carried the fight to South India and even made a raid on Myanmar. He also constructed many new tanks around the island, and lavished public money to make Polonnaruwa a great Asian capital.
His benevolent successor, Nissanka Malla (r 1187–96), was the last king of Polonnaruwa to care for the well-being of his people. He was followed by a series of weak rulers, and with the decay of the irrigation system, disease spread and Polonnaruwa was abandoned. The lush jungle reclaimed the second Sinhalese capital in just a few decades.
After Polonnaruwa, Sinhalese power shifted to the southwest of the island, and between 1253 and 1400 there were another five different capitals, none of them as powerful as Anuradhapura or Polonnaruwa. Meanwhile, the powerful kingdom of Jaffna expanded to cover a huge part of the island. When Arab traveller Ibn Batuta visited Ceylon in 1344, he reported that it extended south as far as Puttalam.
With the decline of the Sinhalese northern capitals and the ensuing Sinhalese migration south, a wide jungle buffer zone separated the northern, mostly coastal Tamil settlements and the southern, interior Sinhalese settlements. For many centuries, this jungle barrier kept Sinhalese and Tamils largely apart, sowing the seeds for Sri Lanka’s ethnic dichotomy.
Trade & Conquest
Enter the Portuguese At the heart of the Indian Ocean, Sri Lanka had been a trading hub even before Arab traders arrived in the 7th century AD with their new Islamic faith. Gems, cinnamon, ivory and elephants were the valued items of commerce. Early Muslim settlements took hold in Jaffna and Galle, but the arrival of a European power, focused as much on domination as trade, forced many Muslims inland to flee persecution.
When the Portuguese arrived in 1505, Sri Lanka had three main kingdoms: the Tamil kingdom of Jaffna, and Sinhalese kingdoms in Kandy and Kotte (near Colombo). Lorenço de Almeida, the son of the Portuguese Viceroy of India, established friendly relations with the Kotte kingdom and gained a monopoly on the valuable spice trade. The Portuguese eventually gained control of the Kotte kingdom.
Tamil-Portuguese relations were less cordial and Jaffna successfully resisted two Portuguese expeditions before falling in 1619, at which point the Portuguese destroyed Jaffna’s many beautiful Hindu temples and its royal library. Portugal eventually took over the entire west coast, then the east, but the Kandyan kingdom in the central highlands steadfastly resisted domination.
The Portuguese brought along religious orders, including the Dominicans and Jesuits. Many coastal communities converted, but other resistance to Christianity was met with massacres and the destruction of local temples. Buddhists fled to Kandy, and the Hill Country city assumed its role as protector of the Buddhist faith, a sacred function solidified by another three centuries of unsuccessful attempts at domination by European powers.
The Dutch & the British In 1602 the Dutch arrived, just as keen as the Portuguese on dominating the lucrative traffic in Indian Ocean spices. In exchange for Sri Lankan autonomy, the Kandyan king, Rajasinha II, gave the Dutch a monopoly on the spice trade. Despite the deal, the Dutch made repeated unsuccessful attempts to subjugate Kandy during their 140-year rule.
The Dutch were more industrious than the Portuguese, and canals were built along the west coast to transport cinnamon and other crops. Some can be seen around Negombo today. The legal system of the Dutch era still forms part of Sri Lanka’s legal canon.
The British initially viewed Sri Lanka in strategic terms, and considered the eastern harbour of Trincomalee as a counter to French influence in India. After the French took over the Netherlands in 1794, the pragmatic Dutch ceded Sri Lanka to the British for ‘protection’ in 1796. The British moved quickly, making the island a colony in 1802 and finally taking over Kandy in 1815. Three years later the first unified administration of the island by a European power was established.
The British conquest unsettled many Sinhalese, who believed that only the custodians of the tooth relic had the right to rule the land. Their apprehension was somewhat relieved when a senior monk removed the tooth relic from the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, thereby securing it (and the island’s symbolic sovereignty) for the Sinhalese people.
Sinhalese angst grew further when British settlers began arriving in the 1830s. Coffee and rubber were largely replaced by tea from the 1870s, and the island’s demographic mix was profoundly altered with an influx of Tamil labourers – so called ‘Plantation Tamils’ – from South India. (These ‘Plantation Tamils’ were – and still are – separated by geography, history and caste from the Jaffna Tamils.) Tamil settlers from the North made their way south to Colombo, while Sinhalese headed to Jaffna. British colonisation set the island in a demographic flux
The Road to Independence
Growing Nationalism The dawning of the 20th century was an important time for the grassroots Sri Lankan nationalist movement. Towards the end of the 19th century, Buddhist and Hindu campaigns were established with the dual aim of making the faiths more contemporary in the wake of European colonialism, and defending traditional Sri Lankan culture against the impact of Christian missionaries. The logical progression was for these groups to demand greater Sri Lankan participation in government, and by 1910 they had secured the minor concession of allowing Sri Lankans to elect one lonely member to the Legislative Council.
By 1919 the nationalist mission was formalised as the Ceylon National Congress. The Sinhalese-nationalist activist Anagarika Dharmapala was forced to leave the country, and the mantle for further change was taken up by a variety of youth leagues, some Sinhalese and some Tamil. In 1927 Mahatma Gandhi visited Tamil youth activists in Jaffna, providing further momentum to the cause.
Further reform came in 1924, when a revision to the constitution allowed for representative government, and again in 1931, when a new constitution finally included the island’s leaders in the parliamentary decision-making process and granted universal suffrage. Under the constitution no one ethnic community could dominate the political process, and a series of checks and balances ensured all areas of the government were overseen by a committee drawn from all ethnic groups. However, both Sinhalese and Tamil political leaders failed to thoroughly support the country’s pre-independence constitution, foreshadowing the problems that were to characterise the next eight decades.
From Ceylon to Sri Lanka Following India’s independence in 1947, Ceylon (as Sri Lanka was then called) became fully independent on 4 February 1948. Despite featuring members from all of the island’s ethnic groups, the ruling United National Party (UNP) really only represented the interests of an Englishspeaking elite. The UNP’s decision to try to deny the ‘Plantation Tamils’ citizenship and repatriate them to India was indicative of a rising tide of Sinhalese nationalism.
In 1956 this divide further increased when the Sri Lankan Freedom Party (SLFP) came to power with an agenda based on socialism, Sinhalese nationalism and government support for Buddhism. One of the first tasks of the SLFP leader SWRD Bandaranaike was to fulfil a campaign promise to make Sinhala the country’s sole official language. Under the British, Tamils became capable English speakers and were overrepresented in universities and public service jobs, which created Sinhalese resentment, especially during the slow economy of the 1950s. The main political parties played on the Sinhalese fear that their religion, language and culture could all be swamped by Indians, perceived to be natural allies of Sri Lankan Tamils. The Tamils, whose Hindu identity had also become more pronounced in the lead-up to independence, began to find themselves in the position of threatened minority.
The Sinhala-only bill disenfranchised Sri Lanka’s Hindu and Muslim Tamil-speaking population: almost 30% of the country suddenly lost access to government jobs and services. Although tensions had been simmering since the end of colonial rule, this decision marked the beginning of Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict.
A similar scenario played out in 1970, when a law was passed favouring Sinhalese for admission to universities, reducing numbers of Tamil students. Then, following an armed insurrection against the government by the hardline anti-Tamil, student-led People’s Liberation Front (Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna or JVP), a new constitution (which changed Ceylon’s name to Sri Lanka) gave Buddhism ‘foremost place’ in Sri Lanka and made it the state’s duty to ‘protect and foster’ Buddhism. Unrest grew among northern Tamils, and a state of emergency was imposed on their home regions for several years from 1971. The police and army that enforced the state of emergency included few Tamils (partly because of the ‘Sinhala only’ law), creating further division and, for Tamils, an acute sense of oppression.
Birth of the Tigers In the mid-1970s several groups of young Tamils, some of them militant, began advocating for an independent Tamil state called Eelam (Precious Land). They included Vellupillai Prabhakaran, one of the founders of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), often referred to as the Tamil Tigers.
Tamil had been elevated to the status of ‘national language’ for official work, but only in Tamil-majority areas. Clashes between Tamils and security forces developed into a pattern of killings and counter-reprisals, all too often with civilians in the crossfire. Passions on both sides rose, and a pivotal moment came in 1981, when a group of Sinhalese men (some say government forces) burnt down Jaffna’s library, which contained, among other things, various histories of the Tamil people, some of which were ancient palm-leaf manuscripts.
Small-scale reprisals followed, but the world only took notice two years later, in 1983, when, in response to the Tigers’ ambushing and killing of 13 soldiers in the Jaffna region, full-scale anti-Tamil massacres erupted in Colombo. In a riot now known as Black July, between 400 and 3000 Tamils were clubbed, beaten, burned or shot to death, and Tamil property was looted and burned. Several Tamil-majority areas, including Colombo’s Pettah district, were levelled, and the violence spread to other parts of the country.
The government, the police and the army were either unable or unwilling to stop the violence; some of them assisted. Hundreds of thousands of Tamils left the country or fled to Tamil-majority areas in the North or East – and many joined the resistance. (Many Sinhalese, meanwhile, moved south from the North and East.) The horror of Black July prompted a groundswell of international sympathy for Tamil armed resistance groups, and brought funding from fellow Tamils in southern India, as well as from the government of Indira Gandhi.
Revenge and counter-revenge attacks continued, and grew into atrocities and massacres – on both sides. The government was widely condemned for acts of torture and disappearances, but it pointed to the intimidation and violence against civilians, including Tamils and Muslims, by the Tamil fighters.
Implementation of a 1987 accord, which would offer limited Tamil autonomy, alongside officialising Tamil as a national language, never happened, and the conflict escalated into a 25-year civil war that would eventually claim upwards of 100,000 lives.
Attempts at peace
Indian Peacekeeping In 1987 government forces pushed the LTTE back into Jaffna. In an attempt to disarm the Tamil rebels and keep the peace in northern and eastern Sri Lanka, the prime minister, JR Jayawardene, struck a deal with India for an Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF). A single provincial council would be elected to govern the region with substantial autonomy for a trial period.
It soon became clear the deal suited no one. The LTTE complied initially before the Indians tried to isolate it by promoting and arming other Tamil rebel groups. Opposition to the Indians also came from the Sinhalese, a revived JVP and sections of the sangha (community of Buddhist monks and nuns), leading to violent demonstrations. In 1987 the JVP launched a second revolution with political murders and strikes, and by late 1988 the country was terrorised, the economy crippled and the government paralysed. The army struck back with a ruthless counter-insurgency campaign. The insurrection was put down, but not before tens of thousands died.
By the time the Indian peacekeepers withdrew, in March 1990, they had lost more than 1000 lives in just three years. But no sooner had they left than the war between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government escalated again. By the end of 1990 the LTTE held Jaffna and much of the North, although the East was largely back under government control. In May 1991 Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated by a suicide bomber; it was blamed on the LTTE, presumably in retaliation for consenting to the IPKF arrangement.
The 2002 Ceasefire Although most Tamils and Sinhalese longed for peace, extremists on both sides pressed on with war. President Premadasa was assassinated at a May Day rally in 1993. The LTTE was suspected but never claimed responsibility. The following year, the People’s Alliance (PA) won the parliamentary elections; its leader, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, the daughter of former leader Sirimavo Bandaranaike, won the presidential election. The PA had promised to end the civil war, but the conflict continued in earnest.
In 2000 a Norwegian peace mission brought the LTTE and the government to the negotiating table, but a ceasefire had to wait until after the December 2001 elections, which handed power to the UNP. Ranil Wickremasinghe became prime minister, and economic growth was strong while peace talks appeared to progress. Wickremasinghe and President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, however, were from different parties, and circled each other warily until 2003, when Kumaratunga dissolved parliament and essentially ousted Wickremasinghe and his UNP.
In 2002, following the Norway-brokered ceasefire agreement, a careful optimism reigned. In the North, refugees, internally displaced persons and long-absent émigrés began to return, bringing an economic boost to devastated Jaffna. Nongovernmental organisations startled tackling, among other things, an estimated two million land mines.
But peace talks stumbled, and the situation became ever more fraught. Accusations of bias and injustice were hurled from all sides. In October 2003 the US listed the LTTE as a Foreign Terrorist Organisation (FTO). Some believed this to be a positive move; others saw it as an action that would isolate the LTTE, thereby causing further strain and conflict. In early 2004 a split in LTTE ranks pitched a new dynamic into the mix, and with killings, insecurity, accusations and ambiguities, the Norwegians went home. At that stage almost all of Sri Lanka, including most of the Jaffna peninsula, was controlled by the Sri Lankan government. The LTTE controlled a small area south of the Jaffna peninsula and pockets in the East, but it still had claims on land in the Jaffna peninsula and in the northwest and northeast of the island.
After the Tsunami An event beyond all predictions struck the island on 26 December 2004, affecting not only the peace process but also the entire social fabric of Sri Lanka. As people celebrated the monthly poya (full moon) festivities, the waves of a tsunami cast their fury, killing 30,000 people and leaving many more injured, homeless and orphaned. Initially there was optimism that the nation would come together in the face of catastrophe, but this soon faded into arguments over aid distribution, reconstruction, and land tenure and ownership.
Meanwhile Kumaratunga, seeking to extend her presidential term, sought to have the constitution altered. Her plans were thwarted by a Supreme Court ruling that directed that presidential elections occur in 2005. Among the numerous contenders, two candidates were the most likely victors – the then prime minister, Mahinda Rajapaksa, and the opposition leader, Ranil Wickremasinghe. With a LTTE boycott on voting, Rajapaksa won by a narrow margin. The LTTE’s motives for the boycott were unclear, but their actions cost Wickremasinghe an expected 180,000 votes and the presidency and, perhaps, a better chance at peace.
President Rajapaksa pledged to replace the Norwegian peace negotiators with those from the UN and India, renegotiate a ceasefire with the LTTE, reject Tamil autonomy and refuse to share tsunami aid with the LTTE. Such policies did not auger well for future peace. Meanwhile LTTE leader Prabhakaran insisted on a political settlement during 2006, and threatened to ‘intensify’ action if this did not occur. Tensions were high, and once again Sri Lanka was perched on a precipice. Killings, assaults, kidnappings and disappearances occurred on both sides, and commentators predicted the worst.
The end of the war Another ceasefire was signed in early 2006, but cracks began to appear almost at the start, and by mid-year the agreement was in tatters. Major military operations by both sides resumed in the North and East, and a wave of disappearances and killings in 2006 and 2007 prompted humanrights groups and the international community to strongly criticise all belligerents. By August the fighting in the northeast was the most intense since the 2002 ceasefire, and peace talks in Geneva failed again. The optimistic days of negotiation and ceasefire seemed more distant than ever.
In January 2008 the Sri Lankan government officially pulled out of the ceasefire agreement, signalling its dedication to ending the 25-yearold civil conflict by military means. When the LTTE offered a unilateral ceasefire in support of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) in Colombo, the government response was an emphatic no. Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa (the younger brother of the president) called the offer a ‘ploy by the LTTE...to strengthen it militarily under the guise of holding negotiations’.
A change in military strategy saw the Sri Lankan security forces fight fire with fire with an increase in guerrilla-style attacks, and by August the Sri Lankan Army (SLA) had entered the LTTE’s final stronghold, the jungle area of the Vanni. The Sri Lankan government stated that the army was on track to capture the LTTE capital Kilinochchi by the end of 2008. Faced with a series of battleground defeats, the LTTE struck back with another suicide bomb in Anuradhapura, killing 27 people.
In September 2008 the Sri Lankan government ordered UN agencies and NGOs to leave the Vanni region, saying it could no longer guarantee their safety. This may have been true, but their withdrawal denied a beleaguered population of Tamils access to humanitarian support and the security of a human-rights watchdog. The departure of the NGOs, and barring of independent journalists from the conflict region, made (and continues to make) it impossible to verify claims made by either side about the final battles of the war, which were now starting in earnest.
Government and LTTE forces remained dug in around Kilinochchi – the de facto capital of the unofficial Tamil Eelam state since 1990 – until the SLA declared victory there in January 2009. This was followed rapidly by claims of control throughout the Vanni, and by February, the LTTE had lost 99% of the territory it had controlled just 12 months earlier.
Government advances pushed remaining LTTE forces and the 300,000 Tamil civilians they brought with them to an increasingly tiny area in the northeast near Mullaittivu. Amid growing claims of civilian casualties and humanitarian concerns for the noncombatants hemmed in by the fighting, foreign governments and the UN called for an immediate ceasefire in Feb-ruary 2009. Military operations continued, but escape routes were opened for those fleeing the fighting to move to no-fire zones, where there was to be further transport to welfare centres. The military, claiming that attacks were being launched from within the safe zones, then shelled them for days.
With claims that the Sri Lankan military was bombing civilians in the ‘safe areas’, and counter-claims that the LTTE was using Tamil civilians as human shields and stopping them from leaving the conflict zone, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay accused both sides of war crimes. But the international community remained largely quiet.
The Bitter End By April, tens of thousands of Tamil civilians along with LTTE fighters were confined to a single stretch of beach, where they were bombarded from all sides. The LTTE offered the Sri Lankan government a unilateral ceasefire, but given that the Sri Lankan military’s objectives were so close to being fulfilled it was naturally dismissed as ‘a joke’ by the Sri Lankan Defence Secretary. Other efforts by Swedish, French and British diplomats to inspire a truce were also dismissed by a Sri Lankan government with ultimate battleground success in its sights after three decades.
The government forces finally penetrated the LTTE and implored trapped war refugees to move to safe areas. The Tigers allegedly blocked many from leaving and killed others, while many refugees reported that government forces raped and executed many who surrendered. The end finally came in May when the Sri Lankan military captured the last sliver of coast and surrounded the few hundred remaining LTTE fighters. The LTTE responded by announcing they had ‘silenced their weapons’ and that the ‘battle had reached its bitter end’. Several senior LTTE figures were killed, including leader Vellupillai Prabhakaran, and the war that terrorised the country for 26 years was finally over.
Sri Lanka today
Peace The 26-year-long conflict between the Sri Lankan military and the Libera- tion Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) ended in May 2009 in a brutal end to a brutal war. Thousands of civilians in the North and East were killed as the Sri Lankan military launched all-out war on the areas controlled by the LTTE, and hundreds of thousands of civilians were put in refugee camps.
In the years since, a government reconciliation commission has heard testimony and verified the huge death toll in 2008 and 2009. The LTTE infiltrated refugee camps with its weapons, the military attacked those same refugee camps. The charges and counter-charges go on and on. But what’s most important about the end of the war is just how ready the entire country is to move forward.
A pearl-shaped island of enormous natural wealth and potential, Sri Lanka has been a poster child for misfortune for far too long. An earlier effort at peace was upended by the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, which killed tens of thousands and plunged the nation into a chaos that allowed the war to erupt again.
Progress ‘Everyone agrees, they’d rather die than live through the war again’, one Sri Lankan said to us, and the truth to that is palpable. Decades of delay in investment and progress are being made up for with vengeance. New roads and airports are being built across the nation. A great deal of work is being done in the former LTTE areas to try to mend the wounds. The economy is booming and Colombo, which for years was a capital under siege from terrorists, is turning into a building site, and newfound wealth is translating into new shops and restaurants, restored historic buildings and huge public events such as pop-music concerts and fireworks.
But legacies of the war continue. A UN resolution in 2013 called on the Sri Lankan government to investigate allegations of war crimes committed against the Tamil population in the last months of the war. The government has denied the need for any investigation and it is unlikely there will be one any time soon.
Meanwhile, some groups have raised concerns of intimidation and worse of critics of the government and the president, Mahinda Rajapaksa. Human Rights Watch says that critics of the government have been subjected to 'threats, surveillance, and clampdowns on activities and free speech'. Amnesty International has taken an even harsher view; the UN resolution echoes these allegations, which the government denies.
Tourist BoomPeace has been a boon for Sri Lanka. Tourism has been growing by more than 10% a year since 2009, and in 2012 tourism revenue surpassed US$1 billion for the first time. New projects are springing up nationwide.
Sri Lanka, with its amazing beaches, beautiful Hill Country, eight Unesco World Heritage Sites, ancient cultures, tooting choo-choo trains and much more (elephants and leopards, anyone?) is a visitor’s dream that was regularly overlooked by travellers during the war years.
For Europeans looking for a new warm-weather spot during the interminable winters, Sri Lanka is a couple of hours closer than Thailand and not quite as far as the Caribbean. It’s hoped that a new international airport being built in the South will prove the ideal landing strip for hordes of holidaymakers.