U.S. Department of State Background Note
Sponsored LinksTravel reviews & great deals at TripAdvisor:
The actual origins of the Sinhalese are shrouded in myth. Most believe 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 kingdoms southward.
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 British ejected the Dutch 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 a universal franchise. Ceylon became independent on February 4, 1948.
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 rule.
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, Sirimavo, the world's first female chief executive in modern times. Dudley Senanayake and the UNP returned to power in 1965.
In 1970, Mrs. Bandaranaike again 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 lasted 6 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 and other private industries.
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 executive presidency. J.R. Jayewardene was elected President by Parliament in 1978 and by nationwide election in 1982. In 1982, a national referendum extended the life of Parliament another 6 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 by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam ("LTTE" or "Tigers"), and was replaced by then-Prime Minister Dingiri Banda Wijetunga, who appointed Ranil Wickremesinghe 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 PA 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 Sirimavo Bandaranaike) to replace her as Prime Minister. President Kumaratunga won re-election to another 6-year term in December 1999. In August 2000, Mrs. Bandaranaike resigned as Prime Minister for health reasons, and Ratnasiri Wickramanayaka was appointed to take her place. In December 2001, the UNP assumed power, led by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe. Chandrika Kumaratunga remained as President. In November of 2003, President Kumaratunga suddenly took control of three key ministries, triggering a serious cohabitation crisis. In January 2004, the SLFP and the JVP formed a political grouping known as the United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA). In February, President Kumaratunga dissolved Parliament and called for fresh elections. In these elections, which took place in April 2004, the UPFA received 45% of the vote, with the UNP receiving 37% of the vote. While it did not win enough seats to command a majority in Parliament, the UPFA was able to form a government and appoint a cabinet headed by Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Presidential elections were held in November 2005. Mahinda Rajapaksa became President, and Ratnasiri Wickramanayake became Prime Minister.
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 apprehensive 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. His declaration that Sinhala was the country's official language--an act 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. Tamils also protested government educational policies and agriculture programs that encouraged Sinhalese farmers from the south to move to newly irrigated lands in the east. 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, areas of traditional Tamil settlement. In the 1977 elections, the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) won all the seats in Tamil areas on a platform of separatism. Other groups--particularly the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE or Tamil Tigers)--sought an independent state by force.
In 1983, the death of 13 Sinhalese soldiers at the hands of the LTTE 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. 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 the Tamil insurgents.
In October 1997, the U.S. Government designated the LTTE as a foreign terrorist organization under provisions of the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 and has maintained this designation since then, most recently redesignating the group in October of 2003.
By mid-1987, India intervened in the conflict by air-dropping supplies to prevent what it felt was harsh treatment and starvation of the Tamil population in the Jaffna Peninsula caused by an economic blockade by Colombo. Under a July 29, 1987, accord (the Indo-Lanka 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 IPKF.
Within weeks, however, the LTTE declared its intent to continue its armed struggle for an independent Tamil Eelam and refused to disarm. The IPKF found itself engaged in a bloody police action against the LTTE. 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 escalated in the north. India withdrew the last of its forces from Sri Lanka in early 1990, and fighting between the LTTE and the government resumed. Both the LTTE and government forces committed 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. After 3 months, however, the LTTE unilaterally resumed hostilities. The government then adopted a policy of military engagement with the Tigers, with government forces liberating Jaffna from LTTE control by mid-1996 and moving against LTTE positions in the northern part of the country called the Vanni. An LTTE counteroffensive begun in October 1999 reversed most government gains and by May 2000 threatened government forces in Jaffna. Heavy fighting continued into 2001.
In December 2001, with the election of a new UNP government, the LTTE and government declared unilateral cease-fires. In February 2002, the Government (GSL) and LTTE signed a ceasefire agreement sponsored by peace process facilitator Norway. Peace talks began in Norway in December 2002. The Tigers dropped out of talks in February 2003, however, claiming they were being marginalized. In July 2004, the first suicide bomb since 2001 struck Colombo.
In March 2004, Eastern Tiger commander Karuna broke with the LTTE, going underground with his supporters. In March 2006, the Karuna faction registered a political party, the Tamil People's Liberation Tigers. The main LTTE and the Karuna faction have targeted each other in low-level attacks since that time.
Over 30,000 Sri Lankans died in the December 2004 tsunami, and hundreds of thousands of others fled their homes. In June 2005, the GSL and LTTE reached an agreement to share $3 billion in international tsunami aid. However, the agreement was challenged in court and was never implemented. In August 2005, the LTTE assassinated Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar, an ethnic Tamil. Parliament passed a state of emergency regulation that has been renewed every month since then.
During the November 2005 presidential election, the LTTE enforced a voting boycott in areas under its control. As a result, perceived hard-liner Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) Mahinda Rajapaksa won by a narrow margin. Low-level violence between the LTTE and security forces escalated. In December 2005, pro-LTTE Tamil National Alliance MP Joseph Pararajasingham was assassinated within a GSL high security zone in the eastern town of Batticaloa.
In February 2006, exactly four years after the ceasefire agreement was signed, the GSL and LTTE renewed their commitment to the agreement at talks in Geneva. There was a lull in violence until April, when an explosion rocked a Sinhalese market in Trincomalee, followed by limited Sinhalese backlash against Tamils. Several days later, an LTTE suicide bomber attacked the main army compound in Colombo, killing eight soldiers and seriously wounding Army Commander General Fonseka. The government retaliated with air strikes on Tiger targets. In June, an LTTE suicide bomber succeeded in killing Army third-in-command General Kulatunga in a suburb of Colombo.
The European Union banned the LTTE as a terrorist organization on May 30, 2006. In June 2006, GSL and LTTE delegations flew to Oslo to discuss the future of the Scandinavian-led Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM). The Tigers refused to sit for talks with the GSL and instead demanded the SLMM remove any monitors from EU-member nations.
Heavy fighting in August 2006, the worst since the 2002 ceasefire, killed hundreds of people and caused tens of thousands to flee their homes when the Tamil Tiger rebels clashed with government forces in the north and east. In September 2006, the government carried out the first major seizure of enemy territory by either side since the 2002 ceasefire when it drove Tamil Tiger rebels from the entrance of the strategic Trincomalee harbor.
In October 2006, the LTTE attacked a Navy bus convoy at a transit point in Habarana, killing 90 sailors, and a few days later, attacked the Sri Lankan Navy Headquarters in Galle, a major tourist destination in the far south. Peace talks in Geneva at the end of October ended with no progress. The LTTE attempted to assassinate the Defense Secretary by bombing his motorcade in December 2006, but he escaped unharmed.
Government troops took control of the LTTE's eastern stronghold of Vakarai in January 2007, resulting in thousands more internally displaced persons. In March 2007, the government claimed to have cleared the LTTE from the eastern coast. Later that month, the Tamil Tiger rebels launched their first-ever air attack, which targeted the Katunayake Air Force base adjacent to Bandaranaike International Airport. Despite the fighting, both sides still claim to adhere to the ceasefire.
Prime Minister--Ratnasiri Wickramanayake
Ambassador to the United States--Bernard Goonetilleke
Ambassador to the United Nations--Prasad Kariyawasam
Sri Lanka maintains an embassy in the United States at 2148 Wyoming Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20008 (tel. 202-4834025).
Sri Lanka is a lower-middle income developing nation with a gross domestic product of about $25.8 billion. This translates into a per capita income of $1,355. Sri Lanka's 91% literacy rate in local languages, and life expectancy of 72 years rank well above those of India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. English language ability is relatively high but has declined significantly since the 1970s.
Sri Lanka's income inequality is severe, with striking differences between rural and urban areas. About a quarter of the country's population of 19.8 million remains impoverished. Civil conflict, falling agricultural labor productivity, lack of income-earning opportunities for the rural population, and poor infrastructure outside the Western Province are impediments to poverty reduction.
In 1978, Sri Lanka shifted away from a socialist orientation and opened its economy to foreign investment. But the pace of reform has been uneven. A period of aggressive economic reform under the UNP-led government that ruled from 2002 to 2004 was followed by a more statist approach under former President Chandrika Kumaratunga and current President Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Despite a brutal civil war since 1983, economic growth has averaged around 4.5%. In 2001, however, GDP growth was negative 1.4%--the only contraction since independence. Growth recovered to 4.0% in 2002. Following the 2002 ceasefire and subsequent economic reforms, the economy grew more rapidly, recording growth rates of 6.0% in 2003 and 5.4% in 2004. The December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami killed 32,000 people, displaced 443,000, and caused an estimated $1 billion in damage. The tsunami's overall economic impact was less severe than originally feared, with the economy growing by 6% in 2005 as the damage was offset by the reconstruction effort. The economic situation in Sri Lanka in 2006 was stable, despite a resumption of hostilities between the government and the LTTE and escalating oil prices. GDP growth in 2006 was a strong 7.4%.
President Rajapaksa's broad economic strategy was outlined in his election manifesto "Mahinda Chintana" (Mahinda's Thoughts), which now guides government economic policy. Mahinda Chintana policies focus on poverty alleviation and steering investment to disadvantaged areas; developing the small and medium enterprise (SME) sector; promotion of agriculture; and expanding the already enormous civil service. The Rajapaksa Government rejects the privatization of state enterprises, including "strategic" enterprises such as state-owned banks, airports, and electrical utilities. Instead, it plans to retain ownership and management of these enterprises and make them profitable.
The future of Sri Lanka's economic health primarily depends on political stability, return to peace, and continued policy reforms—particularly in the area of fiscal discipline and budget management. Rising oil costs have contributed to Sri Lanka's high public debt load (93% of GDP in 2006). Sri Lanka needs economic growth rates of 7-8% and investment levels of about 30% of GDP for a sustainable reduction in unemployment and poverty. In the past 10 years, investment levels have averaged around 25% of GDP.
Sri Lanka depends on a continued strong global economy for investment and for expansion of its export base. The government plans an ambitious infrastructure development program to boost growth. It hopes to diversify export products and destinations to make use of the Indo-Lanka and Pakistan-Sri Lanka Free Trade Agreements, GSP+ treatment by the European Union and other regional and bilateral preferential trading agreements.
As in previous years, the service sector was the largest component of GDP at 56.2%. In 2006, the service sector continued its strong expansion, fueled primarily by strong growth in telecom, trading, and financial services. Public administration and defense expenditures increased in 2006 due to resumption of hostilities, expansion of public sector employment, and the expenses associated with maintaining a 104-minister cabinet. There also is a growing information technology sector, especially information technology training and software development. The tourism sector suffered heavily in 2005 following the tsunami and is once again facing difficulties due to the current volatile security situation.
Industry accounts for 27% of GDP. The textile, apparel, and leather products sector is the largest, accounting for 39% of total industrial output. The second-largest industrial sector, at 22% of total manufacturing output, is food, beverages, and tobacco. The third-largest industrial sector is chemical, petroleum, rubber, and plastic products. The construction sector accounted for 7.2% of GDP in 2006. Mining and quarrying accounts of 1.9% of GDP.
Agriculture has lost its relative importance to the Sri Lankan economy in recent decades. It employs 33% of the working population, but accounted for only 16.8% of GDP in 2006. Rice, the staple cereal, is cultivated extensively. The plantation sector consists of tea, rubber, and coconut; in recent years, the tea crop has made significant contributions to export earnings.
Trade and Foreign Assistance
Sri Lanka's exports (mainly apparel, tea, rubber, gems and jewelry) were $6.8 billion and imports (mainly oil, textiles, food, and machinery) were $10.2 billion in 2006. The resulting large trade deficit was financed primarily by foreign assistance and by remittances from Sri Lankan expatriate workers. Sri Lanka must diversify its exports beyond garments and tea. Garment exports face increased competition following the 2005 expiration of the worldwide Multifiber Arrangement. The tea industry is challenged by a shortage of plantation labor and by growing competition.
Exports to the United States, Sri Lanka's most important market, were $2.1 billion in 2006, or 29% of total exports. For many years, the United States has been Sri Lanka's biggest market for garments, taking almost 60% of total garment exports. India is Sri Lanka's largest supplier, accounting for 21% of imports valued at $2.1 billion in 2006. The United States exported approximately $236 million to Sri Lanka in 2006 consisting primarily of textiles and specialized fabrics, tobacco, newsprint, food and beverages, chemicals, synthetic rubber-primary, electrical apparatus, telecommunications equipment, computers and accessories, and industrial supplies.
Sri Lanka is highly dependent on foreign assistance, with the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, Japan, and other donors disbursing loans totaling $912 million in 2006. Foreign grants amounted to $301 million in 2006. While implementation of aid projects has been spotty over the years, the government is trying to improve this record by streamlining tender processes and increasing project management skills.
The unemployment rate has declined in recent years and was placed at 6.5% in 2006. The rate of unemployment among women and high school and college graduates, however, has been proportionally higher than the rate for less-educated workers. The government has embarked on educational reforms it hopes will lead to better preparation of students and better matches between graduates and jobs.
More than 20% of the 7.5 million-strong work force is unionized, but union membership is declining. There are more than 1,650 registered trade unions, many of which have 50 or fewer members, and 19 federations. Many unions have political affiliations. The Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC) and Lanka Jathika estate workers union are the two largest unions, representing workers in plantation sector. The president of the CWC also is Minister of Youth Empowerment and Socio Economic Development. Other strong and influential trade unions include the Ceylon Mercantile Union, Sri Lanka Nidhahas Sevaka Sangamaya, Jathika Sevaka Sangayama, Ceylon Federation of Trade Unions, Ceylon Bank Employees Union, Union of Post and Telecommunication Officers, Conference of Public Sector Independent Trade Unions, and the JVP-aligned Inter-Company Trade Union.
Public sector trade unions have recently resisted Government moves to restructure the state-owned electrical utility board and the petroleum company. Private sector workers are also agitating for a "living wage" significantly higher than the current minimum wage.
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 nonaligned foreign policy; support for the country's unity, territorial integrity, and democratic institutions; and encouragement of its social and economic development. The United States is a strong supporter of ethnic reconciliation in Sri Lanka and the peace process that began in December 2001.
U.S. assistance has totaled more than $1.63 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, develop the Colombo Stock Exchange, modernize the judicial system, and improve competitiveness. At the June 2003 Tokyo Donors' Conference on Sri Lanka, the United States pledged $54 million, including $40.4 million of USAID funding.
In addition, the International Broadcast Bureau (IBB)--formerly Voice of America (VOA)--operates a radio-transmitting station in Sri Lanka. The U.S. Armed Forces maintain a limited military-to-military relationship with the Sri Lanka defense establishment. By February 2005, the U.S. had contributed $67 million to Sri Lankan relief following the tsunami disaster of December 26, 2004.
Principal U.S. Embassy Officials
Ambassador-- Robert O. BlakeDeputy Chief of Mission--James R. Moore
Head of Political Section--Michael DeTar
Head of Economic/Commercial Section--Robert Gabor
Management Officer--Maria Brewer
Consular Officer--Philip Cargile
Defense Attaché--Lt. Col. James Oxley
Director, USAID--Rebecca Cohn
Public Affairs Officer--Terry White
IBB Station Manager--George Miller, Acting
The U.S. Embassy in Sri Lanka is located at 210 Galle Road, Colombo 3 (tel: 94-11-249-8500, fax: 94-11-243-7345). U.S. Agency for International Development offices are located at the American Center, 44 Galle Road, Colombo 3 (tel: 94-11-249-8000; fax: 94-11-247-2850/247-2860). Public Affairs offices also are located at the American Center (tel: 94-11-249-8100, fax: 94-11-244-9070).
IBB offices are located near Chilaw, 75 kms north of Colombo (94-32-225-5931 to 34/fax: 94-32-225-5822).
TRAVEL AND BUSINESS INFORMATION
The U.S. Department of State's Consular Information Program advises Americans traveling and residing abroad through Consular Information Sheets, Public Announcements, and Travel Warnings. Consular Information Sheets exist for all countries and include information on entry and exit requirements, currency regulations, health conditions, safety and security, crime, political disturbances, and the addresses of the U.S. embassies and consulates abroad. Public Announcements are issued to disseminate information quickly about terrorist threats and other relatively short-term conditions overseas that pose significant risks to the security of American travelers. Travel Warnings are issued when the State Department recommends that Americans avoid travel to a certain country because the situation is dangerous or unstable.
For the latest security information, Americans living and traveling abroad should regularly monitor the Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs Internet web site at http://www.travel.state.gov, where the current Worldwide Caution, Public Announcements, and Travel Warnings can be found. Consular Affairs Publications, which contain information on obtaining passports and planning a safe trip abroad, are also available at http://www.travel.state.gov. For additional information on international travel, see http://www.usa.gov/Citizen/Topics/Travel/International.shtml.
The Department of State encourages all U.S citizens traveling or residing abroad to register via the State Department's travel registration website or at the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate abroad. Registration will make your presence and whereabouts known in case it is necessary to contact you in an emergency and will enable you to receive up-to-date information on security conditions.
Emergency information concerning Americans traveling abroad may be obtained by calling 1-888-407-4747 toll free in the U.S. and Canada or the regular toll line 1-202-501-4444 for callers outside the U.S. and Canada.
The National Passport Information Center (NPIC) is the U.S. Department of State's single, centralized public contact center for U.S. passport information. Telephone: 1-877-4USA-PPT (1-877-487-2778). Customer service representatives and operators for TDD/TTY are available Monday-Friday, 7:00 a.m. to 12:00 midnight, Eastern Time, excluding federal holidays.
Travelers can check the latest health information with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia. A hotline at 877-FYI-TRIP (877-394-8747) and a web site at http://www.cdc.gov/travel/index.htm give the most recent health advisories, immunization recommendations or requirements, and advice on food and drinking water safety for regions and countries. A booklet entitled "Health Information for International Travel" (HHS publication number CDC-95-8280) is available from the U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC 20402, tel. (202) 512-1800.
Further Electronic Information
Department of State Web Site. Available on the Internet at http://www.state.gov, the Department of State web site provides timely, global access to official U.S. foreign policy information, including Background Notes and daily press briefings along with the directory of key officers of Foreign Service posts and more. The Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC) provides security information and regional news that impact U.S. companies working abroad through its website http://www.osac.gov
Export.gov provides a portal to all export-related assistance and market information offered by the federal government and provides trade leads, free export counseling, help with the export process, and more.STAT-USA/Internet, a service of the U.S. Department of Commerce, provides authoritative economic, business, and international trade information from the Federal government. The site includes current and historical trade-related releases, international market research, trade opportunities, and country analysis and provides access to the National Trade Data Bank.
Revised: May. 2007