Modern humans arrived in South Asia from Africa in around 60,000 BCE, with the earliest definitive evidence of settlement in Sri Lanka dating to about 28,000 BCE. Early humans had also been to the island much earlier, leaving stone-age tools that can be dated to around 125,000 BCE. A land bridge connected India and Sri Lanka until around 5000 BCE, allowing different groups to come and go.
The exact origin of these early settlers has been much debated, particularly in the light of modern ethnic tensions. What is certain is that the inhabitants of 30,000 years ago were related to populations of India, South-East Asia and Australia. They have become known as Veddoid, after the modern-day Väddā tribal group, of whom they may be the ancestors. Dravidian and Indo-Aryan languages filtered down to Sri Lanka, from the south and north of India respectively, with modern-day Tamils and Sinhalese each often claiming their forefathers arrived first. However, many historians now think that Dravidian and Indo-Aryan cultures most likely did not arrive in Sri Lanka until late in the first millennium BCE.
An impressive irrigation system had been developed by 100 CE, which became the most elaborate in South Asia. By the time of Alexander the Great’s arrival in the region in around 327 BCE, a trading centre had been established at Māntai (modern-day Tirukketisvaram).
Buddhist scholars in around the fourth and fifth centuries CE wrote the chronicles Dīpavamsa and Mahāvamsa, recording some of the early history of Sri Lanka, focusing in particular on the establishment of Buddhism and the political fortunes of different dynasties. The Mahāvamsa tells of the arrival of a prince from India named Vijaya, and the Sinhalese have often seen him as the founder of Sinhala civilisation in the island.
By the third century BCE Anurādhapura had grown into one of the largest cities in South Asia and Buddhism was adopted by the city’s rulers, after the Indian emperor Ashoka sent a missionary to Anurādhapura in 250 BCE. The city-state extended its control over more of the island and struggles ensued over the next two centuries as power passed back and forth between successors of the Buddhist Devānampiyatissa and rulers identified as ‘Damila’ in the Mahāvamsa, who mainly came from the south of India.
By 500 CE several million people lived in the northern Dry Zone centred around Anurādhapura – the vast majority of the island’s population.
In around 1000 CE, the Hindu Colas, from South India, had gained control of Anurādhapura and moved the capital south by 100 km to Polonnaruwa, before the Sinhalese regained the crown. By the 13th century, malaria had spread through the Dry Zone, making the area virtually uninhabitable and the focus of political life drifted to the south-west.
The Portuguese arrived in Sri Lanka in 1505 and soon began to influence the internal affairs of the island. By the end of the 16th century, the Portuguese had gained control over the Kotte and Jaffna kingdoms, the former initially a Sinhalese settlement and the latter originally Tamil. The Dutch arrived in Asia soon after and Portugal began to pull out of its South Asian strongholds to defend territories elsewhere.
From the mid-1630s, the King of Kandy helped the Dutch to dispossess the Portuguese; by 1656 the island had become a Dutch possession except for Kandy. Later the Dutch also seized Kandy’s coastal areas. British interests developed in the late 18th century when its army invaded and forced the Dutch to accept its protection. In 1802 the Dutch colony became a British possession. The Kingdom of Kandy was invaded in 1815 and its monarchy abolished, with the whole island coming under British rule.
Plantations growing rubber, coconut and coffee were established in the 19th century. After the coffee plantations were destroyed by a fungus in the 1870s, planters switched to tea, with the country soon becoming the second largest producer of black tea after India. During this period, Indian Tamils were brought in as indentured labour for the tea estates.
Constitutional development of Ceylon (as the country was then called) began relatively early, with executive and legislative councils set up in 1833, and the opening up of the colonial civil service to Ceylonese. Self-government was achieved in 1946, under a new constitution, with a bicameral legislature (which became a single chamber in 1972), and Ceylon became fully independent, and joined the Commonwealth, in 1948.
The first Prime Minister of independent Ceylon was one of the leaders of the independence movement, D. S. Senanayake. He was the head of the United National Party (UNP, the former Ceylon National Congress supported by the Tamil Congress). After a split in the UNP in 1951, S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike formed the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP).
In 1956 the nationalist SLFP won the elections, but in September 1959 Bandaranaike was assassinated. After elections the following year, his widow, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, led the SLFP to victory and became the first female Prime Minister in the world. In March 1965, the UNP was voted back to power with Dudley Senanayake (son of Sri Lanka’s first Prime Minister) as Prime Minister until 1970, when the elections returned the SLFP.
Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s new government introduced a new constitution in 1972 – whereby Sri Lanka became a republic. The country’s name was also changed from Ceylon to Sri Lanka – ‘Lanka’ being an ancient name for the island and ‘Sri’ meaning ‘resplendent’ or ‘venerable’. In 1978, a further constitution under the government of J. R. Jayewardene, introduced the executive presidency. Throughout this period, Ceylon’s government developed programmes of welfare and nationalisation, leading to improvements in health and literacy, but the economy began to decline. In 1971 there was a serious internal crisis with an armed revolt by a communist youth organization.
After independence, the Sinhalese became the dominant social and political force and the Tamils felt marginalised, especially after 1956 when Sinhala was made the official language. Several different Tamil parties formed and demanded that the Northern and Eastern provinces become part of a federal state and, when this was refused, an independent homeland. Anti-Tamil riots led to the death and displacement of hundreds of Tamils.
At the general election in 1977, the UNP under J. R. Jayewardene won a sweeping victory.
The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was formed in 1976 in response to growing tensions between Tamil and Sinhalese communities. It undertook violent attacks against politicians, the police and the army in the north. The group’s name was chosen because the ‘tiger’ was thought to be a worthy opponent to the Sinhala (meaning ‘lion race’) and Eelam was the name of an aspirational separate Tamil state.
The civil war began in July 1983, after the death of 11 soldiers in an attack by the LTTE sparked mass anti-Tamil riots in Colombo and the south-west of the country, which left hundreds dead. Tactics on both sides were brutal. The LTTE escalated its terrorist attacks to include civilians, while many Tamils detained by the police and army ‘disappeared’.
The first presidential election, held in 1982, was won by Jayewardene. In December 1982 the life of the 1977 Parliament was extended, by a national referendum, for six more years.
The Indian government attempted to mediate in the hostilities and, in July 1987, President J. R. Jayewardene and Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi arranged a ceasefire, supervised by Indian troops. Under the Indo–Lanka Accord, provincial councils were introduced as a solution to the conflict. The provincial councils for the Northern and Eastern provinces were to be temporarily merged into a single council.
Some Indian-supported Tamil groups accepted the arrangement and elections for the new council proceeded. However, the LTTE refused to co-operate and in 1988 Jayewardene asked the Indian government to withdraw its troops. The LTTE took control of the vacated areas and fighting continued.
Suicide bombings of high-profile politicians by the Tamil Tigers in the 1990s wrought havoc with Sri Lankan politics. In 1988 UNP’s Ranasinghe Premadasa was elected to Sri Lanka’s presidency, but he was assassinated in 1993. In 1994 UNP presidential candidate Gamini Dissanayake was also killed in a similar attack. In July 1999, the moderate Tamil politician Neelan Tiruchelvam – architect of the government’s devolution plans – was the next victim when he was murdered in Colombo. The 1991 assassination of Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was also attributed to the Tigers.
After Premadasa’s death in 1993, D. B. Wijetunga took over as President. The People’s Alliance coalition, led by the SLFP, consisting of seven mostly left-of-centre parties, came to power in the August 1994 general election. The leader of this coalition, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, became the Prime Minister, but relinquished her position to become President in November 1994. Her mother, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, became Prime Minister, her third term over a span of four decades.
The People’s Alliance government engaged in peace talks with the LTTE, but the Tigers broke a ceasefire and relaunched the war. In 1995 government forces recaptured the town of Jaffna, forcing the LTTE to withdraw into the jungle, and the war continued.
From 1996 the LTTE attacked substantial civilian and economic targets, especially in Colombo. On 25 January 1998, ten days before the celebrations to mark 50 years of independence, a truck was blown up by LTTE suicide bombers as they drove it through the gates of the country’s most sacred Buddhist site, the Temple of the Tooth at Kandy, killing 16 people.
In an early presidential election in December 1999, Kumaratunga won her second term with 51 per cent of the votes.
In August 2000 the government failed to gain a two-thirds majority of parliament for its constitutional reform, designed to end the 17-year civil war. This entailed the devolution of substantial powers on elected councils in seven provinces and an interim appointed council in the two provinces (Northern and Eastern) with majority Tamil populations.
In March 2000 the LTTE began a new offensive on the Jaffna peninsula – held by government forces since 1995 – and the government declared a state of war for the first time, suspending all non-essential development projects.
Despite the declaration of a unilateral ceasefire from December 2000 to April 2001 by the LTTE, and the efforts of the Norwegian envoy (see ‘Peace talks’, below), the Sri Lankan army declined to lay down its arms. In mid-2001 the Tigers attacked the international airport near Colombo, destroying several civilian and military aeroplanes.
After the failure of Indian-led negotiations and the collapse of internal peace talks, Norway stepped in in February 2000, agreeing to provide a special envoy to act as intermediary.
A ceasefire was agreed with the LTTE in February 2002 and the first round of talks was held in Thailand in September 2002, focusing on reconstruction of the areas affected by the war and the return of displaced people.
As the peace talks proceeded, the LTTE dropped its demand for a separate Tamil state and agreed to work towards a federal system and, for the first time, the government also agreed to share power with the LTTE. After the sixth round of talks, held in Japan in March 2003, progress slowed and the LTTE was barred from attending an international donor conference in Washington, USA, under US terrorist legislation. The Tigers then refused to attend a further donor conference in Japan.
After the election in April 2004, there were efforts to get the stalled peace process under way again. The new government invited the Norwegian mediators to return to the country to arrange peace talks between the LTTE and the government, but governing alliance partner JVP remained staunchly opposed to any solution that involved power sharing.
In late 2006 peace talks with the Norwegian mediators in Geneva broke down without agreement. By the following year it was apparent that the ceasefire agreement signed in 2002 was no longer being respected and the government withdrew from the agreement in January 2008.
By January 2009 government forces were reported to be in control of most of the country and in April the government rejected UN calls for a ceasefire. In May 2009 LTTE leader and founder Velupillai Prabhakaran died in combat. The government proclaimed victory and the war was declared over.
At the conclusion of hostilities, almost 300,000 displaced persons who had fled the conflict were housed in government camps and as many as 100,000 people were estimated to have been killed in the fighting.