A central tenet of geopolitical analysis is that place matters, and perhaps nowhere is this clearer than in Sri Lanka. The island nation lies just off the coast of southeastern India at the midpoint of the Indian Ocean, occupying a vital sea-lane and trade corridor between the Middle East and East Asia. For centuries, its location — plus its deep natural harbors and its wealth of resources such as tea, rubber and cinnamon — has attracted the interest of powers both near and far. The country's history of invasion and occupation sowed the seeds of a disastrous civil war from which it is only now emerging.
The first wave of outsiders to arrive on Sri Lanka's shores, the Sinhalese, came in the sixth century B.C. They were soon followed by the Tamils from southern India, forming the country's two main ethnic groups. Each established kingdoms on the island: The Buddhist Sinhalese (who currently make up 75 percent of Sri Lanka's population of 20 million) concentrated in the south and central highlands, while the Hindu Tamils (12 percent of the population) amassed in the north and east. India, meanwhile, remained the dominant foreign power in Sri Lanka for more than a millennium, a period that was punctuated by sporadic incursions from the mainland into the island.
India's monopoly of influence over the island began breaking down in the 15th century when a Chinese expeditionary force landed in Sri Lanka, marking the start of centuries of competition among foreign powers. The Portuguese arrived on the island — a land they called Ceilao — at the start of the 16th century. The Dutch and the British weren't far behind, setting off a nearly 400-year struggle for control over Ceylon. The British began to seize the island's coastal regions in 1798. By 1818, the entirety of the country — most notably, the interior highlands centered on the kingdom of Kandy — had fallen under British colonial rule. Ceylon did not regain its independence until 1948.
Independence and Civil War
The colonial legacy of Ceylon, which adopted the name Sri Lanka in 1972 after it became a republic, had a lasting influence on the modern state's development. Under the island's British rulers, ethnic Tamils were favored for administrative and education posts, while the majority Sinhalese were underrepresented. After independence, the Sinhalese-led government began to promote the group's language and culture within state and educational organs at the expense of the Tamils, exacerbating friction between the two groups. Tension escalated in the 1970s with the formation of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a Tamil secessionist insurgency based in northeastern Sri Lanka. An attack by the Tigers on a Sri Lankan military patrol in Jaffna in 1983 set off nationwide riots that divided the population along ethnic lines.
This signaled the start of a long and vicious civil war that lasted over 25 years. As the fighting progressed, the Tigers grew into a full-fledged paramilitary force that occupied large swaths of territory in the north and east while operating its own small but effective navy and air force. Because of its ethnic, cultural and political links with the Tamils, India (which has its own ethnic Tamil region in the state of Tamil Nadu) was inextricably linked to the war. New Delhi became directly involved in the conflict in the late 1980s and dispatched a peacekeeping force to the north. Ultimately, its troops became bogged down in fighting the Tigers — a group India had originally backed — and were eventually forced to withdraw.
It was only after several high-level defections from the Tigers in 2008 that the Sri Lankan military was able to make serious headway against the insurgency, reclaiming Tiger-held territory in the north and east. The group surrendered in 2009, bringing an end to the protracted war. The fighting had left nearly 100,000 dead, created hundreds of thousands of refugees, and cost the Sri Lankan government an estimated $200 billion in military expenses and economic damage.
A View of Sri Lanka Today
Just over seven years later I arrived in Sri Lanka, not knowing quite what to expect from a country that not long ago had been wracked by extensive conflict. In Colombo, Sri Lanka's sprawling capital, there were few apparent signs of a country recently at war. The city's palm-lined thoroughfares were bustling with cars, buses and tuk-tuks, and large construction projects dotted the skyline.
Despite the hustle and bustle, pedestrian traffic was surprisingly light for a city with a metro population of 5 million. At first, I thought this might be explained by Colombo's coastal location and intense equatorial heat and humidity. But then it occurred to me that there may be other factors at play. While Colombo was spared the heavy combat that took place in the country's north and east, the city was often targeted by the Tigers' suicide attacks and bombings. Areas where crowds of people gathered, such as the central bus station, the Dehiwala Railway Station and the central bank building, were all hit at one point or another, causing hundreds of deaths and countless injuries. Though the most recent attack occurred in 2009, the psychological effects of the violence have lingered, leaving residents hesitant to spend much time outdoors or in public spaces.
One local, a Sinhalese shopkeeper in his early 40s, seemed to confirm this theory. He told me that "In Colombo, it was the fear of the unknown," referring to the idea that during the hostilities, an attack could come at any moment. He added that he had a car during the war, so he felt safer than most. Another Colombo resident, a Sinhalese real estate developer in her 60s, told me that although the war was over, many people still carry psychological scars. "After the fighting lasted so long, we've become hardened and weak," she said.
Despite the understandable feeling of war-weariness, I encountered little in the way of lingering animosity between the ethnic Sinhalese and Tamils I met in Sri Lanka. Almost everyone I spoke with in Colombo and Kandy emphasized that friends, neighbors or even spouses crossed the Sinhalese-Tamil divide (there is also a sizable and growing Muslim minority in the country). One man, an ethnic Tamil accountant in his late 20s, told me that "It's important to have reconciliation between us and the Sinhalese," noting that the Tigers did not represent the entire Tamil community but were a radical group that took the entire country hostage for their cause. Another man, a Sinhalese in his late 30s who had served in the Sri Lankan military and had been deployed to areas with heavy fighting, said the country "needs to rebuild not only its infrastructure but also people's hearts and minds."
Rebuilding the Country
While healing the lingering divides left by the war will likely take time, significant progress has been made in the reconstruction of the country's infrastructure. The northern port city of Jaffna and other areas of the Vanni, a region encompassing the island's northern provinces, had been virtually cut off from southern and central Sri Lanka throughout the war, but roads and railways have been rebuilt, reconnecting the country. A high-speed railway from Colombo to Jaffna came online in 2014, and the route has become quite popular, considering the north and east were terra incognita for southerners for nearly 30 years. The train is so popular, in fact, that when I went to Colombo's Fort Railway Station to inquire about a ticket, I was told that it needed to be purchased at least 30 days in advance.
Like its roads and railways, Sri Lanka's economy has also improved significantly since the war's end. China has been a major driver of economic growth, playing an increasingly influential role in the country over the past decade. China provided financial and security backing for the government of former Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa during the final years of the civil war. Since then, Beijing has invested billions of dollars in infrastructure construction and port development projects in Colombo, Hambantota and Trincomalee. India has also remained an important trade partner for Sri Lanka, and the country's textile manufacturing sector has burgeoned. This has spurred annual gross domestic product growth of more than 6 percent since the island's conflict ended.
Even so, the effects of Sri Lanka's economic boom have been spread unevenly as poverty and poor infrastructure persist in inland regions. Across the country, citizens lament high tax rates, and its economy continues to rely on remittance flows from expatriate workers. Political corruption is also a major issue: Although the Rajapaksa government was extremely popular after its defeat of the Tigers, its political fortunes waned amid the former president's attempts to centralize power and fill prominent Cabinet positions with family members. Rajapaksa lost the presidency in early 2015 to a national unity government led by Maithripala Sirisena, who faces rising public pressure to do more to tackle corruption and promote economic development.
But compared with the conditions seen less than a decade ago, the country has experienced significant progress and changes for the better. Certainly, significant challenges remain, both internally and in maintaining a balance between its giant neighbor, India, and an increasingly assertive China. Yet with Sri Lanka politically reunified and in the process of rebuilding and expanding its infrastructure, the country can now focus on using its strategic location to its advantage, rather than suffering the consequences a coveted geographic position can bring.