In the 14th century, the island of Sri Lanka flourished under the traditions of its two primary ethnic groups, the Buddhist Sinhalese and the Hindu Tamil. The island was controlled first by the Portuguese in the 16th century and then by the Dutch in the 17th century. It ceded to the British in 1796. The country, then named Ceylon, gained its independence in 1948 after peaceful negotiations with Britain. The name Sri Lanka was adopted in 1972.
For 25 years, Sri Lanka’s tranquility was marred by violent ethnic conflict between the Tamil minority and the Sinhalese majority, a conflict which began to surface under British rule. More than 70,000 people were killed in the bloody conflict according to western sources, although the number can be debated.
The government and a Tamil nationalist organization, Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), reached a cease-fire agreement in February 2002 with Norway’s assistance. However, the peace agreement broke in 2006, resulting in escalated violence. The LTTE was labeled as a terrorist organization by many countries because of its use of suicide bombings and child soldiers, as well as its human rights abuses and intolerance of any dissent from other Tamils.
In December 2004, Sri Lanka was hit by the Asian tsunami, the nation’s worst natural disaster. More than 30,000 people died, and about $1.5 billion worth of property was destroyed.
In 2005, Mahinda Rajapaksa was elected president of Sri Lanka with the backing of Marxist and Buddhist parties. During the campaign, he swore to take a hardline in peace talks with the LTTE. In 2008, the government officially ended the ceasefire and increased its military campaign against the Tamil Tigers. In May 2009, the government successfully defeated a LTTE-related armed rebellion. Once the body of the LTTE's leader was discovered days later, Rajapaksa proclaimed an end to the insurgency. The civil war was officially over.
Rajapaksa's mastery of the political landscape was further consolidated when his ruling coalition won an overwhelming majority in parliamentary elections in April 2010. He called for the redevelopment of Sri Lanka following the end of the civil war, which had left over 300,000 people displaced. Since May 2010, over 200,000 refugees had been released or returned to their places of origin.
Last updated: July 8, 2010
Sources: BBC, UN Data, World Bank, International Crisis Group, CIA World Factbook.