Celebrating 68 Years of Independence: Sri Lanka’s Journey Since ‘48

Kris Thomas
Kris Thomas

Staff Writer

Today, Sri Lanka celebrates 68 years of independence. Independence from 133 years of British rule, and (arguably), tyranny, authoritarianism and hegemony. To commemorate our 68th year since Independence, we decided to take a journey back in time. Starting from February 4, 1948 to the present day Sri Lanka, let’s have a look at some of the major events that took place during the last 68 years – not all of these events, sadly, will prove to be positive. Post-independence Sri Lanka has a bloody, conflict-ridden history; yet, it is important to look back to better understand the true meaning of the word “independence” and hope that this year will be the first of many towards a better, more peaceful Sri Lanka.

The ceremonial opening of Sri Lanka’s first parliament, on February 10, 1948. Image Credit: AFP/Getty Images
The ceremonial opening of Sri Lanka’s first parliament, on February 10, 1948. Image Credit: AFP/Getty Images

1948: British Colonial rule on Ceylon concludes on February 4, 1948. D. S. Senanayake becomes first Prime Minister.

1949: With the support of Ceylon Tamil leaders, the United National Party (UNP) Government disenfranchises the Indian Tamil plantation workers. Many of them are denied citizenship. This is done in the hopes of gaining the support of the Kandyan Sinhalese.

1950: Ceylon becomes one of the original members of the Colombo Plan.

1951: Ceylon participates in the 1951 Asian Games and is ranked sixth.

1952: D. S. Senanayake passes away after succumbing to injuries sustained from falling off a horse. He is succeeded by his son Dudley Senanayake.

1953: Dudley Senanayake resigns following a countrywide Hartal by the Leftist parties against the UNP. This is recognised as the first people’s struggle against an elected government in the country. Senanayake is succeeded by his cousin and senior politician, John Kotelawala.

1954: Queen Elizabeth II tours the island from 10–21 April.

1956: S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike becomes Prime Minister, and introduces the Sinhala Only Act. Sinhala is established as the official language, with Tamil as a second language.

1957: British bases are removed and Sri Lanka is officiated as a “non-aligned” country.

1958: First major riots between people from the Sinhalese and Tamil communities flare up in Colombo. This is a direct result of the Government’s language policy.

Colombo: the aftermath of riots on August 12. Image Credit: Associated Press
Colombo: the aftermath of riots on August 12. Image Credit: Associated Press

1959: S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike is assassinated. Wijayananda Dahanayake takes over as caretaker Prime Minister.

1960: Dudley Senanayake becomes Prime Minister for one month only to be ousted by the widow of S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, Sirimavo Bandaranaike. She is the world’s first female Prime Minister.

1960- 1964: The Government of Sirimavo Bandaranaike proceeds to nationalise most missionary schools in the country, secularising them and changing the language of instruction from English to Sinhala. Unable to speak Sinhalese, it became increasingly difficult for Tamil youth to gain access to civil service jobs or attend universities, and unemployment rose.

Sirimavo Bandaranaike became the world’s first female prime minister. Image Credit www.ilpost.it
Sirimavo Bandaranaike became the world’s first female prime minister. Image Credit www.ilpost.it

1965: Sirimavo is ousted in the National Election and Dudley Senanayake takes her seat as Prime Minister.

1966: The alleged Ceylonese coup d’état attempt witnesses the arrest of the Army Commander and other military personnel, on suspicion of a plot to overthrow the Government.

1967: The Bandaranaike International Airport is completed, and Air Ceylon begins international operations from here.

1968: Ceylon competes at the summer olympics in Mexico City.

1970: Sirimavo Bandaranaike becomes Prime Minister for the second time after the United Front coalition wins the elections. Ceylon is renamed Sri Lanka and gains Republic stature.

1971: A rebellion of young people is led by a communist organisation called the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna. The organisation is led by Rohana Wijeweera, and this will come to be known as the JVP Insurrection of 1971.

Rohana Wijeweera, the leader of the communist JVP. Image Credit: BBC
Rohana Wijeweera, the leader of the communist JVP. Image Credit: BBC

1972: Sri Lanka is given a new constitution. This constitution states that Buddhism has the ‘foremost place’ among Sri Lankan religions. This is very unpopular among followers of other religions. Furthermore, the number of Tamil seats at university is reduced. William Gopallawa is elected President.

1975: The mayor of Jaffna, Alfred Duraiappah, is assassinated in July. Separatist groups such as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, demand an independent Tamil state called Eelam.

1976: The Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) is formed, and demands a separate Tamil state. The Jaffna university is “ethnically cleansed” of non-Tamils, and the city itself begins to be subjected to similar “ethnic cleansing,” eliminating Muslim and Sinhalese residents.

1977: J.R. Jayewardene becomes Prime Minister, ousting Sirimavo Bandaranaike. Her socialist policies are thrown out of the window and J.R.J’s open market economy is adopted. Sri Lanka is rocked by ethnic riots in which 128 people die.

J.R. Jayewardene, Sri Lanka’s first executive president. Image Credit: wikimedia.org
J.R. Jayewardene, Sri Lanka’s first executive president. Image Credit: wikimedia.org

1978: The new constitution, which introduced executive presidency, is enacted and J.R.J becomes Sri Lanka’s first Executive President. Bandaranaike has her civic rights removed by an act of Parliament. Ranasinghe Premadasa is appointed Prime Minister.

1979: Sri Lanka defeat India at the ICC world cup

1980: Political and ethnic issues continue to escalate.

1981: The Jaffna Public Library is vandalised and burned down. Elections to District Councils are marred by the open theft of ballot boxes in Jaffna.

1982: President Jayewardene amends the constitution (one of 13 amendments during his 10 years in office) to allow presidential elections to be held early. The main opposition candidate, Hector Kobbekaduwa, is garlanded with onions by the farmers of the Jaffna peninsula, impoverished by the policy of unrestricted imports. Associates of Kobbekaduwa, T.B. Ilangaratne and Vijaya Kumaratunga, are jailed as ‘Naxalites‘.

The ‘83 riots: an unidentified body lies burning in the streets. Image Credit: Associated Press.
The ‘83 riots: an unidentified body lies burning in the streets. Image Credit: Associated Press.

1983: In July, Tamil Tiger rebels ambush the Sri Lanka Army’s Four Four Bravo military patrol near Jaffna. Thirteen soldiers are killed, and this sparks off the deadly ethnic riots which will come to be known as ‘Black July’.Tamil communities across the island face violence from Sinhalese rioters, including the destruction of shops and homes, and numerous beatings and killings.

1984: The Kent and Dollar Farm massacres take place in Mullaitivu. Men, women and children are attacked during the night as they sleep, and are hacked to death with axes.

1985: The Anuradhapura massacre takes place. The LTTE indiscriminately open fire, killing and wounding 146 civilians within the Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi Buddhist shrine. In retaliation to this, the Kumudini boat massacre is carried out, in which over 23 Tamil civilians die. Government authorities are accused of the attack but no evidence is provided to back the claims. The first peace talks between the Government and the LTTE commence but fail soon after.

1987: The Sri Lankan military launch an offensive called the Vadamarachchi Operation, during May–June, to regain control of territory in the Jaffna peninsula from the LTTE. The offensive is successful, and LTTE leader Prabhakaran and Sea Tiger leader Thillaiyampalam Sivanesan alias Soosai narrowly escape from advancing troops at Valvettithurai.

In July, the LTTE carry out their first suicide attack. Captain Miller of the Black Tigers drives a small truck carrying explosives through the wall of a fortified Sri Lankan army camp, reportedly killing 40 soldiers.

The Indo-Sri Lanka Peace Accord is signed on 29 July, by Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Sri Lankan President Jayewardene. Under this accord, the Sri Lankan Government makes a number of concessions to Tamil demands, including devolution of power to the provinces, a merger—subject to later referendum—of the Northern and the Eastern provinces into a single province, and official status for the Tamil language (this was enacted as the 13th Amendment to the Constitution of Sri Lanka). India agrees to establish order in the North and East through a force dubbed the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF), and to cease assisting Tamil insurgents. Militant groups including the LTTE, although initially reluctant, agree to surrender their arms to the IPKF, which initially oversaw a ceasefire. However, hostilities between the two parties break out, leading to the second Eelam war.

1988: Second rebellion by the JVP commences in the South.

Popular actor and politician Vijaya Kumaratunga is assassinated. He is the husband of Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga.

1989: J.R.J is succeeded by his own choice for President, Ranasinghe Premadasa, who asks for the Indian troops to be withdrawn. D.B. Wijetunga is elected Prime Minister.

1990: The JVP uprising is crushed after two years. The IPKF withdraws from Sri Lanka. The LTTE massacre over 600 policemen in the Eastern Province after they surrender on promises of safe-conduct. The LTTE forcibly expels all the Muslims residing in the Northern province. A total of 72,000 Muslims are forced to leave their homes, taking little or no belongings with them.

Well known journalist Richard de Zoysa is abducted and murdered.

1991: Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi is assassinated by a suicide bomber attached to the LTTE. 5,000 LTTE cadres surround the army’s Elephant Pass base, which controls access to the Jaffna Peninsula. More than 2,000 die on both sides in the month-long siege, before 10,000 government troops arrive to relieve the base.

1992: Lt. General Denzil Kobbekaduwa, together with Major General Vijaya Wimalaratne and Rear Admiral Mohan Jayamaha, die on 8 August at Araly (Aeraella) point Jaffna due to a landmine blast, which badly affects military morale.

1993: President Premadasa is assassinated. The LTTE succeeds in the Battle of Pooneryn. This attack leaves 532 in the Army and 135 in the Navy either killed or missing in action. D.B. Wijetunga is appointed President while Ranil Wickremesinghe becomes Prime Minister.

1994: Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga is elected President, while her mother, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, holds the position of Prime Minister. UNP member Gamini Dissanayake is assassinated by the LTTE in Grandpass.

1995: A ceasefire is agreed to in January 1995, but the ensuing negotiations prove fruitless. The LTTE breaks the ceasefire and blows up two Sri Lankan Navy gun boats known as SLNS ‘Sooraya’ and ‘Ranasuru’ on 19 April, thus beginning the next phase of the war, dubbed Eelam War III.

1996: The LTTE responds by launching Operation Unceasing Waves and decisively win the Battle of Mullaitivu on 18 July, leaving 1,173 Army troops dead. The town of Kilinochchi is taken on 29 September. The LTTE carry out one of their deadliest suicide bomb attacks at the Central Bank in Colombo, killing 90 and injuring 1,400.

The Sri Lanka Cricket team wins the ICC World Cup for the first time.

Sri Lanka win the ICC World Cup in 1996. Image Credit Getty Images
Sri Lanka win the ICC World Cup in 1996. Image Credit Getty Images

1997: On 13 May, 20,000 Government troops try to open a supply line through the LTTE-controlled Vanni, but fail. In October, the LTTE bomb the World Trade Centre in Colombo.

1998: The LTTE detonate a truck bomb in Kandy, damaging the Temple of the Tooth. The Sri Lankan Government outlaw the LTTE and with some success press other Governments around the world to do the same, significantly interfering with the LTTE’s fund-raising activities. The LTTE wins back Kilinochchi.

1999: The LTTE massacres 50 civilians at Gonagala. The Sri Lankan Army’s attempt to capture Vanni fails. The LTTE attempts to assassinate President Chandrika Kumaratunga in a suicide attack at a pre-election rally. She loses her right-eye, among other injuries, but is able to defeat opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe in the Presidential election and is re-elected for her second term in office.

2000: On 22 April, the Elephant Pass military complex, which had separated the Jaffna peninsula from the Vanni mainland for 17 years, completely falls to the hands of the LTTE. Ratnasiri Wickremanayake is appointed Prime Minister. A cease fire begins, with Norway as the mediator ‒ the first long cessation of hostilities since the beginning of the conflict.

2001: The unilateral ceasefire is cancelled. The LTTE carries out a devastating suicide attack on Bandaranaike International Airport, destroying eight of the Air Force’s planes and four Sri Lankan Airlines planes.

Vaithilingam Sornalingam alias Shankar, who had been considered the right hand man of LTTE supremo Prabhakaran, and several other high profile leaders are taken down by Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol (LRRP) units. Ranil Wickremesinghe becomes Prime Minister.

The LTTE announce a 30-day ceasefire with the Sri Lankan Government and pledge to halt all attacks against Government forces. The new Government welcomes the move, and reciprocate two days later, announcing a month long ceasefire and agree to lift a longstanding economic embargo on rebel-held territory.

The Jathika Hela Urumaya, which stands against the interference of the Western countries in the conflict, is officially established.

2002: The Government and the LTTE formalise a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on 22 February, and sign a permanent ceasefire agreement (CFA).

Peace talks began at Phuket in Thailand, Norway, Germany and Japan. During the talks, both sides agree to the principle of a federal solution, and the Tigers drop their long-standing demand for a separate state. Both sides also exchange prisoners of war for the first time.

LTTE negotiator Anton Balasingham shakes hands with Sri Lankan Government counterpart G.L. Peiris at the second round of peace talks. Image Credit Associated Press.
LTTE negotiator Anton Balasingham shakes hands with Sri Lankan Government counterpart G.L. Peiris at the second round of peace talks. Image Credit Associated Press.

2003: The talks break down on 21 April, when the Tamil Tigers announce they are suspending any further talks due to their “displeasure” at the handling of some “critical issues.” The LTTE issues its own peace proposal, calling for an Interim Self Governing Authority (ISGA). The ISGA would be fully controlled by the LTTE and would have broad powers in the North and East.

This provokes a strong backlash among hardline elements in the South, who accuse Prime Minister Wickremesinghe of handing the North and East to the LTTE. Under pressure from her own party to take action, Kumaratunga declares a state of emergency and takes over three key government ministries, the Ministry of Mass Media, the Interior Ministry and the crucial Defense Ministry. She then forms an alliance with the JVP, called the United People’s Freedom Alliance, opposed to the ISGA.

2004: Mahinda Rajapaksa is appointed Prime Minister. Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan alias Colonel Karuna Amman, the Eastern commander of the LTTE and one of Prabhakaran’s trusted lieutenants, pulls 5,000 eastern cadres out of the LTTE.

In December, the Indian Ocean tsunami hits Sri Lanka, killing more than 35,000 people, and leaving many homeless.

Karuna Amman split from the Tigers in 2004. Image Credit: Associated Press.
Karuna Amman split from the Tigers in 2004. Image Credit: Associated Press.

2005: Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar, a Tamil who is highly respected by foreign diplomats and who had been sharply critical of the LTTE, is assassinated at his home, allegedly by an LTTE sniper. Guerrilla hostilities continue. Joseph Pararajasingham is assassinated on Christmas night. Eelam War IV begins.

2006: Norwegian special envoy Erik Solheim and LTTE theoretician Anton Balasingham commence talks in Geneva, Switzerland, which temporarily sees a massive decline of violence in the conflict. However, when the LTTE commence attacks against the SL military in April, the Geneva talks are postponed, only for the LTTE to later pull out of the peace talks altogether.

An assassination attempt is made on the Commander of the Sri Lankan Army, Lieutenant General Sarath Fonseka by a female LTTE Black Tiger suicide bomber named Anoja Kugenthirasah. Kugenthirasah conceals the explosives by appearing to be pregnant and blows herself up at the Sri Lankan Army headquarters in Colombo.

The European Union proscribes the LTTE as a terrorist organisation.

Tensions surrounding the Mavil Aru sluice gate heightens. Sampur is recaptured by the Sri Lankan military.

2007: The Army captures Thoppigala peak, ending the LTTE’s military capability in the Eastern Province, and concluding Eelam War IV.

The North Offensive begins. The Sri Lanka army marches on Wanni. LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran is seriously injured during air strikes carried out by the Sri Lanka Air Force on a bunker complex in Jayanthi Nagar.

P. Thamilselvan, the head of the LTTE political wing, is killed during another Government air raid.

2008: The Sri Lanka Government officially abandons the ceasefire agreement on advice from Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa. On 21 July, the LTTE announces that it will be declaring a unilateral ceasefire from 28 July to 4 August, to coincide with the 15th summit of the heads of state of SAARC to be held in Colombo. However, the Government of Sri Lanka dismisses the LTTE’s offer as needless and treacherous.

SLA troops capture Mankulam and the surrounding area on 17 November. The Battle of Kilinochchi begins.

2009: SL troops capture Paranthan and Kilinochchi in January. The Tigers quickly abandon their positions on the Jaffna peninsula to make a last stand in the jungles of Mullaitivu, their last main base.

Senior journalist Lasantha Wickrematunge is assassinated by unknown gunmen.

On 19 February, Human Rights Watch issues a report accusing the Sri Lanka army of “slaughtering” civilians during indiscriminate artillery attacks (including repeated shelling of hospitals) and calls on the Sri Lankan Government to end its policy of “detaining displaced persons” in military-controlled internment camps.

On 20 February, two LTTE planes on a suicide mission carry out a kamikaze style air attack on the Sri Lankan capital Colombo, killing 2 and wounding 45, but both planes are shot down by the Sri Lankan Air Force before they can damage the intended targets, the Army Headquarters and the main Air Force base.

The Sri Lanka National Cricket team is fired upon by local militants in Lahore, Pakistan, while on tour in March.

After months of fighting, in May, the Sri Lanka Army overruns the final area of rebel held territory in the North. On 16 May, the Sri Lanka Government declares victory and a day later, the LTTE admits defeat.

On May 19, President Mahinda Rajapaksa addresses the nation and states that LTTE leader Prabhakaran had died in the final stage of the battle.

2010: Two days before Presidential polls, Journalist Prageeth Eknaligoda goes missing.

Rajapaksa retains his position as president by defeating common candidate General Sarath Fonseka with 59% of the votes at the elections. D.M. Jayaratne is appointed Prime Minister.

In February Gen. Sarath Fonseka is arrested and court martialed for “committing military offences” during his time as Chief of Defense Staff.

The 2010 election is called one of the most violent elections in the history of Sri Lanka due to numerous incidents of pre- and post-election violence reported.

United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, calls upon the Sri Lankan Government to establish an independent international accountability mechanism to address the serious concerns which had arisen in the last stages of the fighting in 2009.

2011: Gen. Sarath Fonseka is sentenced to three years in jail and fined Rs. 5,000 in a two-one split verdict delivered in the white flag case, with two judges finding him guilty on one of the charges, while one of the judges acquits him on all three charges.

2012: National ruggerite Mohammed Wasim Thajudeen is killed in a car accident. The death is later on surrounded by many conspiracies and is determined to be murder in 2015.

Gen. Sarath Fonseka is acquitted in the case known as the “Hi-Corp Case” upholding the objections raised by his Counsel that the charges in the High Court and the Court Martial were substantially the same and that he cannot be sentenced twice on the same offense.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa oversees Independence Day celebrations in Trincomalee in 2013. Image Credit: timeslanka.com
President Mahinda Rajapaksa oversees Independence Day celebrations in Trincomalee in 2013. Image Credit: timeslanka.com

2013: Shirani Bandaranayake, the 43rd Chief Justice of Sri Lanka, is impeached by Parliament and then removed from office by President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Bandaranayake is accused of a number of charges including financial impropriety and interfering in legal cases, all of which she has denied. The impeachment follows a series of rulings against the Government by the Supreme Court, including one against a Bill proposed by Minister Basil Rajapaksa, President Rajapaksa’s brother. Bandaranayake is replaced as chief justice by former Attorney General Mohan Peiris.

2014: Muslims and their property are attacked by a group of Sinhalese Buddhists in the towns of Aluthgama, Beruwala and Dharga Town in Kalutara District, following a demonstration orchestrated by the Bodu Bala Sena, a hardline Buddhist group.

2015: Mahinda Rajapaksa is defeated by Common Candidate Maithripala Sirisena. Ranil Wickremesinghe becomes Prime Minister.

As to where 2016 will take us, let’s hope we learn from history and our past mistakes. Happy Independence Day! May the future be kinder to our island nation.

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