Sri Lanka's location – near India and along hundreds of ancient trade routes – has for ages made it attractive to immigrants, invaders, missionaries, traders and travellers from India, East Asia and the Middle East. Many stayed on, and over generations they assimilated and intermarried, converted and converted back. Although debates still rage over who was here first and who can claim Sri Lanka as their homeland, the island’s history, like that of its ethnicities, is one of shifting dominance and constant flux.
Prehistory & Early Arrivals
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.
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 (or, as they refer to themselves, Wanniyala-aetto: 'forest dwellers'), were hunter-gatherers who subsisted on the island’s natural bounty. Much about their origins is unclear, but anthropologists generally believe 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 grew 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.
The 5th-century-AD Pali epic, the Mahavamsa, is the country’s primary historical source. Although it's a somewhat faithful record of kingdoms and Sinhalese political power from around the 3rd century BC, its historical accuracy is shakier – and indeed full of beautiful myths – before this time. Nonetheless, many Sinhalese claim they're 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.
Landing 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 – and 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.
The Anuradhapura kingdom covered the island in 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 warriors arose to repel South Indian kingdoms, including Vijayabahu I (11th century AD), who finally abandoned Anuradhapura and made 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.
The science of building tanks, studying gradients and constructing channels is the key to early Sri Lankan civilisation. The tanks, which dot the plains of the ancient dominions of Rajarata (in the north-central part of the country) and Ruhuna (in the southeast), probably started as modest structures. But by the 5th century BC they reached such dimensions that local legends say they were built with supernatural help. It is claimed that Giant’s Tank near Mannar Island was built by giants, while other tanks were said to have been constructed by a mixed workforce of humans and demons.
The irrigation system, developed on ever-greater scales during the millennium before the Common Era, ranks with the ancient qanats (underground channels) of Iran and the canals of Pharaonic Egypt in sophistication. These dry-zone reservoirs sustained and shaped Sri Lanka’s civilisation for more than 2500 years, until war and discord overtook the island in the 12th to 14th centuries AD.
The Buddha's Teaching Arrives
Buddhism arrived from India in the 3rd century BC, transforming Anuradhapura and possibly creating what is now known as Sinhalese culture. 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 that continues to be referenced by Theravada Buddhists around the world. The arrival of the Buddha's tooth relic at Anuradhapura in AD 371 reinforced the position of Buddhism in Sinhalese society, giving a sense of national purpose and identity and inspiring the development of Sinhalese culture and literature.
The next capital, at Polonnaruwa, survived for over two centuries and produced two more notable rulers. Parakramabahu I (r 1153–86), nephew of Vijayabahu I, expelled the South Indian Tamil Chola empire from Sri Lanka, and carried the fight to South India, even making a raid on Myanmar. He also constructed many new tanks 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 ensuing Sinhalese migration south, a wide jungle buffer separated the northern, mostly coastal Tamil settlements and the southern, interior Sinhalese settlements. For 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). Lourenço 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 religious orders, including the Dominicans and Jesuits. Many coastal communities converted, but resistance to Christianity was met with massacres and the destruction of temples. Buddhists fled to Kandy and the 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.
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 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
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 English-speaking 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 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 SLFP leader SWRD Bandaranaike was to fulfil a campaign promise to make Sinhala the country’s sole official language. Under the British, Tamils had become 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 Sinhalese fear that their religion, language and culture could be swamped by Indians, perceived to be natural allies of Sri Lankan Tamils. The Tamils, whose Hindu identity had 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.
What’s in a Name?
Changing the country’s name from Ceylon to Sri Lanka in 1972 caused considerable confusion for foreigners. However, for the Sinhalese the country had always been known as Lanka and for the Tamils as Ilankai; the Ramayana, too, describes the abduction of Sita by the king of Lanka. The Romans knew the island as Taprobane and Muslim traders talked of Serendib, meaning ‘Island of Jewels’ in Arabic. The word Serendib became the root of the word ‘serendipity’ – the art of making happy and unexpected discoveries. The Portuguese somehow twisted Sinhala-dvipa (Island of the Sinhalese) into Ceilão. In turn, the Dutch altered this to Ceylan and the British to Ceylon. In 1972 ‘Lanka’ was restored, with the addition of ‘Sri’, a title of respect.
A Flag for Compassion
Sri Lanka’s flag was created in 1948 and took on many changes over the years. The core element was the lion on a crimson background, which had been used on flags throughout Sri Lankan history, beginning with Prince Vijaya, who is believed to have brought a lion flag with him from India. The lion, then, represented the Sinhalese people, and the gold is said to signify Buddhism. The flag was adopted in 1950, and as Sri Lanka settled into independence, it evolved: in 1951 green and orange stripes were added to signify Sri Lanka’s Muslims and Hindus, respectively, and in 1972 four bodhi-tree leaves were added to represent metta (loving-kindness), karuna (compassion), upekkha (equanimity) and muditha (happiness).
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, a founder 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 cycle of 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 rioters (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 full-scale anti-Tamil massacres erupted in Colombo in response to the Tigers’ ambushing and killing of 13 soldiers in the Jaffna region. In a riot now known as Black July, up to 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 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 – offering limited Tamil autonomy and formalising Tamil as a national language – never happened, and the conflict escalated into a 25-year civil war that eventually claimed upwards of 100,000 lives.
Attempts at Peace
In 1987 government forces pushed the LTTE back into Jaffna as part of a major offensive. India pressed the Sri Lankan government to withdraw, and the two heads of state, JR Jayawardene and Rajiv Gandhi, negotiated an accord: the Sri Lankan government would call off the offensive, Tamil rebels would disarm and an Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) would protect the truce. Tamil regions would also have substantial autonomy, as Colombo devolved power to the provinces.
It soon became clear the deal suited no one. The LTTE complied initially but ended up in battle with the IPKF when it refused to disarm. 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 started tackling, among other things, an estimated two million land mines.
But peace talks stumbled, and the situation was 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. Some believed this to be a positive move; others saw it as an action that would isolate the LTTE, causing further strain and conflict. In early 2004 a split in LTTE ranks added a new dynamic, and with killings, insecurity, accusations and ambiguities, the Norwegians left. 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 island's northwest and northeast.
After the Tsunami
An event beyond all predictions struck 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 pummelled the country, killing 30,000 people and leaving many more injured, homeless and orphaned. Initial optimism that the nation would come together in the face of catastrophe soon faded into arguments over aid distribution, reconstruction, and land tenure and ownership.
Meanwhile, Kumaratunga, seeking to extend her presidential term, sought to alter the constitution. Thwarted by a Supreme Court ruling, presidential elections were set for 2005. Among the contenders, two candidates were the most likely victors – the then prime minister, Mahinda Rajapaksa, and opposition leader, Ranil Wickremasinghe. With an LTTE voting boycott, Rajapaksa narrowly won. 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 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 didn't auger well for future peace. Meanwhile, LTTE leader Prabhakaran insisted on a political settlement during 2006, and threatened to ‘intensify’ action if this didn't occur. Tensions were high, and again Sri Lanka was perched on a precipice. Killings, assaults, kidnappings and disappearances occurred on both sides, and commentators predicted the worst.
An Elusive Ceasefire
The path to peace was marked by some of the worst violence of the entire civil war. Another ceasefire was signed in early 2006, but cracks soon appeared 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 human rights 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-year-old civil conflict by military means. Later in the year, the LTTE offered a unilateral 10-day ceasefire in support of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit being held in August in Colombo. The government, suspicious that the LTTE planned to use the ceasefire as a time to shore up its strength, responded with an emphatic no.
Cornering the LTTE
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 the barring of independent journalists from the site of the conflict made (and continues to make) it impossible to verify claims made by either side about the final battles of the war.
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 February 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 SLA was bombing civilians in ‘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 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. According to UN investigations, the Tigers allegedly blocked many from leaving and killed others; refugees reported that government forces raped and executed many who surrendered.
The end finally came in May 2009 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.
The end of war was quickly followed by an inrush of money and tourists to Sri Lanka. Foreign investment from China and India quickly manifested itself in development schemes in Colombo that included expanded ports and commercial areas. Meanwhile in the south, President Rajapaksa embarked on enormous schemes involving his family around his home town of Hambantota. A new port, airport and numerous public facilities were built at a cost of billions of dollars, often with loans from China.
Around the country a building program produced new toll roads and repaired infrastructure in the East and North that had been damaged during the war.
And tourists poured in, with visitor totals increasing by 20% each year. This enlivened investment across the nation, as new hotels, guesthouses, cafes, tour companies and more materialised to serve the new demand. Visitors returning for the first time since the 2005 tsunami were awestruck by the changes.
It is generally agreed that human-rights abuses were committed by all sides in the final months of the 26-year war, which ended in May 2009. But the contention that the Sri Lankan military killed 40,000 Tamil civilians in its final push to victory simply won't go away. Two documentaries, Sri Lanka's Killing Fields: War Crimes Unpunished by the UK's Channel 4 and No Fire Zone: In the Killing Fields of Sri Lanka, stoked calls for investigations. A report by the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) says that there is enough evidence of civilian slaughter to require a full investigation.
Under the rule of Mahinda Rajapaksa, who served as Commander in Chief for the Sri Lankan army, the Sri Lankan government denied all claims of human-rights abuses and fought against any official investigation. It was a strategy that kept the nation at the forefront of international controversy. The 2013 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting should have been a triumph for Sri Lanka; instead, there was intense pressure on governments to boycott the meeting, and Canada, India and Mauritius refused to attend.
In 2014 Sri Lanka's parliament formally rejected any investigation by the Sri Lankan government or the UN. However, human-rights groups worldwide seem determined to keep the matter alive and the UN regularly votes for investigations.
Not the President for Life
Until 2015, you couldn't avoid him: the grinning face of President Mahinda Rajapaksa was everywhere in Sri Lanka. His image appeared on huge billboards and signs on the sides of buildings and in countless publications, and members of his extended family occupied senior positions in government and business.
Then a funny thing happened on the way to the next election, which Rajapaksa called early, expecting the process to be a rubber stamp. Supposedly loyal lieutenants began jumping ship and usually fractious Sri Lankan political parties rallied around one candidate, Maithripala Sirisena, who until November 2014 had been the minister of health and a top honcho in Rajapaksa's Sri Lankan Freedom Party (SLFP).
Despite Rajapaksa's best efforts, huge numbers of former allies supported Sirisena, who won the election in January 2015 by a vote of 51 to 48 percent. It was a stunning defeat for a man who had changed the Sri Lankan constitution to allow himself unlimited terms in power. However, perhaps the results should not have been so surprising. There was widespread dissatisfaction with Rajapaksa's domination and numerous allegations of abuses of power.
One damning report by the organisation Human Rights Watch said the Rajapaksa government 'targeted civil society through threats, surveillance, and clampdowns on activities and free speech'. Navi Pillay, the UN Commissioner for Human Rights, denounced 'a climate of fear' undermining democracy and eroding the rule of law, and Amnesty International said flatly: 'There are no human rights in Sri Lanka.'
Since Siresena won the election, Sri Lanka has been deeply involved in recasting itself. Deals with foreign powers like China were put on hold while a collective deep breath was taken to assess the status quo. Trade deals were re-examined and often changed to be less generous to other nations. Meanwhile, there are efforts to make a start on improving relations with the Tamils in the North (despite ongoing reports of the opposite), an improved commitment to human rights and at least a nascent loosening of restrictions on press freedom.