Sri Lanka Table of Contents

IN THE YEARS following Sri Lanka's attainment of independence on February 4, 1948, the country's political system appeared to be the very model of a parliamentary democracy. The country stood virtually alone among its South and Southeast Asian neighbors in possessing a viable two-party system in which the conservative United National Party (UNP) and the left-of-center Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) alternated with each other in power after fairly contested elections. Respect for legal institutions and the independence of the judiciary were well established. Sri Lanka's military, never sizable, refrained from intervening in politics, and the country's leadership pursued generally moderate policies in its relations with other states. Although per capital income was low compared to that of India and other South Asian countries, over the decades successive governments invested heavily in health, educational, and other social service facilities. As a result, standards of health and literacy were high and seemed to provide a firm foundation for democracy and political stability.

Sri Lanka was, however, heir to cultural and historical traditions at variance with its constitutionally defined parliamentary political institutions. Family and caste played major roles in determining the leadership of the major parties and the ebb and flow of political patronage. But ethnicity and religion were the most important and politically relevant determinants in this traditionally diverse society. After 1948 and especially after passage of the Official Language Act, popularly known as the "Sinhala Only" bill, in 1956, the Sri Lankan Tamil community, which was largely Hindu, came to feel that its political interests were being ignored and belittled by the mainstream political parties led by Buddhist Sinhalese. The feeling of grievance festered during the 1970s in the wave of preferential policies that favored Sinhalese applicants for university positions and government jobs. Abandonment of the idea of a secular state--the 1972 constitution guaranteed "the foremost place" for the Buddhist religion of the Sinhalese-- further aroused Tamil alienation. Conversely, the Sinhalese, who regarded the Tamils as an economically and educationally privileged group, were determined to secure what they considered "majority rights," including freedom from alleged economic exploitation by Tamils. They also feared that the Sri Lankan Tamils could be a "fifth column" for the much larger Tamil population in neighboring India. From the Buddhist Sinhalese perspective, it was they, living in a "sea" of Hindu Tamils, who were the true minority, not the Sri Lankan Tamils.

In a sense, the effectiveness of democratic institutions in conveying the viewpoints of middle class and working-class Sinhalese, electorally a majority of voters, promoted ethnic polarization. Politicians such as the S.W.R.D. and Sirimavo Bandaranaike effectively used appeals to Sinhalese chauvinism to unseat their UNP opponents. Neither the UNP nor the SLFP parties dared make concessions to the Tamils for fear of alienating the majority Sinhalese. Thus the UNP government of Junius Richard (J.R.) Jayewardene, which came to power in July 1977, was as determined as the earlier SLFP governments not to yield to Tamil demands for language parity and regional autonomy. By the early 1980s, armed groups of young Tamil extremists, committed to establishing an independent Tamil Eelam, or state, were well established in Tamil-majority areas in the northern and eastern parts of the country or operating out of bases in India's Tamil Nadu State.

In July 1977, Jayewardene won an unprecedented majority in the national legislature, gaining 140 out of 168 seats. In 1978 a new Constitution, the third in Sri Lanka's postindependence history, was promulgated providing for a strong presidency. Jayewardene became the first chief executive under the new system. Some observers interpreted controversial amendments to the Constitution, such as the extension of the life of Parliament for another six years, passed in December 1982, as an illegitimate manipulation of the legal political process designed to give the UNP a virtually uncontested monopoly of political power. In terms of the ethnic crisis, an August 1983 amendment outlawing the advocacy of separatism, which resulted in the expulsion of members of the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) from Parliament, was most fateful. Against a background of escalating communal violence, it deprived Sri Lankan Tamils of political representation.

July 1983 was a turning point in the worsening ethnic crisis. Anti-Tamil riots in Colombo and other cities, prompted by the killing of thirteen Sinhalese soldiers by Tamil Tiger guerrillas in the north, resulted in hundreds and perhaps as many as 2,000 deaths. The government was unprepared for the scale of violence and faced accusations of sublime unconcern for the Tamils' welfare, while foreign observers told of the active connivance of government figures in mob violence. The inability or unwillingness of President Jayewardene and the UNP to forge a workable settlement of ethnic issues brought India, which had immense interests of its own in the matter, directly into the crisis. According to the Indian press, under the government of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi India unofficially permitted the establishment of training camps for the Sri Lankan Tamil insurgents in the state of Tamil Nadu. With the assumption of power by Gandhi's son and successor, Rajiv Gandhi, New Delhi adopted a more even-handed approach and sought to mediate the escalating crisis in Sri Lanka by bringing government and Tamil insurgent negotiators together for talks. Eventually, the New Delhi government went further and came down squarely on the side of Colombo with the signing of the Indo-Sri Lankan Accord of July 29, 1987. The pact committed New Delhi to the deployment of a peacekeeping force on the island, as asked by the Sri Lankan government, and made the Indian government the principal guarantor of a solution to the ethnic crisis.

The accord was designed to meet Sri Lankan Tamil demands for self-determination through the merging of the Northern and Eastern provinces and the devolution of substantial executive, legislative, and judicial powers. Tamil was made an official language, on a par with Sinhalese. A cease-fire was arranged, and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and other guerrilla groups surrendered some but not all of their arms. Many doubted that the accord, which the guerrillas had not played a role in formulating and the LTTE opposed, would bring lasting peace. By mid-1988, the Indian Army, in a series of hard-fought engagements that had caused it several hundred casualties, generally cleared the Jaffna Peninsula in Northern Province of Tamil guerrillas. The Indian Peacekeeping Force established a semipermanent garrison, and a measure of tranquility returned to the area. In Eastern Province, the Indian Peacekeeping Force had less success in suppressing the insurgents and the situation remained precarious. Bands of Tamil guerrillas remained at large, surfacing apparently at will to initiate violent incidents that led to an unremitting loss of life among innocent civilians, Sinhalese and Tamil, as well as among military personnel of both the Sri Lankan and Indian armed forces. In the predominantly Sinhalese, southern fringe of the island, the Jayewardene government faced escalating violence at the hands of Sinhalese militants who opposed the Indo-Sri Lankan Accord as a sellout to the Tamil extremists.

Government Institutions

For more recent information about the government, see Facts about Sri Lanka.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress