Sri Lanka has a long and fascinating history, too complex to go into in this short piece, but worthy of further reading and a visit to the many rich historic sites in the country is a must.
Mankind can be traced back 34,000 years on the island, but it was the Kingdoms of Anuradhapura (377 B.C. – 1017) and Polonnaruwa (7th Century – 1310) which have left lasting memorials of the richness and ingenuity of Sri Lanka’s former rulers. Today both sites display extensive and well-preserved ruins of their former rulers and provide the anchor point for the history of the country which has included invasions from India, the extension of Buddhism, the majority religion and Hinduism especially in the north where most Tamils reside.
Later on Islam and Christianity came to the island providing a rich culture but also the source of much division in the modern era. Islam came in the form of Arab traders in the 7th Century with another influx of Muslims arriving in the 18th and 19th Century from Java and Malaysia.
The first Europeans to arrive on the island were the Portuguese. Lourenço de Almeida arrived in 1505 and found seven warring kingdoms fighting for supremacy. The Portuguese established a fort at Colombo the modern day commercial capital and then moved along the coast before moving inland to the hilly country around Kandy. The Portuguese forced Christianity upon the people and were generally hated, so when the Dutch arrived in 1638 the local kings were quick to enter into treaties to get rid of the Portuguese.
The Dutch had control of most of the island by 1660 and were quick to impose taxes on the natives. In 1659 the British arrived in the form of Robert Knox of the British East India Company. He was captured and held captive but eventually escaped and alerted the British to the island’s potential. It wasn’t to be until 802 and the Treaty of Amiens when the Dutch part of the island was ceded to the British and it became a crown colony known as Ceylon.
After several attempts the British finally conquered the Kingdom of Kandy in 1815 and quickly discovered that the hill country around Kandy and Nuwara Eliya were perfect for growing tea, coffee and rubber. The British imported large numbers of Tamil workers from southern India to work on the tea plantations.
The first elements of democracy were brought to the country in 1909 when a partly elected assembly was permitted. Universal suffrage was introduced in 1931 but as early as 1919 there were moves towards independence with the formation of the Ceylon National Congress (CNC). Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam was the founding president of the party which was to play such a vital role in negotiating Ceylon towards independence.
The Sri Lankans cleverly manoeuvred the British, partly by compliance and partly by negotiation into a position whereby two commissions, the Donoughmore Commission and the Soulbury Commission, led to constitutional changes that edged the country towards independence.
In World War Two Sri Lanka became the front-line base for the British against the Japanese after the loss of Singapore. Lord Louis Mountbatten, the Supreme Allied Commander South East Asia Command (SEAC), received the support of the D. S. Senanayake government and this close cooperation undoubtedly helped the country gain momentum towards independence which came on 4th February 1948.
Prior to independence Don Stephen Senanayake parted company with the CNC and started up the centre-right United National Party (UNP) in 1946. The party was to become one of the mainstays of Sri Lankan politics. The UNP won the 1947 general election, taking 42 of the 95 seats in the House of Representatives of Ceylon. Although short of a majority they formed a government with the All Ceylon Tamil Congress (ACTC).
In the early years the UNP was still a broad church and soon it was to lose an important figure in S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike who left in 1951 to establish the Sinhala nationalist and centre-left Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), the other mainstay of Sri Lankan politics.
Although they did poorly in the 1952 general election (the UNP won with 54 of 95 seats) the SLFP, in a three party electoral alliance known as the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (People’s United Front) won the 1956 election and S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike became Prime Minister. S.W.R.D was to make Sinhala the official language of Ceylon, alienating many minorities, especially the Tamils (he also introduced the repatriation of estate Tamils to India) and introduced Socialist policies which had a profound effect on the future course of the country.
S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike was assassinated in September 1959 and in March 1960 the UNP was back as the largest party but with no ability to form a coalition a fresh election was called in July 1960. The UNP went from eight of 95 seats in 1956 to 50 of 151 seats in March 1960 to 30 seats in the July. It was a turbulent political time but the SLFP emerged with a narrow majority of 75 seats in the July and S.W.R.D’s widow, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, emerged as the eventual winner and the world’s first female head of state.
Sirimavo Bandaranaike introduced widespread nationalisation, alienated the business community and lost the 1965 election to the UNP who were able to form a coalition ‘National Front’ government. Five years later and the SLFP were back in a left-wing alliance called the United Front (UF). In one of the oddities of elections the UNP won more votes and a greater percentage of the vote in the 1970 election but only won 17 seats to the SLFP’s 91 seats. The UF took a pro-Soviet foreign policy, extended their nationalisation programme and greatly increased social programmes.
The continued alienation of the Tamil community by the UF was finally about to lead to over 30 years of violence between the communities which could rightly be called a civil war in its final stages. The Bandaranaike government had become deeply unpopular and a rejuvenated UNP under the leadership of J.R. Jayewardene led to a landslide victory for the UNP in 1977; they won 140 of the 168 seats in the National State Assembly.
In 1978 the UNP government called a referendum in which the constitution was changed from a Westminster style government to an Executive Presidency modelled very much along the French lines. J. R. Jayewardene became President and in another referendum in 1982 elections were delayed until 1989. However, a Presidential election was held in 1982 and J. R. Jayewardene was elected with 52.91% of the vote.
Meanwhile, the Tamils had become restless and following riots in 1977, just months after the election, more than 300 Tamils were killed and a radicalised Tamil youth led to the rise of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The LTTE or Tamil Tigers were to carry out violent attacks against the state and assassinated two leaders, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi of India in 1991 and Sri Lankan President Ranasinghe Premadasa in 1993 before they were brought down in 2009.
Jayewardene retired from politics in 1989 and was replaced by Ranasinghe Premadasa. As the UNP Presidential candidate Premadasa won the December 1988 election with 50.43% of the vote and the UNP won the 1989 general election, taking 125 of the 225 seats in the enlarged Parliament of Sri Lanka.
Premadasa was assassinated by the LTTE on 1st May 1993 and was replaced by Dingiri Banda Wijetunga. During the latter UNP years the country had experienced a more authoritarian regime which critics say included death squads, torture of opponents and a crackdown on the media largely brought on because of the civil war with the Tamil Tigers.
Inevitably, by 1994 the people wanted a change and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party led an alliance of five parties, known as the People’s Alliance (PA) back into government with the support of some minor parties. Three months later SLFP leader Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga (better known as CBK), the daughter of S.W.R.D. and Sirimavo Bandaranaike was elected President with 62.28% of the vote. CBK won again in 1999 with 51.12% of the vote, some say on a sympathy vote following an LTTE assassination attempt during the final stages of the election campaign at which she lost her right eye.
Fresh elections in 2000 gave the SLFP 107 seats, insufficient to run a government and more elections were called in 2001. The UNP along with four other parties under the United National Front (UNF) banner won 109 seats and were able to cobble a coalition government together.
The UNP led government entered into negotiations with the LTTE and managed to secure a ceasefire of sorts. Although the government, led by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, instigated a series of economic reforms which brought great benefits to the country, the majority Sinhala community disliked the ceasefire agreement and the Tamils refused to back the government when it came to the vote. The 2004 election, as a consequence, was a disaster for the UNF who dropped to 82 seats whilst the SLFP in a new eight party alliance called the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) won 105 seats and were able to form a coalition government.
That election would see the UNP side-lined for ten years. CBK’s successor, Mahinda Rajapaksa, won the 2005 election and immediately went on the offensive against the LTTE. In a campaign which remains steeped in controversy the Sri Lankan armed forces defeated the LTTE, pushing them back into a final stand in the north-eastern beaches of Sri Lanka and in a final push large numbers of Tamil civilians are reported to have lost their lives.
The cost in lives of the thirty year civil war is estimated to have been between 60,000 and 100,000 victims and a 2011 report by the Asia Economic Institute (AEI) puts the cost to the economy at around $200 billion.
Rajapaksa was hailed as a hero by the Sinhalese majority and won the 2010 Presidential election with 57.88% of the vote. The SLFP led UPFA coalition also did well, winning 144 of the 225 seats in Parliament.
Since the end of the civil war FDI has increased dramatically, as did tourism, but the government was controlled largely by Mahinda Rajapaksa and his two brothers. Increasingly the family took an autocratic line, controlling the media and judiciary whilst doing deals with China as one of the few nations who did not seek to question what happened at the end of the civil war.
In 2010 the President used his parliamentary majority to get rid of the Presidential term limits and to take greater control of appointments of Supreme Court judges and other officials in what is known as the 18th Amendment of the Constitution.
In November 2014 President Rajapaksa, after falling support in local elections, decided to call a Presidential election two years early. The day after, the General Secretary of the SLFP and Health Minister, Maithripala Sirisena, announced that he would stand against the President. Sirisena proposed a 100 day programme which would abolish the Executive Presidency, create independent commissions to appoint key officials, stop the surveillance of opponents and media and crack down on corruption.
Against all the odds and with the support of the UNP and nearly 50 other political parties and civic groups Maithripala Sirisena won the 2015 Presidential election with 51.28% of the vote. The leader of the United National Party, Ranil Wickremesinghe, became Prime Minister and several weeks later Sirisena became leader of the SLFP, giving him the majority needed in parliament to carry out his 100 day programme.
Currently the President is elected by popular vote for a six year term and the number of terms is now unlimited, but that is all expected to change in 2015.
The unicameral Parliament has 225 members elected by popular vote on the basis of an open-list, proportional representation system by electoral district to serve six-year terms.
The Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) 2016 places Sri Lanka at joint 95th out of 176 countries with a CPI 2016 score of 36 (where 100 is least corrupt).