Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka's National Day is celebrated February 4. Read this country profile to learn about Sri Lanka's geography, history, government, and culture.
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Map of Sri Lanka
Map of Sri Lanka
Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka

President: Mahinda Rajapakse (2005)

Prime Minister: Ratnasiri Wickremanayaka (2005)

Land area: 24,996 sq mi (64,740 sq km); total area: 25,332 sq mi (65,610 sq km)

Population (2007 est.): 20,926,315 (growth rate: 1.0%); birth rate: 17.0/1000; infant mortality rate: 19.5/1000; life expectancy: 74.8; density per sq mi: 809

Capital and largest city (2003 est.): Colombo, 2,436,000 (metro. area), 656,100 (city proper). Legislative and judicial capital: Sri Jayawardenepura Kotte, 118,300

Other large cities: Dehiwala-Mount Lavinia 214,300; Moratuwa, 181,000; Kandy, 112,400

Monetary unit: Sri Lanka rupee

Languages: Sinhala 74% (official and national), Tamil 18% (national), other 8%; English is commonly used in government and spoken competently by about 10%

Ethnicity/race: Sinhalese 73.8%, Sri Lankan Moors 7.2%, Indian Tamil 4.6%, Sri Lankan Tamil 3.9%, other 0.5%, unspecified 10% (2001)

Religions: Buddhist 70%, Islam 8%, Hindu 7%, Christian 6% (2001)

Literacy rate: 92% (2003 est.)

Economic summary: GDP/PPP (2007 est.): $81.29 billion; per capita $4,100. Real growth rate: 6.3%. Inflation: 19.7%. Unemployment: 5.7%. Arable land: 14%. Agriculture: rice, sugarcane, grains, pulses, oilseed, spices, tea, rubber, coconuts; milk, eggs, hides, beef; fish. Labour force: 8.08 million; services 45%, agriculture 38%, industry 17% (1998 est.). Industries: processing of rubber, tea, coconuts, tobacco and other agricultural commodities; telecommunications, insurance, banking; clothing, textiles; cement, petroleum refining. Natural resources: limestone, graphite, mineral sands, gems, phosphates, clay, hydropower. Exports: $6.442 billion f.o.b. (2005 est.): textiles and apparel, tea and spices; diamonds, emeralds, rubies; coconut products, rubber manufactures, fish. Imports: $8.37 billion f.o.b. (2005 est.): textile fabrics, mineral products, petroleum, foodstuffs, machinery and transportation equipment. Major trading partners: U.S., UK, India, Germany, Singapore, Hong Kong, China, Iran, Japan, Malaysia (2004).

Communications: Telephones: main lines in use: 494,509 (1998); mobile cellular: 228,604 (1999). Radio broadcast stations: AM 26, FM 45, shortwave 1 (1998). Radios: 3.85 million (1997). Television broadcast stations: 21 (1997). Televisions: 1.53 million (1997). Internet Service Providers (ISPs): 5 (2000). Internet users: 121,500 (2001).

Transportation: Railways: total: 1,508 km (2002). Highways: total: 96,695 km; paved: 91,860 km; unpaved: 4,835 km (1999). Waterways: 430 km; navigable by shallow-draft craft. Ports and harbors: Colombo, Galle, Jaffna, Trincomalee. Airports: 15 (2002).

International disputes: none.

Member of Commonwealth of Nations

Flag of Sri Lanka


An island in the Indian Ocean off the southeast tip of India, Sri Lanka is about half the size of Tasmania. Most of the land is flat and rolling; mountains in the south-central region rise to over 8,000 ft (2,438 m).




Indo-Aryan emigration from India in the 5th century B.C. came to form the largest ethnic group on Sri Lanka today, the Sinhalese. Tamils, the second-largest ethnic group on the island, were originally from the Tamil region of India and emigrated between the 3rd century B.C. and A.D. 1200. Until colonial powers controlled Ceylon (the country's name until 1972), Sinhalese and Tamil rulers fought for dominance over the island. The Tamils, primarily Hindus, claimed the northern section of the island and the Sinhalese, who are predominantly Buddhist, controlled the south. In 1505 the Portuguese took possession of Ceylon until the Dutch India Company usurped control (1658–1796). The British took over in 1796, and Ceylon became an English Crown colony in 1802. The British developed coffee, tea, and rubber plantations. On Feb. 4, 1948, after pressure from Ceylonese nationalist leaders (which briefly unified the Tamil and Sinhalese), Ceylon became a self-governing dominion of the Commonwealth of Nations.

S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike became prime minister in 1956 and championed Sinhalese nationalism, making Sinhala the country's only official language and including state support of Buddhism, further marginalizing the Tamil minority. He was assassinated in 1959 by a Buddhist monk. His widow, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, became the world's first female prime minister in 1960. The name Ceylon was changed to Sri Lanka (“resplendent island”) on May 22, 1972.

The Tamil minority's mounting resentment toward the Sinhalese majority's monopoly on political and economic power, exacerbated by cultural and religious differences, erupted in bloody violence in 1983. Tamil rebel groups, the strongest of which were the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or Tamil Tigers, began a civil war to fight for separate nation.

President Ranasinghe Premadasa was assassinated at a May Day political rally in 1993, when a Tamil rebel detonated explosives strapped to himself. Tamil extremists have frequently resorted to terrorist attacks against civilians. The next president, Chandrika Kumaratunga, vowed to restore peace to the country. In Dec. 1999, she was herself wounded in a terrorist attack. By early 2000, 18 years of war had claimed the lives of more than 64,000, mostly civilians.

A Brief, Ineffectual Cease-Fire

After Dec. 2001 elections, Ranil Wickremesinghe, a longtime bitter rival of President Kumaratunga, was sworn in as prime minister. Wickremesinghe's victory precipitated a formal cease-fire with the Tamil rebels, signed in Feb. 2002. In September talks, the government lifted its ban on the group, and the Tigers dropped their demand for an independent Tamil state. Another significant breakthrough came in December when the Tigers and the government struck a power-sharing deal that would give the rebels regional autonomy. But negotiations in 2003 achieved little.

Intense political rivalry threatened the peace process. In Nov. 2003, President Kumaratunga, convinced that Prime Minister Wickremesinghe was too soft in his negotiations with the Tigers, wrested away some of his powers. In Feb. 2004, the president dissolved parliament and called for elections in the hope of further eroding the power of the prime minister. The gamble paid off for Kumaratunga—her United People's Freedom Alliance won April's parliamentary elections, and Wickremesinghe was replaced by a new prime minister, Mahinda Rajapakse, a high-ranking member of Kumaratunga's party.

On Dec. 26, 2004, a tremendously powerful tsunami ravaged 12 Asian countries. About 38,000 people were reported killed in Sri Lanka. President Kumaratunga and the Tamil Tigers reached a deal in June 2005 to share about $4.5 billion in international aid to rebuild the country. But intensifying violence in the eastern part of the country threatened the cease-fire and jeopardized the aid package. In Aug. 2005, Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar was assassinated and the government declared a state of emergency.

Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse won November's presidential elections, taking 50% of the vote to former prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe's 48%. Rajapakse is expected to take a hard line with the Tamil Tigers. Rajapakse appointed Ratnasiri Wickremanayaka as prime minister.

Civil War Breaks Out; Tamil Tigers Now on the Run

In 2006, repeated violations of the 2002 cease-fire on both sides turned into outright war. Since April 2006, about 1,000 soldiers and civilians have been killed, and 135,000, mostly Tamils, have been displaced. Efforts by Norway, which brokered the 2002 cease-fire, to bring both sides to the negotiating table were unsuccessful throughout the summer.

Fighting between the rebels and government troops continued into 2007. After a weeks of deadly battles, the military took control of rebel-held regions of eastern Sri Lanka in March, leaving tens of thousands more civilians displaced. In April, the Tamil Tigers launched their first air raid, using small aeroplanes to bomb an air force base near Colombo. An attack by the Sri Lankan air force in November killed the leader of the Tigers' political wing, S. P. Tamilselvan. Amid continued fighting, the government abrogated the cease-fire in January 2008.

Sri Lanka was rocked by a series of suicide bombs on the eve of and during the country's celebration of its 60th anniversary of independence in February. Nearly 40 people died in the attacks. April was a particulary bloody month in Sri Lanka. Indeed, highways minister Jeyaraj Fernandopulle was killed in a bombing attributed to Tamil Tiger rebels. Later in the month, more than 40 soldiers and 100 Tamil Tiger rebels died in a battle in the Jaffna peninsula.

The conflict betwween the Sri Lankan and the Tamil Tigers reached a pivotal point in the fall, when the military launched an airstrike on Tamil headquarters in early October in Kilinochi. In addition, ground troops were closing in on the rebels. In January 2009, the Sri Lankan government captured the northern town of Kilinochchi, which for ten years had been the administrative headquarters of the Tamil Tigers. President Rajapakse urged the rebels to surrender.

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