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Country profile: Sri Lanka

Country profile: Sri Lanka

Map of Sri Lanka

Nestling off the southern tip of India, the tropical island of Sri Lanka has beguiled travellers for centuries with its palm-fringed beaches, diverse landscapes and historical monuments.

But for nearly two decades, the island was scarred by a bitter civil war arising out of ethnic tensions. A ceasefire was signed in 2002, but it was undermined by regular clashes between government troops and Tamil rebels, and in January 2008 it expired.


Known as “Serendip” to Arab geographers, the island fell under Portuguese and Dutch influence and finally came under British rule when it was called Ceylon.


Sri Lankan troops on patrol

Army and Tamil separatists are engaged in conflict involving air raids, roadside blasts, suicide bombings, land and sea battles
More than 50,000 killed
1983 – start of war
2002 – ceasefire is signed but violence escalates in 2006

There is a long-established Tamil minority in the north and east.
The British also brought in Tamil labourers to work the coffee and tea plantations in the central highlands, making the island a major tea producer.

But the majority Buddhist Sinhalese community resented what they saw as favouritism towards the mainly-Hindu Tamils under British administration.

The growth of a more assertive Sinhala nationalism after independence fanned the flames of ethnic division until civil war erupted in the 1980s between Tamils pressing for self-rule and the government.

Most of the fighting took place in the north. But the conflict also penetrated the heart of Sri Lankan society with Tamil Tiger rebels carrying out devastating suicide bombings in Colombo in the 1990s.

The violence killed more than 60,000 people, damaged the economy and harmed tourism in one of South Asia’s potentially prosperous societies.

A ceasefire and a political agreement reached between the government and rebels in late 2002 raised hopes for a lasting settlement. But Norwegian-brokered peace talks have stalled and monitors reported open violations of the truce by the government and Tamil Tiger rebels.

Escalating violence between the two sides in 2006 killed hundreds of people and raised fears of a return to all-out war. In January 2008, the government said it was withdrawing from the 2002 ceasefire agreement. The ceasefire expired a fortnight later.

Sri Lanka suffered its worst disaster in late 2004 when giant waves generated by an undersea earthquake off Indonesia swept ashore, killing more than 30,000 people and devasting swathes of the coast.


  • Full name: Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka
  • Population: 19.3 million (UN, 2007)
  • Capital: Colombo (commercial), Sri Jayawardenepura (administrative)
  • Largest city: Colombo
  • Area: 65,610 sq km (25,332 sq miles)
  • Major languages: Sinhala, Tamil, English
  • Major religions: Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Christianity
  • Life expectancy: 69 years (men), 76 years (women) (UN)
  • Monetary unit: Sri Lankan rupee
  • Main exports: Clothing and textiles, tea, gems, rubber, coconuts
  • GNI per capita: US $1,160 (World Bank, 2006)
  • Internet domain: .lk
  • International dialling code: +94


President: Mahinda Rajapakse

Mahinda Rajapakse, prime minister at the time of his election, won the November 2005 presidential poll by a narrow margin. His main rival was the opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe.

Sri Lankan president

Mahinda Rajapakse has signalled a tough stance against rebels

Mr Rajapakse was backed by Marxist and Buddhist parties in the government. He also benefited from an extremely low turnout by Tamils in the north and east.

But he inherited a troubled economy and a faltering peace process. During campaigning he promised to take a hard line in any peace talks with Tamil Tiger rebels and said he would seek direct talks with the group’s leader.

He says the solution to the conflict lies in a unitary state.

Mr Rajapakse, a Buddhist lawyer, became prime minister in 2004, heading a heavily-polarised parliament.

He served under Chandrika Bandaranaike-Kumaratunga, president since 1994. She had backed economic liberalisation while in office but government rifts slowed the pace of change.

Her coalition was also divided over the Tamil peace process. The former president pursued a twin-track approach during the civil war, trying to offer the Tamil rebels some form of autonomy while seeking the upper hand on the battlefield.

However, she accused the government of making too many concessions to the rebels and tensions over the peace process led to a bitter power struggle with the then prime minister, Ranil Wickramasinghe, in 2003.

The Sri Lankan president can appoint and dismiss the prime minister, and can dissolve parliament.


Media outlets are divided along linguistic and ethnic lines, with state-run and private operators offering services in the main languages.

Reader with a Sri Lankan newspaper

Deteriorating security has had an impact on the media

Many of the main broadcasters and publications are state-owned, including two major TV stations, radio networks operated by the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC), and newspapers in Sinhala, Tamil and English.

There are more than a dozen private radio stations, and eight privately-run TV stations. Sri Lanka’s privately-owned press and broadcasters often engage in political debate, and criticise government policies.

In 2002, against the background of the peace process, the government allowed Tamil Tiger rebels to begin FM broadcasts of their Voice of Tigers radio station in the north. Broadcasts had previously operated on a clandestine basis. The station was targeted in a bombing raid by the Sri Lankan air force in late 2007.

Media freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders says the press come under pressure from the authorities, while the Tamil Tigers “allow no dissident voices” in the areas they control.

The internet is a growing medium for news; many papers have online editions. There were 428,000 internet users by August 2007 according to world telecoms body, the ITU.




News agencies


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