Sri Lanka profile

Lying off the southern tip of India, the tropical island of Sri Lanka has attracted visitors for centuries with its natural beauty.

Map of Sri Lanka

But it has been scarred by a long and bitter civil war arising out of ethnic tensions between the majority Sinhalese and the Tamil minority in the northeast.

After more than 25 years of violence the conflict ended in May 2009, when government forces seized the last area controlled by Tamil Tiger rebels. But recriminations over abuses by both sides continue.

The island fell under Portuguese and Dutch influence after the 16th century, and Britain began its conquest in the 1790s.

Workers prepare an elephant for the opening night of the annual Kandy Esala Perahera festival in Kandy on 27 July 2009
Historic Kandy is home to the Temple of the Tooth Relic, one of Sri Lankan Buddhism’s most revered sites

There was a long-established Tamil minority in the north and east, and Britain also brought in Tamil labourers to work the coffee and tea plantations in the central highlands. This made the island, then called Ceylon, a major tea producer.

The majority Buddhist Sinhalese resented what they saw as British favouritism towards the mainly-Hindu Tamils.

The growth of assertive Sinhala nationalism after independence fanned the flames of ethnic division, and civil war erupted in the 1980s against Tamils pressing for self-rule.


Army and Tamil separatists fought a long conflict involving air raids, roadside blasts, suicide bombings, land and sea battles

  • Between 80,000 and 100,000 estimated killed
  • 1983 – Start of war
  • 2009 – Government forces re-conquer all rebel-held territory

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 the capital Colombo in the 1990s.

The violence killed more than 70,000 people, damaged the economy and harmed tourism in one of South Asia’s potentially most prosperous societies.

International concern was raised about the fate of civilians caught up in the conflict zone during the final stages of the war, the confinement of some 250,000 Tamil refugees to camps for months afterwards, and allegations that the government had ordered the execution of captured or surrendering rebels.

A UN report published in 2011 said both sides in the conflict committed war crimes against civilians. The Sri Lankan government rejected this and later reports as biased.

In September 2013 the main Tamil opposition party won a convincing victory in elections to a devolved provincial council in the north, which was set up after constitutional talks with the government. Commonwealth observers reported army intimidation of voters.

Tourists on an elephant with the ancient historic rock fortress of Sigiriya in the background
Tourists visiting the ancient rock fortress of Sigiriya: The end of the civil war has boosted the number of foreign holidaymakers

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