Sri Lanka in the twentieth century

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
Part of a series on the
History of Sri Lanka
Coat of arms of Sri Lanka
By topic
Sri Lanka portal

Sri Lanka in the twentieth century is dated from the independence of Sri Lanka in 1948 until the end of the Sri Lankan Civil War, in 2009.


Further information: Dominion of Ceylon

Republic (1970 to 2009)[edit]

Under Bandaranaike the country became a republic, the Free Sovereign and Independent Republic of Sri Lanka,[1] the Senate was abolished and Sinhala was established as the official language (with Tamil as a second language). Full independence came as the last remaining constitutional ties with the United Kingdom were broken (e.g., the right of appeal to the United Kingdom's Judicial Committee of the Privy Council ceased, thus establishing the Supreme Court as the country's ultimate court of appeal). Colonial plantations were nationalised to fulfil the election pledges of the Marxist program and to "prevent the ongoing dis-investment by the owning companies".

An attempt was made at economic independence, with a five-year plan to achieve industrial development. However, this was stymied by a shortage of foreign exchange, a very expensive welfare program, and the oil crisis of 1974. These, combined with an unprecedented drought severely affected the harvest of rice, the staple food of the people. Strides were made in the fields of heavy industry, automotive parts and electronics. The strongly centralized economy, functioning via a set of state corporations, grew very sluggishly.

In 1971 a group variously labelled Maoist or Guevarist, the People's Liberation Front (JVP) launched a rebellion. It was led by Rohana Wijeweera, a marxist who had his education at the Lumumba University in the Soviet Union. This movement was not connected with the traditional Sri Lankan Marxist parties which were then in power. Most of the "insurgents" were unemployed literate youth who were the product of the post-independence population explosion. Although the JVP rebellion was brutally suppressed, the JVP found a place in Sri Lankan politics as a voice of leftist Sinhalese nationalism, along with the right-wing movement in the UNP associated with Cyril Matthew. Militant Tamil Chauvinist movements, e.g., the Pulip Padai, had been launched in Trincomalee in 1965. The Jaffna university was "ethnically cleansed" of non-Tamils in 1976, and the city itself began to be subject to similar "ethnic cleansing", eliminating Muslim and Sinhala residents.

The extreme-Tamil groups rejected and physically eliminated the main Colombo-Tamil leadership of the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF). Tamil public servants or members of parliament working with the government were harassed. The mayor of Jaffna was assassinated in 1975. The militants claimed their independence, their rights, and their "traditional homeland",[2] and formed armed separatist groups such as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam ('Tamil Tigers'), demanding an independent Tamil state called Eelam. Much of this had the implicit and material support of politicians in India.[3][4]

New constitution[edit]

By 1977 the voters were tired of Bandaranaike's socialist policies and elections returned the UNP to power under Junius Jayewardene on a manifesto pledging a market economy and "a free ration of 8 seers (kilograms) of cereals". The SLFP and the left-wing parties were virtually wiped out in Parliament (although they garnered 40% of the popular vote), leaving the Tamil United Liberation Front, led by Appapillai Amirthalingam, as the official opposition. This created a dangerous ethnic cleavage in Sri Lankan politics.

Bandaranaike had her civic rights removed by an act of Parliament. In 1978 Jayewardene introduced a new constitution making Sri Lanka a presidential 'Democratic Socialist' republic, with himself as executive President [1]. In 1980 he crushed a general strike by the trade-union movement, jailing its leaders. When the UNP member for the parliamentary constituency of Kalawana was removed on an election petition by his Communist opponent, Jayawardene allowed him to continue sitting in the house [2].

In 1977, Colombo abandoned state controlled economic policies and its import substitution trade policy for market-oriented policies and export-oriented trade. This included the opening of free-trade zones with a heavy emphasis on exports of garments from these zones.

Elections to District Councils in 1981 were marred by the open theft of ballot boxes in Jaffna. The Jaffna Library, the repository of thousands of valuable documents was burned down by thugs alleged to be linked with the government.

President Jayawardene had the constitution amended (one of 13 amendments during his 10 years in office) to allow presidential elections to be held early, in 1982. The main opposition candidate, Hector Kobbekaduwa was garlanded with onions by the farmers of the Jaffna peninsular, impoverished by the policy of unrestricted imports.

The Presidential election, held amidst widespread acts of electoral malpractice (Hector Kobbekaduwa arrived at the polling station only to find his vote had already been cast) resulted in Jayawardene's re-election. He followed this with an infamous plebiscite on postponing parliamentary elections for six years. Associates of Kobbekaduwa, such as TB Ilangaratne and Vijaya Kumaratunga, were jailed as 'Naxalites', a political creed unheard of in Sri Lanka, before or since. The Commissioner of Elections, in his report on the referendum, reported that it was flawed.

In 1983 following a demonstration against the US establishment of a military base in Diego Garcia, former MP Vivienne Goonewardena was physically assaulted at a police station. Her fundamental rights application in this matter was upheld by the Supreme Court in an act of judicial independence [3]. Following this, thugs stoned the houses of the Supreme Court judges who had made the ruling and the police officer who had been convicted had his fine paid by the government and received a promotion.

Civil war (1983 to 2009)[edit]

Main article: Sri Lankan Civil War

In July 1983 communal riots took place due to the ambush and killing of 13 Sri Lankan Army soldiers by the Tamil Tigers. Using the voters list which contained the exact addresses of Tamils, the Tamil community faced a backlash from Sinhalese rioters including the destruction of shops, homes and savage beatings. However, quite a few Sinhalese kept Tamil neighbours in their homes to protect them from the rioters. During these riots the government did nothing to control the mob. Conservative government estimates put the death toll at 400 [4], while the real death toll is believed to be around 3000 [5]. Also around 18,000 Tamil homes and 5,000 homes were destroyed, with 150,000 leaving the country resulting in a Tamil Diaspora in Canada, UK, Australia and other western countries.

Jayewardene held office until 1989, ruling as a virtual dictator under emergency powers. In 1987, following an army offensive in the Vadamarachchi peninsular, India started getting deeply involved in the ethnic conflict.[6] A convoy sent by India was stopped in Sri Lankan waters by the Sri Lankan Navy and the Indian Air Force retaliated with an air drop of supplies onto the Jaffna peninsula. While the UNP organised street protests against India, Jayawardene declared that he would defend the country's independence to the last bullet.

However, the air drop also caused Jayawardene to reconsider his position and he then accepted the offer of Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi of a Peace Accord.[7] Rajiv Gandhi's offer to send troops into Sri Lanka was deeply unpopular with the Sinhalese and, although initially popular with the Tamils, led to an outbreak of hostilities between the Tamil Tigers and the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) - Eelam War II.

In 1989 Jayewardene was succeeded by his own choice as President, Ranasinghe Premadasa, who asked for the Indian troops to be withdrawn - which was later done by Indian Prime Minister V.P. Singh. Premadasa was assassinated by a Tamil Tiger suicide bomber in 1993. Rajiv Gandhi had already met a similar fate (assassinated by a Tamil Tiger ) in 1991.

Premadasa was succeeded by Dingiri Banda Wijetunga, with Ranil Wickremasinghe as Prime Minister. In August 1994 the People's Alliance under Bandaranaike's daughter Chandrika Kumaratunga won legislative elections on a platform of concessions to the Tamils and a 'balanced economy'. Kumaratunga became Prime Minister and in November she was elected President, appointing her 78-year-old (but still active) mother Prime Minister. A ceasefire ensued, which broke down by the Tamil tigers after several months - the beginning of Eelam War III. Under the Bandaranaikes the war dragged on, with the military unable to defeat the separatists and the government opposed to negotiations. By 2000 an estimated 65,000 people had been killed in the conflict.

At Presidential elections in 1999, former Prime Minister Wickremesinghe of the UNP contested on a platform of no concessions to the Tamils, but was defeated by Kumaratunga. A 180-degree turn in UNP policy occurred and in December 2001 the UNP returned to office on a policy of a negotiated settlement with the Tigers, with Wickremasinghe as Prime Minister. A cease fire began, the first long cessation of hostilities since the beginning of the conflict. But the 1978 constitution left the Prime Minister with little power against a hostile President. In March 2004 she dismissed Wickremesinghe and called fresh elections, which returned the SLFP to office under Mahinda Rajapakse.

By 2005 there had been no further progress towards either a military or political solution. The assassination of Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar in August 2005, by the LTTE (although they denied responsibility), further hardened attitudes. His successor was Anura Bandaranaike, the President's brother and putative political heir. Twenty years of civil conflict had done immense damage to Sri Lankan society and the economy, which has fallen behind other Asian economies, although it remains the second most prosperous nation in South Asia.

In elections held on 17 November 2005, Mahinda Rajapakse, the son of Don Alwin Rajapaksa, was elected President, defeating Wickremasinghe. He appointed Ratnasiri Wickremanayake Prime Minister and Mangala Samaraweera Foreign Minister. Negotiations with the LTTE stalled and low-intensity conflict began. The violence dipped off after talks in February, but escalated in April and the conflict continued until the military defeat of the LTTE in May 2009.

Defeat of the LTTE[edit]

The Sri Lankan government declared total victory on Monday, 18 May 2009. On 19 May 2009, the Sri Lankan military effectively concluded its 26 year operation against the LTTE.Its military forces recaptured all remaining LTTE controlled territories in the Northern Province, including notably Killinochchi (2 January), the Elephant Pass (9 January) and the ultimately the entire district of Mullaitivu.

The 58 Division of the Sri Lankan Army led by Brig. Shavendra Silva, 59 Division led by Brig. Prasanna de Silva and the 53 Division commanded by Gen. Kamal Gunaratne, after having boxed in the remaining LTTE cadres into a small area of territory near Nandhikkadal lagoon, linked up and eliminated the remaining cadres. This final battle claimed the lives of several top LTTE leaders and Velupillai Prabhakaran who was reported to have attempted to flee. On the morning of the 19th, soldiers of the 4th Vijayabahu infantry regiment led by Lt. Col Rohitha Aluvihare claimed to have found the body of Prabhakaran, and so militarily ending a separatist war that had defined Sri Lanka's history for three decades.

On 22 May 2009, Sri Lankan Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa confirmed that 6,261 personnel of the Sri Lankan Armed Forces had lost their lives and 29,551 were wounded during Eelam War IV since July 2006. Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara added that approximately 22,000 LTTE cadres had died during this time. Later the LTTE admitted Prabhakaran's death and accepted defeat.

During this final phase of the conflict many non-governmental organizations expressed serious concerns about the ultra-aggressive government and LTTE tactics. Many claims have been made of the gross negligence of human rights at the internment camps for refugees. During the conflict, makeshift hospitals and refugee areas were shelled and destroyed although it was not entirely clear who was responsible for the shelling.[5]

UN officials and Media representatives from other countries were sent to undertake investigations into the conflict.

The Times newspaper of the UK accused the government of a massacre on the coastline of a refugee camp caught between the fire.[6] This raised the estimate of deaths to 20, 000, many times that of the official figures released by the government. Furthermore it was uncovered that the Sri Lankan Government was receiving arms and munitions as well as several fighter planes from the Chinese government in exchange for a Chinese naval base to be built on the Sri Lankan coast. This is a move by Beijing to cement a stronger position in the geopolitical struggle for power over the energy trade routes along the Indian ocean.[7]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ K. M. de Silva, History of Sri Lanka, Penguin 1995, ch. 37
  2. ^ K.M. de Silva, Conflict and Violence in South Asia, p.384 ICES, 2004
  3. ^ R. Gunaratna, International Regional Security Implications of the Sri Lankan Tamil Insurgency, 1997
  4. ^ M. R. Singer, Asian Survey 32, part II, p 168 1991
  5. ^ Civilians 'die in Lanka shelling'-
  6. ^ The hidden massacre: Sri Lanka’s final offensive against Tamil Tigers -
  7. ^ Sri Lanka's crucial role in Indian Ocean power struggle -

External links[edit]