R uled for centuries by colonial powers, ravaged by war and savaged by floods, including a killer tsunami, exotic Sri Lanka is a testament to survival.
But lately, freed from authoritarian rule and 26 years of civil war, the island is thriving. With a reform-minded government, booming tourism, and annual economic growth averaging more than 6 percent for the last decade, things are looking up.
However, the road to peace and prosperity was not always so smooth.
Sri Lanka’s ancient history starts in 500 B.C., the estimated date that the Sinhalese began to migrate across the Palk Strait from India. It soon became an island ruled by kings, who came up with an ingenious canal system to drain low swampy terrain and turn it into productive land. Soon it became an island of rich kingdoms, trading with countries across Asia and northern Africa.
It was only a matter of time before its expanding riches caught the eye of India. The Indians invaded several times over the years, exacting tribute and mining resources.
Over the years, even after India pulled back, dominance by foreign powers lured by Sri Lanka’s abundant resources was to become a troublesome pattern. India’s presence foreshadowed other annexations by the Dutch, the Portuguese and, finally, the British, each yearning for riches, power, and resources.
In fact, the colorful history of the country can be neatly divided into threes: ancient Sri Lanka; Portuguese, Dutch and British colonialism; and modern-day Sri Lanka.
Each has left its mark.
Under the rule of Lourenço de Almeida, Portugal established relations with King Vijaybahu of the Sri Lankan kingdom of Kotte in about 1505. The king hoped to use Portuguese protection to maintain a stable economy but it turned out that the Portuguese wanted more than friendly relations. They invaded, seeking valuable spices and ordering the king of Kotte to sell them cinnamon at a fixed price. When Vijaybahu resisted, the Portuguese resorted to force, leading to an agreement to give them cinnamon as a yearly tribute. With the Portuguese came Catholic priests, who did their best to spread the faith through the countryside, though with mixed results.
But there were other colonial powers with an eye on the island. Dutch ships arrived in 1636, signaling a period in which both groups fought for power. The Dutch soon drove the Portuguese from the island.
The Dutch traders managed to hold on until 1796, when the British Empire turned its ever-expansive eye upon the spice island. They made quick work of the Dutch and embarked upon 150 years of British rule that would forever leave its distinctive mark on Sri Lanka. Its remnants are still prominent today in government (a Parliament with wigs), courts (those wigs again), and the island’s principal export, Ceylon tea.
The British moved slower at first than previous conquerors, constantly visiting before they declared themselves rulers of the island. Ships later flocked to Sri Lanka’s coasts and began a booming international trade.
The island was once known as the Kandyan Kingdom during Portuguese and Dutch rule. The British changed it to British Ceylon in 1815.
The name derived from an early Portuguese and Arabic name, Zeylan or Seylan. It was maintained until 1972 when the country became a republic and underwent another name change to Sri Lanka, “The Resplendent Land,” and then to the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka.
Under British rule, English became the official language. At the time, the population was dominated by Sinhalese speakers dating back to 500 B.C., and to a lesser extent, Tamils.
Anxious to reap the island’s benefits, the trade-minded British turned Ceylon into a productive hub for coconut plantations, cinnamon, coffee, and tea. They built railways to make it easier to transport goods to market and to encourage other economic development.
Well-versed in the colonial game, the British employed a divide-and-rule tactic that the empire had already put to good use in parts of Europe. They brought in more than a million Tamil speakers from southern India to work as plantation laborers, establishing schools and appointing Tamils to many bureaucratic positions. That led to resentment by the majority Sinhalese, but the British were able to keep ethnic tensions from boiling over as long as they were in control.
Some historians have blamed the British for laying the foundation for the island’s continuing ethnic tensions. But Karu Jayasuriya, the speaker of Sri Lanka’s Parliament, said it was “not fair” to blame the British.
“The British gave us a good education, a good road network,” and other institutions that endure to this day, he said.
We can assure that there is hope for a better future. For our children and for ourselves as well, regardless of political corruption.Milan Rambukwella
Britain’s empire faded rapidly after World War II and it finally granted Ceylon independence in 1948.
Most of Sri Lanka’s history until then had been marked by foreign control or war. Soon enough, ethnic resentment exploded into open conflict after the Sinhalese-controlled government passed laws that Tamils found offensive, including the declaration of Sinhalese as the nation’s official language. Tensions between the two groups exploded into bloody riots. Soon, Sri Lanka was at war with itself.
The civil war raged off and on for nearly 30 years, as the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam pulled off one violent car bombing after another in and around the capital of Colombo. They introduced the term “suicide bomber” to the world’s lexicon. They blew up the sacred Temple of the Tooth in Kandy, and assassinated more than 50 government officials, police, military officers, lawyers and journalists, including a sitting Sri Lankan president, Ranasinghe Premadasa, and Rajiv Gandhi, former prime minister of India.
In the late 1980s, the rebels’ frequent suicide bombings and assassinations helped placed it on the FBI’s radar as one of the most dangerous terrorist organizations in the world.
Finally, under President Mahinda Rajapaksa, a newly energized and aggressive government army crushed the last remnants of the once-feared Tamil Tigers and declared victory on May 16, 2009.
The civil war was over. The long process of unifying the country and rebuilding the economy had just begun.
Rajapaksa, whose government was rife with corruption and nepotism — it often seemed as if half his relatives were on the payroll — was defeated by his former health minister, Maithripala Sirisena, in 2015. The new president has embarked on an ambitious agenda of reform and reconciliation.
Today people are happy, says Milan Rambukwella, a Sri Lankan doctoral student in physics at the University of Mississippi.
“We can assure that there is hope for a better future for our children and for ourselves as well, regardless of political corruption,” he said.