In this entry, we’ll learn about the history of Sri Lanka from the 1500s when the Portuguese first set foot on the island in 1505 up until the recent protests when the presidential palast was stormed by protesters.
Sri Lanka is an island country located in South Asia, officially known as the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka. As one can see from the image above, it is separated from the Indian subcontinent by the Gulf of Mannar and the Palk Strait.
It lies in the Indian Ocean, southwest of the Bay of Bengal and southeast of the Arabian Sea. As an island nation it only got maritime borders; it shares one with India and the other with the Maldives (location included for reference, see image beneath).
As of 2021(PDF), there live an estimated amount of 22,156,000 people in Sri Lanka.
Because Excel inclines to round up the percentages, here the unchanged one:
Sinhalese 74.90 %
Sri Lankan Tamils 11.20 %
Sri Lankan Moors 9.20 %
Indian Tamils 4.20 %
The precise percentages of the religious groups:
Buddhism 70.20 %
Hinduism 12.60 %
Islam 9.70 %
Christianity 7.40 %
Other/None 0.10 %
History of Sri Lanka – From 1500 to 2022
Arban, Indian, Malay and Chinese merchants dominate the trade in the Indian Ocean.
The arrival of Portuguese ships was the beginning of the end of the relatively open trade competition. With their firepower and capacity for higher speeds, a policy of control was implemented.
In this year, Lourenço de Almeida (c. 1480-1508) and his fleet were blown into Colombo by adverse winds. There, he received a friendly audience from the King of Kotte, Vira Parakramabahu VIII (reign: 1484-1518).
The Portugeuse were allowed to build a fort at Colombo and gave trading concessions.
On the origins of the name Colombo, here an excerpt from an interesting article:
„Ask around, and many theories on the origin of the name “Colombo” can be found. Some say that the Portuguese derived it from the Sinhalese name “Kolon thota”, which means “port on the river Kelani”, another belief suggests that the name comes from the word “Kolamba”, a word used by the early Sinhalese to describe a ford or harbour. The one which fits the coat of arms best, however, is the belief that the Portuguese simply named it after the abundance of mango trees surrounding the port at the time, deriving it from the Sinhalese phrase “Kola-amba-thota” which means “Port of the Mango trees”“ (source: The Forgotten Fort Of Colombo)
The reigning King of Kotte was killed by his three sons, afterwards they partitioned the kingdom among themselves. Bhuvanaika Bahu (1468-1550), the eldest son, ruled at Kotto while his brothers set up independent kingdoms at Sitawake and Rayigama. A conflict broke out betweeen Bhuvanaika Bahu and Mayadunne of Sitawake, Bahu sought – and eagerly received – Portugeuse assistance while his brother allied himself with the Zamorin who were „an inveterate enemy of the Europeans“.
Agreement between Bahu and the Portuguese; Bahu received protection while the Portuguese kept their privileges and received a tribute in cinnamon.
Bahu’s grandson, Prince Dharmapala, converted to Christianity after being educated by members of the Franciscan Order of the Roman Catholic Church. While he became even easier to control by the Portugeuse, his conversion undermined the Kotto dynasty in the eyes of the people. Mayadunne’s wars of aggression transformed into a struggle against Portuguese influence.
During this time, the Portugeuse were able to tighten their grip on the island country.
Following the death of Rajasinha in 1593, the son and successor of Mayadunne, the Sitawake kingdom disintegrated. The expedition into the kingdom of Jeffna (1215-1619 CE) in 1560 had no lasting effects, two other expeditions followed until it was finally annexed in 1619.
Vimaladharmasuriya I of Kandy (reign: 1592-1604), who successfully repelled two major Portugeuse offensives on Kandy, established himself and consolidated his authority in the Central Highlands and eastern coast. The Kingdom of Kandy would last until 1815.
In the early 17th century, the arrival of the Dutch heralded a new time in Sri Lanka.
It ended with the Portugeuse being replaced by the Dutch as the rulers at the end of the mid-17th century.
In 1602, Vimala Dharma Surya (see above) met with Joris van Spilbergen (1568-1620) who was part of the first Dutch convoy. Surya saw the arrival of the Dutch as an opportunity to gain naval support against his adversaries. When he died, his successor King Senarath continued to foster relations with the Dutch which led to treaty in 1612.
However, the Dutch were unable to offer adequate assistance. So Senarath turned to the Danes, by the time they arrived in 1620 they were no longer required due to a peace treaty with the Portugeuse. A truce that didn’t last long. This time, the Kandyans took the initiative and invaded Portugeuse controlled territory and laid siege to Colombo and Galle in 1630. Due to the absence of a seapower, another peace was concluded in 1634.
In 1635, Senarath was succeeded by his son Rajasinha II. The Dutch who now were firmly established in Batvia (now Jakarta) in Java, developed a their trade fleet in southern Asia.
Until 1640 they continued to work together to expel the Portugeuse, this was temporarily halted when the Dutch Republic and Spain (which was ruled by Portugal at the time) declared truce in Europe. This incensed the King of Kandya and a war broke out in 1645 which lasted until 1649.
When the Dutch truce with the Portugeuse ended in 1652, the Dutch resumed the war and continued the expulsion of the Portugeuse until 1658 when Mannar was taken in February and Jaffna in June. Within 56 years, the old masters of coastal Sri Lanka were replaced by the Dutch.
The Dutch implemented their rule through the Dutch East India Company. While they were able to occupy and control the coastal lands of Sri Lanka (by 1665 expanding to the east coast thus controlling most of the cinnamon-growing land and the points of exit and entry on the island), they were never able to control the Kandyan Kingdom.
During the occupation of Sri Lanka, the country was divided into three administrative divisions: Colombo, Galle and Jaffna. Colombo was ruled by the governor (also the chief executive), while Galle and Jaffna were ruled by commanders.
They took decisive steps to incorporate the island into the emerging world economy, crops such as cinnamon and betel became important export items. Other exports included spices, lacquer, coconut oil, ropes of coconut fibres, and such sea products as cowrie and conch shells.
Contrary to Portugal, the Netherlands were ardently Protestants – Calvinist, to be precise – and they put great effort into undoing the missionary activities of Roman Catholicism.
Roman Catholicism was declared illegal. Meanwhile, Buddhism experienced a revival – the Dutch indirectly helping by making the transport for Buddhist monks easier between Sri Lanka, Thailand, and the Arakan (Rakhine) region in southwestern Mayanmar (Bumar).
More on the religion law and economy can be read here (Britannica).
During the French Revolution (1792-1801) the British East India Company began its conquest of Sri Lanka (called Ceylon). First considered a temporary occupation, its strategic value led to the decision of the British to make control permanent.
The British establish contact with the King of Kandy and agree, for now, to protect the kingdom as the Dutch did.
The first attempt by the British to capture the kingdom.
Reason: guarding the frontier of Kandy was expensive; the trade with the highlands was made difficult by customs post and political insecurity; and the land communication between West and East would go quicker if roads could be built through the center.
Result: the British failed due to the popularity of the king among the nobility.
12 years later an opportunity arose for the British: growing dissesions within the kindgom enabled Britain to interfere in Kandyan affairs. With the help of local Kandyan chiefs, whose relations with the king had been deteriorating, the British conquered Kandy.
While the British promised to keep traditional patterns, there was unmistakeably a trend towards reducing the status of nobility and the Buddhist faith. This led to the ‚Great Rebellion of 1817–1818‘, also known as the 1818 Uva-Wellassa Rebellion.
The rebellion against British rule lasted from October 1817 to November 1818 and resulted in a British victory.
On Sri Lanka’s side, the casualties mounted to 8,000 to 10,000.
On the British side, 900 to 2,000 casualties.
A series of reforms were enacted which laid the foundation for the subsequent political and economic structure of Ceylon (as Sri Lanka was called).
- Abolition of slavery (institution that primarily existed due to unpaid debt)
- Unitary administrative and judicial system for the whole island
- Reduction of the autocratic power of the governor
- Executive and Legislative councils were set up -> shared task of government
- English became the language of the government and instructions in schools
In case you want to know about the emergence of capitalist agriculture in Sri Lanka, this link to Britannica contains the section.
By the end of the 19th century, Sri Lanka’s society had been permeated by nationalist sentiment on the social, religious, and educational fronts. At the same time, revivalist Buddhist and Hinduist movements sought to modernize their institutions and set up schools to defend themselves against Christian inroads and keep Western education unmixed with Christianity.
While the national consciousness spread, the demands were neither coordinated nor vcoiferous. The imperial government ignored them and the constitutional reforms passed at the time kept the old structure, along an appointed executive and a legislature with an appointed majority. There was only a limited recognition of the elective principle:
– An „educated Sri Lankan“ electorate to elect one member to the Legislative Council
– Other Sri Lankan members appointed on a communal bases
„The colonial government was petitioned for permission to have Sri Lankan representation in the Executive Council and expanded regional representation in the Legislative Council. In response, the colonial government permitted a modest experiment in 1910, allowing a small electorate of Sri Lankans to send one of their members to the Legislative Council. Other seats held by Sri Lankans retained the old practice of communal representation.“
During the First World War, nationalism in Sri Lanka gathered momentum – largely propelled by civil disturbances in 1915 and the subsequent political repercussions.
The arrest of prominent Sinhalese leaders, in what was considered a minor communcal riot, led to widespread opposition.
The Ceylon National Congress (Sinhala: ලංකා ජාතික කොන්ග්රසය, Lanka Jathika Kongrasaya) was formed on December 11. The founding president was Ponnambalam Arunachalam (1853-1924) who was president of the Ceylon National Congress from 1919-1920.
The governor Sir William Manning (1863-1932) announced a new constitution.
Constitution modified to satisfy nationalist demands.
- Elected majority in the legislature
- Increase of the number of territorially elected members
- Formation of a finance comittee of the legislature:
-> three unofficial and three official members
-> authority to examine the budget
- No major concessions in th executive branch
-> Britain retained the role of the British governor
and the official Executive Order
Another constitutional reform:
- State Council with legislative and executive functions
-> vast majority of territorially elected members
-> executive work had 7 committees, each elected their own chairman
-> formation of board of ministers to coordinate activities
-> authority to present an annual budget
- Universal suffrage
Another view on the constitutional reforms by Britain:
„The British attempted several other Constitutions to appease the populace in 1910, 1920, and 1924, but these constitutions did not provide for local governance by the native population. The 1931 Constitution finally gave more authority to the native elected representatives over internal concerns. Over the next 40 years, the British attempted to give more authority and independence to the island in the hopes of transferring it to dominion status within the British Empire.“ (source: Constitutional history of Sri Lanka)
Appointment of the Soulbury Commission by Britain to develop a new constitution.
Internal self-governance was granted, but Britain kept some imperial safeguards and in defense and external affairs.
Ceylon Independence Act conferres dominion status on the colony, thereby Sri Lanka (still Ceylon for the British at the time) recognized it as an autonomous entity with allegiance to the British crown.
February 4, 1948
The constitution of 1947 comes into effect: „The constitution provided for a bicameral legislature with a popularly elected House of Representatives and a Senate that was partly nominated and partly elected indirectly by members of the House of Representatives. A prime minister and his cabinet, chosen from the largest political group in the legislature, held collective responsibility for executive functions. The governor-general, as head of state, represented the British monarch. In matters that the constitution failed to address, the conventions of the United Kingdom were observed.“ (source: Britannica)
In the elections, the UNP was defeated by the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). The party was led by Solomon West Ridgeway Dias Bandaranaike (also: S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike).
Following policies were implemented, with the intent of changing the political structure:
- Sinhalese became the official language
- State support for Buddhism and Sinhalese culture
The state was given a powerful role in economic development and the creation of economic equality. However, it was also a time of instability due to Sinhalese nationalism.
The Tamils were alienated by the language policy, and the educational policies upset the the small but influential Christian minority.
S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike (1899-1959) was assassinated. A period of instability followed.
Sirima Ratwatte Dias Bandaranaike (also: Sirimavo Bandaranaike, 1916-2000) was persuaded to unite the fragments of the SLFP. One year after the assassination she formed a government and thus became the first female Minister President in the world.
She continued Sinhalese nationalism and implemented policies to nurture and support local industry, as well as extending the state sector. Most private schools were nationalized and subsidies to any remaining private schools discontinued.
Sinhalese nationalism began to recede and an economic crisis made language and religion less important issues. The crisis was caused by increasing umemployment, the rising cost of living, an acute shortage of consumer goods and the failure of state enterprises in industry and trade. People started looking back to the UNP and the party gained the support of minorities.
In the end, they returned to power for five years under Dudley Shelton Senanayake (1911-1973). During his term he encouraged private businesses and put effort into expanding agricultural activity. While these measures had moderate success, they also tended to create inflation and increased social inequality.
D. S. Senanayake’s governance resulted in the SLFP forming an alliance with Marxist parties, they advocated for more state control of the economy and won the election in 1970 with a landslide victory. For a second time, Sirimavo Bandaranaike became Prime Minister of Sri Lanka.
Reforms that restricted private enterprises and extended nationalization of native and foreign-owned companies were passed. Additionally, measures aimed at reducing inequality and an ambitious land reform was put into effect. The implement policies benefited the vast majority of underprivileged, however, they didn’t address problems such as the mounting trade deficit.
Unsuccessful armed rebellion of the People’s Liberation Front (Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna; JVP). The rebellion lasted from April 5 to June 1971.
|– Police: 37 killed; 195 wounded|
– Armed forces: 26 killed;
310 wounded; 1 aircraft lost
|– 5,700 surrendered|
– Several North Korean diplomats arrested,
supply vessels captured by the Sri Lankan
navy and Indian navy
– Several leaders arrested
A new constitution was adopted and Ceylon became the Republic of Sri Lanka, it still maintained its link with the British Commonwealth. Following changes were made:
- Bicameral legislature to unicameral body
- governor-general (extension of British crown) was replaced with a president as head of state
- All existing restraints on the lawmaking powers were removed
- Buddhism was preferred in the constitution
- Sinhalese became the official language
Unemployment at 15%; the economic power of the state resulted in patronage, nepotism and corruption. As a consequence, the UNP defeated the SLFP in the election in July.
Junius Richard Jayewardene (1906-1996) became Prime Minister.
The UNP reversed the trend towards state control; the private sector was revived to attract foreign capital.
A new constitution passed in August which renamed the country the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka. Overall, it has 172 articles (yes, it is still exists) and the president received broad executive powers. It recognized Buddhism as the state religion and Tamil was recognized as a national language as well, Sinhalese remained the official language.
Under the new constitution, J. R. Jayewardene was elected as the first president.
In the 1980s, the political unrest in Sri Lanka escalated which would eventually lead to a devastating civil war.
The Tamil minority moved toward organized insurgency. They built bases in jungle areas in the northern and eastern parts of the island, as well as in the southern districts of the Indian state of Tamil Nadu where the received unofficial and official support.
While there were different competing groups, sometimes hostile to each other, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was the strongest.
The Sri Lankan government deployed forces to the East and North, but as insurgencies erupted, anti-Tamil riots were organized in Colombo and elsewhere. „Sinhelese mobs systematically attacked Tamils and destroyed Tamil property, and the riots forced refugees to move within the island and from Sri Lanka to Tamil Nadu.“ (Britannica)
23rd July, 1983 – 19 May, 2009
July 29, 1987
Accord between Sri Lanka and India that offered Tamils an autonomous integrated province. Later in the same year, Tamil was recognized an official language alongside Sinhalese through a constitutional amendment. Indian Peace-Keeping Force (IPKF) and LTTE disagreed over implementation of the accord, so the LTTE resumed its offensive. Now, the IPKF was the target which was trying to disarm it.
J. R. Jayawardene retired and was succeeded by Ranasinghe Premadasa (1924-1993) who won in the 1988 elections against Sirimavo Bandaranaike.
Premadasa negotiates the withdrawal of the IPKF. From this point on, the Sri Lankan army went into battle against the Tamil insurgency.
May 1, 1993
A suicide bomber assassinates Premadasa, allegedly linked to the LTTE. Dingiri Banda Wijetunga (1916-2008), the Prime Minister, was appointed acting president.
Chandrika Kumaratunga (* June 29, 1945), daughter of S.W.R.D. and Sirimavo Bandaranaike, became the first female president.
Assassination attempt on Kumaratunga leaves her injured. She won reelection later that year.
The LTTE and Sri Lankan government agree on a landmark ceasefire, however, it was short-lived and within a few years violence resurfaced.
A broad coalition called the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) appointed Mahinda Rajapaksa president who was known for his strong stance agains the LTTE.
The European Union declares the LTTE a terrorist organization.
Ceasefire was formally abandoned by the government; fighting intensified.
Kilinochchi, a town that was the administrative center of the LTTE, comes under control of the government.
Late-April to mid-May 2009
Rebells were corned along the northeast coast after government troops advanced into LTTE-territory. In the last days in mid-May, the LTTE-leaders (including the founder Vellupillai Prabhakaran) were killed during an operation, thus the LTTE also effectively ceased to exist as an organization.
Over 10 years later, it is still not known how many people died in the civil war.
In the last few months alone, the death toll varies between 7,000 and 147,000.
In 2011, the UN estimated that 40,000 civilians had died.
In 2012, an internal report of the UN estimated that at least 70,000 died.
Furthermore, population data from the World Bank and UN sources indicated that around 100,000 Tamils who lived in the conflict areas haven’t returned home (source: hrdag)
After the civil war, Sri Lanka fluctuated between recovery and reconstruction and new crises. This period starts with the governments victory over the LTTE which made it highly popular, and ends with the resignation of Rajapaksa in the last section of this entry as well as the mass protests that led to it.
High popularity of the government due to victory over the LTTE; UPFA won several elections in provincial and local regions.
In January, Rajapaksa faces fierce opposition from Gardihewa Sarath Chandralal Fonseka
(* December 18, 1950). Fonseka is arrested in early February for charges from events prior to his retirement as general (previously, he challenged the results when Rajapaksa gained a second term. In September, an amendment was added to the constitutin which extended the powers of the president and removed term restrictions.
In his second term, Sri Lanka’s economy improved and showed sustained growth as well as reduced poverty levels. Though there were concerns about ballooning debt and overreliance on foreign investment, especially from China.
His adiminstration implemented repressive measures against political opponents and various forms of dissent, at the same time he centralized executive power and nepotism returned.
In order to secure a third term, Rajapaksa called for an early election. Confident that he’d win, despite his popularity waning. Pallewatte Gamaralalage Maithripala Yapa Sirisena (*September 3, 1951), a member of his cabinet, unexpectedly defected to the opposition and ran against him. Other UPFA members defected as well.
Sirisena scored a victory and formed a six-party coalition. The constitution was amended and returned to the term limit.
In June, the government acknowledged that some 65,000 people, who had gone missing during the civil war, still remained unaccounted for. Certificates of absence were distributed to the families with missing relatives.
The immense debt led to balance-of-payments crisis in 2016. It arranged a $1.5 billion bailout with the International Monetary Fund (IMPF) and sought to increase tax revenue.
In 2017, the situation got worse and it led to leasing the newly built Hambantota port to China for 99 years. Moreover, a $1 billion loan was accepted from China to help repay loans.
April 21, 2019
On Easter morning, eight explosions occurred nearby churches and hotels.
On the next day, another bomb detonated near a church, other explosives were discovered and neutralized. More than 260 people, including five Americands died.
Following the attacks, a four-month state of emergency was declared and the government used the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) passed in 1979 as a war-time measure.
Under the PTA, more than 1,000 individuals were arrested and 100 remained in custody until the year’s end. The initiator of the attack was a little-known Islamist militant group.
(source: Country Reports on Terrorism 2019: Sri Lanka)
Sri Lankans lost faith in the government due to its ineffectiveness to address the debt crisis, its political instability and its inability to prevent the Easter attacks.
Mahinda Rajapaksa and his brother Gotabaya won on the promise of stability, progress and security – the latter becoming the president. However, he lacked support from Tamil and Muslim voters who feared restoring power to a family known for their brutality during the civil war. Gotabaya appointed Mahinda to be the prime minister.
During the first-wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, Sri Lanka performed better than other South Asian nations by implementing quick and aggressive measures such as an early nationwide lockdown and high rates of testing.
The legislative elections were delayed into August and voters were asked to bring their own pen to prevent the spread of Covid-19. Rajapaksa’s party (SLPP) nearly won two-thirds of the parliamentary seats. This gave them the opportunity to expand the powers of the president even further through amendments to the constitution.
In 2021, the outbreak of the Delta variant resulted in a massive surge of cases.
Then, in May, the government banned the import of chemical fertilizers and pesticides while giving only little warning to farmers. The decrease in crop production led to a run on markets which in turn strained the already debt-laden economy.
In November, the ban was lifted.
Currently, Sri Lanka is not only struggling with a mere debt crisis, but also food shortages, rapid inflation, a deficit that has ballooned due to the tax cuts in 2019 and fuel prices that have rocketed since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.
In March protests broke out and escalated in the weeks that followed.
In early April, the Rajapaksas attempted to reshuffle the cabinet: family members gave up their ministrial positions and the opposition was invited to join. However, the opposition called for a complete removal of the Rajapaksas. As members of the coalition started to defect, they appeared to have the upper hand.
Amid mass protests, the Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa resigned.
After violent clashes in the capital, five people died (including an active party MP) and 190 were injured (BBC).
On Sunday, protesters stormed the president palace and have occupied it since then.
People continue to stream in (Associated Press).
I hope this blog entry was able to meet your expectations. Constructive criticism is always welcome, my email is on this website as well (see contact). It was fascinating to write about Sri Lanka’s history and it is time I consider well-spent.
Main source for the timeline:
Population of Sri Lanka (PDF)
Ethnic and Religious Groups
The Forgotten Fort of Colombo
Dutch Rule in Sri Lanka (1685-1796)
Sri Lanka – British Ceylon (1796-1900)
Constitutional Reform of 1910
Constitution of Sri Lanka (Reforms)
Growth of nationalist power
Death toll of the Sri Lankan civil war (HRDAG – Human Rights Data Analysis Group)
Country Reports on Terrorism 2019: Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister resigns
Sri Lankans storm the president palace