Sri Lanka History


The Sinhalese are believed to be people of Indo-Aryna origin, first coming to the island of Sri Lanka about 500 BC, as recorded in the Mahavamsa, with the story later continued in its sequel the Culavamsa, compiled by Buddhist monks as far back as the 6th Century A.D. The legendary founding of the father of the Sinhalese, Prince Vijaya, with 700 followers, arrived on this land at the time of the parinibbana, the passing away of Lord Buddha, which proximity of events emphasizes the country’s historical role as the bulwark of Buddhist civilization. According to the Mahavamsa, the multi-ethnicity of the country flourished as way back as the 3rd Century BC when people of Dravidian origin, the Tamils, established substantial influence over the trading and urban areas of the country.
However, existing information about prehistoric times on the Indian subcontinent reveals that homo sapiens probably first appeared in Sri Lanka about 500,000 BC, substantiated by a few objects discovered that date pack to the Paleolithic culture of the second Stone Age period. A Stone Age tribe called the Veddhas, are probably the best known indigenous inhabitants, believed to be descendents from the legendary Yaksas and Nagas chronicled in the Mahavamsa. The changing picture of prehistoric Sri Lanka is further exemplified with the uncovering of a shell cave in Kithulgala yielding a wealth of artifacts and even new evidence that suggests the domestication of certain plants that could have occurred as far back as 15,000 to 10,000 BC. Even the island’s location on sea routes, were probably traveled by the dugout canoes of the Hoabinhians, an ancient culture of Southeast Asian origin that practiced agriculture, making pottery and fashioning stone tools thousands of years earlier than of those people in West Asia.

The ancient civilization flourished in Sri Lanka’s dry zone, which encompasses over 2/3rds of the island, springing up alongside river banks. With the spread across the plains and urgent need of working out the agricultural subsistence of rice, a crop that depended on the vagaries of the monsoons and gaining over the geographical peculiarities of the region coupled with frequent droughts, Sri Lanka became one of the greatest irrigation geniuses of the ancient world, as early as the 1st Century AD. Utmost royal patronage was extended by the kings ruling from the ancient kingdoms of Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa and in the south of the country, Ruhuna, for the development of irrigation and by the 8th century, irrigation systems enabled the islanders to open extensive tracts of land to cultivation.

Kingdoms and capitals sprang around the island, with each king demonstrating his prowess with bigger and better irrigation systems, castles and outsized huge stupas, the latter being adorned with gems and jewels, found aplenty in the country, dedicated to Buddhism, which had by then flourished in the island. However, the idyllic state slowly disintegrated, with political instability inherent within the Sinhalese kingdoms and devastation wrought upon by South Indian invaders. By the 13th century, Sri Lanka was in a state of flux and may have probably distracted the Sri Lankans from an even greater threat – the European Colonialists.

Colonial Times

Lorenzo d’Almeida and his band of Portuguese arrived on the shores of Sri Lanka in 1505 to change the face of history forever. The newcomers were most interested in controlling the island’s commerce than in its territory, but the process led to an intrusion of affairs in the coastal region. Meanwhile, the Kotte kingdom was in shambles, giving the Portuguese an even greater stronghold in the prevalent precarious situation. By the year 1600, even some of the Sinhalese royalty had been converted to Catholicism by the Portuguese. There was an attempt to re-establish the kingdom of Kandy with a treaty signed between the king and the Portuguese, but relationships soured after Portuguese incursions into Batticaloa and Trincomalee, resulting in the Sinhalese King forming an alliance with the Dutch, with a promise of a monopoly over the island’s renowned spice trade, in return for driving out the Portuguese. Unfortunately, this Kandyan pact with the Dutch, proved as ill-fated as the earlier alliance.

The Dutch though recapturing the ports from the Portuguese, decided to hold onto most of the captured territory around the coastline of the country, realizing the importance of its geographical location for shipping and trading. Sri Lanka had merely exchanged one set of European rulers for another. However, through this period, the Kandyan Kingdom stubbornly maintained its independence.

The impact of the Portuguese and Dutch on the religious beliefs and economy of the country was significant, with introduction of Christianity in all its sectarian manifestations, almost making it a fad among the Sinhalese. Further, the dominance of the export sector over traditional sources of state revenue emerged due to the monopolization of export trade in spices. The Sinhala language absorbed words into its vocabulary from these influences as did the names that emerged and are still prevalent to this day.

However, the influence of the Dutch and Portuguese on Sri Lanka pales when compared to the strongest European power that began its invasion of the country in 1795. In just four years, the British had driven away the Dutch from the ports and with the Kandyan grip on their own empire weakening, by 1815 after a long and ruthless campaign that finally broke the Kandyan’s stubborn resistance, for the first time in its history since the rule of Kings Prakaramabahu I and Nissanka Malla, the entirety of Sri Lanka came under the control of a single power – the humiliating difference was that it was the British.

The British brought with them a remarkable transformation of the country’s economy, introducing the plantation crops. Coffee replaced cinnamon. However, a virulent leaf disease made that crop shortlived, though tea, rubber and coconut formed the foundation of the economy to continue even to these present times. With the lopsided development of the economy though, traditional agriculture fell into neglect and the scourge of famine, poverty, destitution and starvation plagued the dry zone of Sri Lanka around the turn of the 20th century – economic hardships of the Sinhalese peasant remained unaddressed.

Instigstigated by the Donoughmore Commission, constitutional reforms were introduced in 1931 recommending the first step towards self government of Ceylon together with the simultaneous introcution of universal suffrage, with all citizens over 21 receiving the right to vote. Ceylon thus became the first British colony in the world to enjoy universal suffrage, apart from white settlement colonies. This followed an expansion of educational opportunities, emancipating the people from ignorance and inculcating an awareness of political rights and obligations. A comprehensive programme to restore irrigation works of the dry zone, resettlement of the peasants, free education, social welfare, improved health services and food subsidization formed the basis of Ceylon’s welfare state. The final phase of the transfer of power from British to Sri Lankan hands happened in 1948 under the able leadership of D S Senanayake, the country’s first Prime Minister.

Modern Times

Although the country had a dominance by Sinhalese Buddhists making up nearly 67% of the population, D S Senanayake’s mature statecraft refused to mix state power and politics with religion and instead concentrated on a process of nation building and national regeneration. By the 1950s, Sri Lanka had regained some of its economic buoyancy, with tea fetching premium prices and massive redevelopment of the irrigation systems. However, on the death of Senanayake, even though succeeded by his son Dudley Senanayake who had similar policies but largely considered as putting too much faith in maintaining a comfortable status quo, 1956 saw a change in the political picture with S W R D Bandaranaike, leader of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party and father of current President Chandrika, win a landslide victory with the aid of smaller splinter parties.

Sri Lanka holds the longest record for democratic elections in any former British colony and electorates have been most successful in turning governments out of office by just exercising their franchise.

However, SWRD’s administrative skills did not match his ambitions, with his weaknesses culminating in his assassination by a Bhikku in 1956. Dudley Senanayake and his United National Party soon came back into power, but with the reorganization of the SLFP under the slain Bandaranaike’s powerful widow, Sirima, the UNP was soon out of office with Sirima dominating the island’s political picture for well over two decades, also becoming the first elected woman Prime Minister in the world.

Nationalisation was the norm of the day for Sirima, ensuring a downward spiral for the SLFP which resulted again in Dudley Senanayake being elected into office in 1965. During this time, although Senanayake maximized agricultural productivity, he could not curb rising unemployment among the educated and foster ethnic and religious reconciliation. With a new coalition formulated with the Lanka Sama Samaja party and the Pro-Moscow Communist Party, Bandaranaike was back in 1970. A rising insurrection by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (now a recognized political party with representation in Parliament) crushed by Bandaranaike in 1971 and the implementation of a series of radical economic and social changes, cast aspersions on the genuineness of the socialist government – measures which did little improve the living standards of the country’s poor or stimulate economic growth. Adding to its woes were rifts emerging in the ruling coalition, resulting in the UNP sweeping into power in 1977 with a record 86.7% votes.

Using Singapore as its model, the UNP set about transforming Sri Lanka into South Asia’s financial center. The foreigners returned but this time, strictly to work economic miracles and nothing else. Today Sri Lanka’s economy rests firmly on the cornerstone of foreign aid and investment.

But, July 1983 saw the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam unleash a spate of attacks on the Sinhalese majority, with fierce reprisals against the Tamils throughout the country by the Sinhalese. 20 years hence, a peace deal is being ironed out by the Government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE to assuage and abate the horrific toll the war has taken on every single person in the country.

Even though urban and rural development continued at breakneck speed with shelter, food and healthcare taking precedence, the handing of the reigns of power to R Premadasa and his somewhat authoritarian ruling fashion, saw the mass of the population wishing for change. Sri Lanka’s largest non-traditional export earner, the apparel industry, human resource export and the ‘shelter for all’ concept, which won a UN award on Sustainability, was mooted by Premadasa, though operationally carried out in an almost dictatorial way. Even with the economy soaring with the stock market skyrocketing leaping more than 50%, economic measures aimed at boosting investment and liberalizing the economy and a poverty alleviation programme running in tandem, coupled with literacy at among the highest level in the world, despondency among the people grew and his assassination sparked a spate of firecrackers around the country.

Premadasa’s death ensured victory for the thus little known daughter of the Bandaranaike’s, who formed an alliance with the left parties of the country, becoming Prime Minister and later President, swearing her mother in as Prime Minister, her third time in this office. Promising peace, more middle of the road policies and liberalization in all areas of governance, the aspirations of the private and public sector for a prosperous Sri Lanka rested squarely on her shoulders. But with corruption rampant from the top level down and an equally if not worse display of egalitarianism, Chandrika Bandaranaike though winning the Presidential Election for a second term in office in an election which was marred by wide scale rigging, saw her party lose dismally at the General Elections in 2001 to the United National Front, an alliance made up of the UNP and dissenting MPs from her own party.

Sri Lankans are a nation of optimists by nature. They always live in hope that peace will come someday and aspire to the premise of harmony and unity under one flag. The UNF continues in its quest to gain complete peace with an MOU signed between the government and the LTTE still holding. Minor violations have been seen but the Government remains steadfast in its quest for peace, which has in its wake, brought in a host of foreign funding and assistance, measures that were decreasing rapidly over the last seven years, leaving Sri Lanka with empty coffers to feed its people. Tourism, one of the biggest foreign exchange earners has improved and along with it, a spate of investors from all over the world. The signing of a Free Trade Agreement with India and another with Pakistan brings hope of further investment and an increase of trade between its closest neighbours, thus forging stronger ties in economic and trading areas.

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