U.S. DEPARTMENT OF STATE
SRI LANKA BACKGROUND NOTE
Official Name: Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka
Area: 65,610 sq. km. (25,332 sq. mi.); about the size of West Virginia.
Cities: Capital--Colombo (pop. est. 1.3 million).
Other cities-- Kandy (150,000), Jaffna (100,000), Galle (80,000).
Terrain: Coastal plains in the northern third of country; hills and
mountains in south-central Sri Lanka rise to 2,133 m. (7,000 ft.).
Climate: Tropical. Rainy seasons--light in northeast, fall and winter,
with average rainfall of 50 in.; heavy in southwest, summer and fall,
with average rainfall of 200 in.
Nationality: Noun and adjective--Sri Lankan(s).
Population (1994): 18.1 million.
Annual growth rate: 1.3%.
Ethnic groups: Sinhalese (74%), Tamils (18%), Muslims (7%), others
Religions: Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Christianity.
Languages: Sinhala and Tamil (official), English.
Education: Years compulsory--to age 12. Primary school attendance--
Health: Infant mortality rate--19/1,000. Life expectancy--73 yrs.
Work Force: 6.8 million.
Independence: February 4, 1948.
Constitution: August 31, 1978.
Suffrage: Universal over 18.
Branches: Executive--president (chief of state and head of government),
elected for a 6-year term. Legislative--unicameral 225-member
parliament. Judicial--Supreme Court, Court of Appeals, High Court,
Administrative subdivisions: Eight provinces and 25 administrative
Political parties: United National Party, Sri Lanka Freedom Party,
others represented in either parliament or provincial councils, and
several ethnic Tamil and Muslim parties.
Economy (1994 estimates)
GDP: $11 billion.
Annual growth rate: 5.5%.
Per capita GDP: $600.
Natural resources: Limestone, graphite, mineral sands, gems, phosphate.
Agriculture (20% of GDP): Major products--rice, tea, rubber, coconuts,
Industry (20% of GDP): Major products-- garments, chemicals, refined
petroleum, wood products, basic metal products, and paper products.
Trade: Exports--$3.1 billion; garments, tea, rubber, gems, refined
petroleum, coconuts. Major markets--U.S. ($1.2 billion), Germany, U.K.,
Belgium, Japan, Netherlands. Imports--$4.4 billion. Major suppliers--
Japan, India, Hong Kong, South Korea, Taiwan, U.K., Singapore, U.S.
Official exchange rate (Dec. 1994):
Rupees (Rs.) 49=$1.
The Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka (formerly known as
Ceylon) is an island in the Indian Ocean approximately 28 kilometers
(18 mi.) off the southeastern coast of India with a population of about
17.4 million. Density is highest in the southwest where Colombo, the
country's capital, main port, and industrial center, is located. The
net population growth is about 1.3%.
Sri Lanka is ethnically, linguistically, and religiously diverse.
Sinhalese make up 74% of the population and are concentrated in the
densely populated southwest. Ceylon Tamils, citizens whose South Indian
ancestors have lived on the island for centuries, total about 12% and
live predominantly in the north and east.
Indian Tamils, a distinct ethnic group, represent about 6% of the
population. The British brought Indian Tamils to Sri Lanka in the 19th
century as tea and rubber plantation workers and they remain
concentrated in the "tea country" of south-central Sri Lanka. In
accordance with a 1964 agreement with India, Sri Lanka granted
citizenship to 230,000 "stateless" Indian Tamils in 1988. Under the
pact, India granted citizenship to the remainder, some 200,000 of whom
now live in India. Another 92,000 Indian Tamils who themselves or whose
parents once applied for Indian citizenship now wish to remain in Sri
Lanka. Although technically not citizens of Sri Lanka, the Government
has stated that this group will not be forced to return to India.
Other minorities include Muslims (both Moors and Malays), at about 7% of
the population; Burghers, who are descendants of European colonists,
principally from the Netherlands and the U.K.; and aboriginal Veddahs.
Most Sinhalese are Buddhist; most Tamils are Hindu. The majority of Sri
Lanka's Muslims practice Sunni Islam. Sizable minorities of both
Sinhalese and Tamils are Christians, most of whom are Roman Catholic.
The 1978 constitution, while assuring freedom of religion, grants
primacy to Buddhism.
Sinhala, an Indo-European language, is the native tongue of the
Sinhalese. Tamils and most Muslims speak Tamil, part of the South
Indian Dravidian linguistic group. Use of English has declined since
independence, but it continues to be spoken by many in the middle and
upper middle classes, particularly in Colombo. Both Sinhala and Tamil
are official languages.
The actual origins of the Sinhalese are shrouded in myth. Most believe
that they came to Sri Lanka from northern India during the 6th century
BC. Buddhism arrived from the subcontinent 300 years later and spread
rapidly. Buddhism and a sophisticated system of irrigation became the
pillars of classical Sinhalese civilization (200 BC-1200 AD) that
flourished in the north-central part of the island. Invasions from
southern India, combined with internecine strife, pushed Sinhalese
The island's contact with the outside world began early. Roman sailors
called the island Taprobane. Arab traders knew it as "Serendip," the
root of the word "serendipity." Beginning in 1505, Portuguese traders,
in search of cinnamon and other spices, seized the island's coastal
areas and spread Catholicism. The Dutch supplanted the Portuguese in
1658. Although the Dutch were ejected by the British in 1796, Dutch law
remains an important part of Sri Lankan jurisprudence. In 1815, the
British defeated the king of Kandy, last of the native rulers, and
created the Crown Colony of Ceylon. They established a plantation
economy based on tea, rubber, and coconuts. In 1931, the British
granted Ceylon limited self-rule and universal franchise. Ceylon became
independent on February 4, 1948.
Post-Independence Politics. Sri Lankan politics since independence have
been strongly democratic. Two major parties, the United National Party
(UNP) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) have generally alternated
The UNP ruled first from 1948-56 under three prime ministers--D.S.
Senanayake, his son Dudley, and Sir John Kotelawala. The SLFP ruled
from 1956-65, with a short hiatus in 1960, first under S.W.R.D.
Bandaranaike and then, after his assassination in 1959, under his widow,
Sirima. Dudley Senanayake and the UNP returned to power in 1965.
In 1970, Mrs. Bandaranaike assumed the premiership. A year later, an
insurrection by followers of the Maoist "Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna"
(JVP, or "People's Liberation Front") broke out. The SLFP government
suppressed the revolt and declared a state of emergency that would last
six years. In 1972, Mrs. Bandaranaike's Government introduced a new
constitution, which changed the country's name from Ceylon to Sri Lanka,
declared it a republic, made protection of Buddhism a constitutional
principle, and created a weak president appointed by the prime minister.
Its economic policies during this period were highly socialist and
included the nationalization of large tea and rubber plantations.
The UNP, under J.R. Jayewardene, returned to power in 1977. The
Jayewardene Government opened the economy and, in 1978, introduced a new
constitution based on the French model, a key element of which was the
creation of a strong presidency.
President Jayewardene was elected president by parliament in 1978 and by
nationwide elections in 1982. By a 1982 referendum, the life of
parliament was extended by another six years.
The UNP's Ranasinghe Premadasa, Prime Minister in the Jayewardene
Government, narrowly defeated Mrs. Bandaranaike (SLFP) in the 1988
presidential elections. The UNP also won an absolute majority in the
1989 parliamentary elections. Mr. Premadasa was assassinated on May 1,
1993, and was replaced by then-Prime Minister Dingiri Banda Wijetunga,
who appointed Ranil Wickremesinghe to be Prime Minister.
The SLFP, the main party in the People´s Alliance (PA) coalition,
returned to power in 1994 for the first time in 17 years. The People's
Alliance won a plurality in the August 1994 parliamentary elections and
formed a coalition government with Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga as
Prime Minister. Prime Minister Kumaratunga later won the November 1994
presidential elections and appointed her mother (former Prime Minister
Sirima Bandaranaike) to replace her as Prime Minister.
Communal Crisis. Historical divisions continue to have an impact on Sri
Lankan society and politics. From independence, the Tamil minority has
been uneasy with the country's unitary form of government and wary that
the Sinhalese majority would abuse Tamil rights. Those fears were
reinforced when S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike triumphed in the 1956 elections
after appealing to Sinhalese nationalism. Declaring Sinhala the
country's official language--felt by Tamils to be a denigration of their
own tongue--was the first in a series of steps over the following
decades that appeared discriminatory to Tamils.
The decades following 1956 saw intermittent outbreaks of communal
violence and growing radicalization among Tamil groups. By the mid-
1970s Tamil politicians were moving from support for federalism to a
demand for a separate Tamil state--"Tamil Eelam"--in northern and
eastern Sri Lanka. In the 1977 elections, the separatist TULF won all
seats in Tamil areas. Other groups--particularly the "Liberation Tigers
of Tamil Eelam" (LTTE)--sought an independent state by force.
In 1983, the death of 13 Sinhalese soldiers at the hands of Tamil
militants unleashed the largest outburst of communal violence in the
country's history. Hundreds of Tamils were killed in Colombo and
elsewhere, tens of thousands were left homeless, and more than 100,000
fled to South India. Members of the TULF lost their seats in parliament
when they refused to swear a loyalty oath. The north and east became
the scene of bloodshed as security forces attempted to suppress the LTTE
and other militant groups. Terrorist incidents occurred in Colombo and
other cities. Each side in the conflict accused the other of violating
human rights. The conflict assumed an international dimension when
the Sri Lankan Government accused India of supporting Tamil insurgents.
Indian Peace-keeping. By mid-1987, the situation had reached an
apparent impasse. In an attempt to break the deadlock, Sri Lanka
brought India directly into its communal dispute. Under a July 29,
1987, accord signed by Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and President
Jayewardene, the Sri Lankan Government made a number of concessions to
Tamil demands, which included devolution of power to the provinces,
merger (subject to later referendum) of the northern and eastern
provinces, and official status for the Tamil language. India agreed to
establish order in the north and east with an Indian Peace-keeping Force
(IPKF) and to cease assisting Tamil insurgents. Militant groups,
although initially reluctant, agreed to surrender their arms to the
Within weeks, however, the LTTE declared its intent to continue its
armed struggle for an independent Tamil Eelam and refused to surrender
arms. The 50,000-strong IPKF found itself engaged in a bloody police
action against the LTTE.
Meanwhile, the Government of Sri Lanka moved ahead with the promised
devolution of power. By late 1988, all eight provincial council
elections had been held. Further complicating the return to peace was a
burgeoning Sinhalese insurgency in the south. The JVP, relatively
quiescent since the 1971 insurrection, began to reassert itself in 1987.
Capitalizing on opposition to the Indo-Lankan accord in the Sinhalese
community, the JVP launched an intimidation campaign against supporters
of the accord. Numerous UNP and other government supporters were
assassinated. The government, relieved of its security burden by the
IPKF in the north and east, intensified its efforts in the south. The
JVP was crushed but at a high cost in human lives.
From April 1989 through June 1990, the government engaged in direct
communications with the LTTE leadership. In the meantime, fighting
between the LTTE and the IPKF had escalated in the north. Finally,
India withdrew all of its forces from Sri Lanka by May 1990, and
fighting between the LTTE and the government recommenced. Both the
LTTE and government forces have been accused of serious human rights
violations. In January 1995, the Sri Lankan Government and the LTTE
agreed to a cessation of hostilities as a preliminary step in a
government-initiated plan for peace negotiations.
Separatist violence is largely confined to the Northeastern province,
which is 6 to 8 hours by road from the capital. However, terrorist
bombings directed against politicians and others have occurred in
Colombo and elsewhere in the country.
Sri Lanka's two major political parties--the UNP and the SLFP--embrace
democratic values, international non-alignment, and encouragement of
Sinhalese culture. Past differences between the two on foreign and
economic policy have narrowed. The SLFP, however, still has a stronger
social-welfare orientation than the UNP and still envisions a broader
role for the state in governance in general.
In the last general election, held August 15, 1994, Tamil parties,
including the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), and the Eelam
People's Democratic Front (EPDF), and a Muslim party, the Sri Lankan
Muslim Congress (SLMC), won key swing votes in the parliament.
Political assassinations have become commonplace and have included the
bomb killing of President Premadasa on May 1, 1993. Other prominent
national leaders and senior military personnel have been targets and/or
victims of terrorist violence. In April 1994, four bombs exploded at
Colombo hotels and a group calling itself the "Ellalan Force" has
threatened to target foreigners. In October 1994, UNP presidential
candidate Gamini Dissanayake and 53 UNP supporters were killed during an
October campaign rally by a terrorist bombing.
The People's Alliance government, which was elected in 1994, entered
into preliminary peace negotiations with LTTE in mid-October, but a
second round of talks was canceled after the assassination of opposition
leader Gamini Dissanayake. In her November 1994 inaugural address,
President Kumaratunga announced her intention to resume peace talks with
the LTTE. President Kumaratunga also said her government would propose
constitutional changes which would shift powers from the presidency to
the office of the prime minister.
The president of the republic, directly elected for a 6-year term, is
chief of state, head of government, and commander in chief of the armed
forces. Responsible to parliament for the exercise of duties under the
constitution and laws, the president may be removed from office by a
two-thirds vote of parliament with the concurrence of the Supreme Court.
The president appoints and heads a cabinet of ministers responsible to
parliament. The president's deputy is the prime minister, who leads the
ruling party in parliament. A parliamentary no confidence vote requires
dissolution of the cabinet and the appointment of a new one by the
Parliament is a unicameral 225-member legislature elected by universal
suffrage and proportional representation to a 6-year term. The
president may summon, suspend, or end a legislative session and dissolve
parliament. Parliament reserves the power to make all laws.
Sri Lanka's judiciary consists of a supreme court, a court of appeals, a
high court, and a number of subordinate courts. Sri Lanka's legal
system reflects diverse cultural influences. Criminal law is
fundamentally British. Basic civil law is Roman-Dutch. Laws pertaining
to marriage, divorce, inheritance are communal.
Under the Indo-Sri Lankan accord of July 1987, the Government of Sri
Lanka agreed to devolve significant authority to the provinces.
Provincial councils are directly elected for 5-year terms. The leader
of the council majority serves as the province's chief minister; a
provincial governor is appointed by the president. Councils possess
powers in education, health, rural development, social services,
agriculture, security, and local taxation. Many of these powers are
shared, or subject to central government oversight. Predating the
accord are municipal, urban, and rural councils with limited powers.
Principal Government Officials
President--Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga
Prime Minister--Sirima Bandaranaike
Foreign Minister--Lakshman Kadirgamar
Ambassador--Designate to the United States--Jayantha Dhanapala
Ambassador to the United Nations--Dr. Stanley Kalpage
Sri Lanka maintains an embassy in the United States at 2148 Wyoming
Avenue NW., Washington, DC 20008. (Tel. 202-483-4025).
With an economy of about $11 billion a year, and per capita GDP of $600,
Sri Lanka has been coping with a decade long civil insurgency. In 1989,
GDP growth fell to a low of 2%, but recovered and hit a high of 7% in
1993. With several rounds of local and national elections in 1994,
growth fell to about 5.2%. The forecast for 1995 is clouded, as the
private sector awaits proof that the new government will deliver on its
promises of creating an environment conducive to vigorous, private-
The service sector is the largest component of GDP (50%), partly
reflecting an extensive government apparatus and welfare state, but also
including a rapidly growing tourism sector. The booming industrial
sector now accounts for 20% of GDP. Garment manufacturing dominates
Agriculture, the traditional leading sector, contributes 20% of GDP and
provides employment to about half the population. Rice, the staple
cereal, is cultivated extensively. The plantation sector--tea, rubber,
and coconut--also is a major employer and, until the recent growth of
the textile industry, provided the bulk of export earnings.
Since 1990, a successful new stock exchange has been founded; all
exchange controls on current account transactions have been eliminated;
and more than 40 state firms have been privatized. Generous tax
policies and other incentives have made Sri Lanka attractive to outside
investors. Direct foreign investment inflows were about $200 million in
1994. The expectation is that investment inflows will continue to rise
and that GDP growth should average 5% to 6% for the remainder of the
Trade and Foreign Assistance. Exports to the United States--Sri Lanka's
single most important export market--were valued at over $1 billion in
1994. The U.S. was Sri Lanka's largest market for textiles in 1994,
followed by Germany, UK, and Japan. Japan was Sri Lanka's largest
source of imports in 1994, followed by East and South Asian nations such
as India and Hong Kong. Imports from the U.S. amounted to about $200
million in 1994.
Sri Lanka is highly dependent on foreign assistance and has received
about $500 million a year since 1990. With the end of the JVP
insurrection and a systematic decline in human rights abuses by the
security forces, Western donor countries have increased support of Sri
Lanka's economic liberalization programs. Foreign assistance has been
critical in the successful development of the large Mahaweli River Basin
Project, privatization of state-run industry, development of the stock
exchange, and the building of infrastructure.
Labor. Perhaps one-quarter of Sri Lanka's 6.8 million labor force is
unionized, with more than 1,300 registered unions and 10 federations.
The largest labor group is the National Trade Union Conference. Many
unions are affiliated with political parties. One of the largest unions
is the Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC), which represents Indian Tamil
workers on tea and rubber plantations. It claims a membership of
360,000. Its president, S. Thondaman, is Minister of Livestock
Development and Rural Industries. The CWC's agenda includes political
issues, such as citizenship status for stateless Indian Tamils.
Sri Lanka follows a nonaligned foreign policy. It participates in
multilateral diplomacy, particularly at the United Nations, where it
seeks to promote sovereignty, independence, and development in the
developing world. Sri Lanka was a founding member of the Non-Aligned
Movement and hosted its 1976 summit. It also is a member of the
Commonwealth, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation
(SAARC), the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, Asian Development
Bank, and the Colombo Plan. Sri Lanka continues its active
participation in the Non-Aligned Movement, while also stressing the
importance it places on regionalism by playing a strong role in SAARC.
U.S.-SRI LANKAN RELATIONS
The United States enjoys cordial relations with Sri Lanka that are
based, in large part, on shared democratic traditions. U.S. policy
toward Sri Lanka is characterized by respect for its independence,
sovereignty, and moderate, non-aligned foreign policy; support for the
country's unity, territorial integrity, and democratic institutions; and
encouragement of its social and economic development.
U.S. assistance has totaled more than $1.3 billion since Sri Lanka's
independence in 1948. Through the U.S. Agency for International
Development (USAID), it has contributed to Sri Lanka's economic growth
with projects designed to reduce unemployment, improve housing, and
develop the Colombo stock exchange. In 1994, the U.S. delivered about
$55 million in aid, including about $25 million in free wheat, $18
million in low interest 40-year loans for additional wheat, and about
$12 million in a variety of other direct assistance activities.
In addition, U.S. Peace Corps volunteers are active in much of Sri
Lanka; the Voice of America operates a radio transmitter; and U.S. Naval
vessels call regularly at Colombo.
Principal U.S. Embassy Officials
Ambassador--Teresita C. Schaffer
Deputy Chief of Mission--John Boardman
Political Counselor--Scott DeLisi
Economic Counselor--Nicholas Riegg
Administrative Officer--Judy Chammas
Consular Officer--Brian Oberle
Defense Attache--Lt. Col. Carl Cockrum
Director, AID Mission--David Cohen
Counselor for Public Affairs (USIS)--Duncan MacInnes
The U.S. Embassy in Sri Lanka is located at 210 Galle Road, Colombo 3
(tel: 94-1-448007, fax: 94-1-437345). U.S. Agency for International
Development offices are located at 356 Galle Road, Colombo 3 (tel: 94-1-
574333; fax: 94-1-574264). U.S. Information Service offices are located
at 44 Galle Road, Colombo 3. (tel: 94-1-421271, fax: 94-1-449070).
Peace Corps offices are located at 50/5 Siripa Road, Colombo 5 (tel: 94-
1-687617). Voice of America offices are located at 228/1 Galle Road,
Colombo 4 (tel: 94-1-589245, fax: 94-1-502675).
The following are available from the Superintendent of Documents, U.S.
Government Printing Office, P.O. Box 37194, Pittsburgh, PA 15250-7954.
To order, call (202) 512-1800 or fax: (202) 512-2250.
American University. Area Handbook for Sri Lanka.
U.S. Department of Commerce. "Sri Lanka." Foreign Economic Trends and
Their Implications for the United States. Annual.
U.S. Department of State. U.S. Department of State Dispatch. Weekly
U.S. Department of State. Key Officers of Foreign Service Posts: Guide
for Business Representatives. Biannual.
CD-ROM and Internet
U.S. Foreign Affairs on CD-ROM (USFAC). USFAC contains a wealth of
foreign policy information released by the U.S. Department of State,
1990-1994. Updated quarterly, USFAC is available from the Superintendent
of Documents (see address under "Further Information" above).
Department of State Foreign Affairs Network (DOSFAN). Major reports,
speeches, transcripts, and a variety of official U.S. Department of
State publications are now available on a daily basis on the Internet.
To access current foreign policy information, point your gopher client
The Universal Resource Locator (URL) for DOSFAN on the Internet is:
On the World Wide Web, connect to the URL at:
Travel advisory: Continued fighting in the North and East and
infrequent terrorist attacks elsewhere in Sri Lanka make it advisable
for U.S. visitors to contact the Department of State before departure
and the U.S. Embassy on arrival. Petty street crime is common
especially on crowded local transportation. Travel advisories and other
current travel information to Sri Lanka and other countries is available
at no cost from the U.S. Department of State's Consular Information
Program by telephone (202-647-5225) or by fax (202-647-3000). Travel
information is also on-line: access the Consular Affairs Bulletin Board
at (202) 647-9225 by modem with standard settings.
Visas and customs: A passport and onward/return ticket and proof funds
($15 per day) are required. A tourist visa is granted at entry and may
be valid for up to 90 days. Business travelers may be granted a landing
endorsement at the port of entry for a one month period under certain
circumstances. Yellow fever and cholera immunizations are needed if
arriving from an infected area. Foreign currency, including travelers'
checks, must be declared upon entry. Visitors should keep currency
exchange receipts. On departure, they will be asked to show evidence of
Health: The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta,
Georgia, has the latest information on health requirements and
conditions in foreign countries. Call the Hotline at (404) 332-4559 for
telephonic or fax information. Public health facilities in Sri Lanka
are poor. The U.S. embassy maintains a list of private physicians who
may be consulted in emergency cases. Medical supplies are scarce; bring
any special drugs required. Malaria is endemic outside Colombo.
Outside the capital, malaria suppres-sants are required. Avoid drinking
unboiled water. Avoid unpeeled, raw fruits and vegetables or under-
Telecommunications: Domestic telephone service is fair. Long distance
service is good and may be booked through an operator in advance.
International direct-dialing is available from most major hotels.
Telegraph, cable, and fax services are good and available 24 hours a day
in Colombo and other larger towns. International airmail service to the
United States takes about 2 weeks. Sri Lanka is 10-1/2 hours ahead of
Eastern Standard Time.
Tourism: Tourists enjoy Sri Lanka's wonderful beaches and interesting
archeological sites. Contact the Embassy of Sri Lanka (see page 5) or
your travel agent for more details. (###)
Published by the United States Department
of State -- Bureau of Public Affairs -- Office of Public Communication
-- Washington, DC -- 0000 Editor: Deborah Guido-O'Grady with Dan
Lawton, Office of India, Nepal and Sri Lanka, Bureau of South Asian
Department of State Publication
Background Notes Series--This material is
in the public domain and may be reprinted
without permission; citation of this source
For sale by the Superintendent of Documents, US Government Printing
Office, Washington, DC 20402.
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