Sri Lanka has long served as an important strategic destination in the Indian Ocean, catering to merchants and travellers from South-east Asia, India, the Middle East and East Africa. Formerly known as Ceylon, the island was visited and admired by the likes of Marco Polo, who called it “the finest island of its size in the world” well before the arrival of imperialist nations. A diverse colonial history, including influence from Portuguese, Dutch and British cultures, is visible across Sri Lanka today, as are its ancient Buddhist and Hindu traditions. While much of the country’s recent history has been tainted by a decades-long civil war, a post-conflict euphoria brought with it a sense of renewal and optimism. A new administration elected in 2015 has pledged its commitment to inclusive governance and economic reform, a rebalancing of foreign policy and reconciliation with its ethnic minorities.
Sri Lanka is a teardrop-shaped island in the Indian Ocean south-east of India and northeast of the Maldives, consisting of 65,610 sq km of land mass and 1340 km of coastline. Geologically it is considered an extension of the Indian peninsula, and it shares the same continental shelf. A majority of the island is made up of flat and rolling low-lying plains, gradually increasing in altitude from the coast, with periodic rocky buttes and mounds, some reaching elevations of more than 300 metres. A mountainous south-central interior is characterised by basins, valleys and escarpments, most spectacularly seen at the World’s End, a 1200-metre outcrop and viewing point. Located in the city of Nuwara Eliya, the tallest mountain in Sri Lanka is the 2524-metre-high Pidurutalagala, known as Mount Pedro in English. Other notable natural attributes include its enormous biodiversity spread across jungle, forest and a variety of national parks.
Most of the coastline is made up of sandy beaches and lagoons. Sri Lanka contains more than 100 rivers, most of which are small, seasonal rivulets present only during the monsoon rains. About 12 permanent rivers account for approximately 75% of the country’s annual water discharge.
There are two tropical Indian limateOcean monsoons per year, which heavily influence the overall climate. The Yala Monsoon, which occurs between May and August, brings rainfall to the hill country, and the south and west coasts, while the Mala Monsoon, between October and January, affects the east and north coasts. Rainfall averages a minimum of 127 cm annually across the island, though the highlands can receive as much as 381 cm per year.
Temperatures vary between the coastline and the mountainous interior, though the island is categorised as largely tropical. Monthly averages in the lowlands fluctuate between 22°C and 33°C, while temperatures in the central highlands fall between 7°C and 21.6°C. Droughts lasting longer than three months, floods and landslides are the most common natural disasters in the country.
Sri Lanka possesses sizeable deposits of graphite, limestone, mineral sands, phosphates and clay. Of the land mass, 20.7% is arable, while 15.8% is set aside for permanent crops and 7% for permanent pasture. Sri Lanka also has more than 70 of the world’s 200 varieties of coloured gemstones, making it one of the most important gem-bearing nations in the world. Both regional plantation companies and smallholders grow tea, rubber, and to a lesser extent, coconuts and palm oil.
On energy production, the country hosts multiple blocks of natural gas deposits in the Mannar Basin off the west coast of the island, not to mention hydropower generation from its network of rivers.
According to the Census of Population and Housing, last conducted in 2012, 74.9% of Sri Lanka’s 20.3m people are ethnic Sinhalese, concentrated in the island’s south and interior. Tamils comprise 15.4% of the population, split between Sri Lankan Tamils and Tamils of Indian origin – colloquially referred to as “upcountry” Tamils. The remaining population is made up of Sri Lankan Moors, Burghers (descendants of the original Dutch and Portuguese settlers), Malay, Sri Lankan Chetty and Veddhas. Updated estimates from July 2017 place the population at approximately 22.4m people, with a relatively slow growth rate of less than 1% per year. The capital city of Colombo and its surrounding district are home to approximately 2.3m people. Other major population centres in the country include Galle, Kandy, Jaffa and Trincomalee.
Based on a 2012 World Bank study, the population is steadily ageing, contrary to many nations in South Asia. By 2041, one in four Sri Lankans are expected to be over the age of 60, up from one in eight in 2012. Official statistics put the number of Sri Lanka’s living in urban areas at 18.4% in 2015; however, the actual number sits closer to 48%, according to Sri Lanka’s Urban Development Authority.
Language has long been a divisive issue, particularly in the lead-up to the 25-year civil war. Under the 1978 Sri Lankan constitution, both Sinhala, of Indo-Aryan origin, and Tamil, of Dravidian origin, are cited as official national languages. English – the official language of civil servants during the British colonial era – is spoken conversationally by around 10% of the population, and is still commonly used in government and referred to in the constitution as a “link language”.
Religion & Culture
According to official 2012 census estimates, 70.2% of Sri Lankans practise Buddhism, with the Sinhalese population accounting for most of these followers. The island is characterised by an orthodox school of Buddhism, called Theravada Buddhism, which has literary traditions in the Pali language, also prevalent in Myanmar and Thailand. An additional 12.6% of the population practises Hinduism and 9.7% Islam. The majority of the Tamil population is Hindu, with a smaller concentration of Muslims, who are mostly descendants of Arab traders. A further 7.4% of the country is Christian, largely skewed towards Roman Catholic.
Sri Lankan culture is heavily influenced by its colonial history, long-standing ties with the Indian subcontinent, and its Buddhist and Hindu religious origins. There are six cultural UNESCO World Heritage sites on the island, including the Ancient City of Sigiriya, the Old Town of Galle and its fortifications, the Old Temple of Dambulla and the Ancient City of Polonnaruwa. The country is also internationally associated with the sport of cricket, which is played at a professional level and followed across the island by a substantial portion of the population.
Domestic GDP reached $83bn in 2015 and $87.5bn in 2016. Driven largely by consumption, 61.7% of overall GDP stems from services, 30.1% from industry and 8.3% from agriculture, according to information from the Central Bank of Sri Lanka. Growth continued, albeit somewhat more slowly, in the first nine months of 2017: GDP expanded 3.7% year-on-year, compared to 4% in the same period of 2016. There is a developing environment with a range of technology-based services, and the country is working to boost IT exports and business process outsourcing, the latter of which is already burgeoning, accounting for 6.3% of total exports.
Though lacking indigenous raw materials, the manufacture of quality garments has grown to be Sri Lanka’s most important trade item, making up 43% of total exports in 2015. Other notable exports include tea and spices, which account for 16%; rubber-based products at 7.6%; gems and precious metals (2.3%); coconut-based products (4.5%); and fish (1.7%). With a diverse range of destinations on offer, including beaches, highlands and ancient cities, the post-civil war era has brought a significant increase in tourism numbers, traditionally driven by Western markets, but more recently by East Asia.
Sri Lanka’s public debt-to-GDP ratio reached 79.6% in 2017. Subsequent debt-service payments – coupled with an expansive public sector – have contributed to rising budget deficits, which equalled 5.4% of GDP in 2016. However, this appeared to have turned around in 2017, with the country recording a primary account surplus for the first time in 63 years in the first 11 months of 2017. Declining tax collection remains a concern, with tax revenue as a percentage of GDP falling from above 20% in the early 1990s to just over 12% in 2015. This is in conjunction with declining exports and a growing trade deficit, which reached $10bn in 2016. While lower revenue can be a difficulty for the public budget, the high level of remittances coming from Sri Lankan workers abroad – $7.2bn in 2016 – continues to help counter many of these challenges.
The Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, then Ceylon, gained independence from the UK in 1948. In 1978 the island nation ratified its constitution, which serves as the governmental framework for the executive, legislative and judicial branches.
The executive branch consists of a president, a prime minister and a Cabinet. The president functions as head of state, head of government and commander-in-chief of the armed forces, and retains the ability to dissolve Parliament. The prime minister is appointed by the president, and together they choose a Cabinet. The president is directly elected by preferential majority popular vote and can serve a maximum of two, six-year terms. The legislative branch consists of a 225-seat, unicameral Parliament, which also serves terms of six years. Of the seats, 196 are directly elected into multi-seat constituencies, while 29 are allocated to political parties as a share of the national vote. To qualify for a parliamentary seat, a party must secure 5% of the vote. Voting is done on a preferential basis, choosing from three candidates.
Elections are largely considered to be free and fair; however, contested results have resulted in several orderly changes of power since its induction. The more conservative United National Party and the liberal-leaning Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) have been at the forefront of politics since the country achieved independence. However, in the local government elections held on February 10, 2018, the Sri Lanka Podujana Permuna secured the most seats and local authorities, positioning itself as the favourite party for the next round of national elections in 2020.
Each party in power has, at times, arranged coalitions with smaller parties, the strongest of which is the SLFP-led United People’s Freedom Alliance, established in 2004 by seven parties. The Buddhist clergy and labour unions maintain influence in political dialogue and decision-making as well.
The Court System
The Supreme Court of the Republic is the highest-ranking court, made up of a chief justice appointed by the president and a maximum of 10 other justices. Below it sits a court of appeals, high courts, municipal courts and primary courts, along with a number of tribunals.
There are 54 judicial districts in Sri Lanka. Its legal system is a combination of Roman-Dutch civil law and a number of customary indigenous laws, including Kandyan Law and Theswalamai Law, which are largely applicable to personal affairs.
The executive and judicial capital of Sri Lanka is its main urban centre of Colombo, while Sri Jayewardenepura Kotte, a suburb of the city, serves as the legislative capital and the location of Parliament.
The country is further divided into second-tier provincial councils and third-tier local governments. While the Ministry of Local Government and Provincial Councils is responsible for national policy-making, the provincial and local authorities are largely responsible for implementation.
The 13th amendment to the constitution – the Provincial Councils Act of 1987 – legislates this political devolution to nine provincial councils, further broken down into 25 districts and 329 divisional secretariats. Their responsibilities include law and order, economic planning, education, housing, agriculture, land use and cooperative development. The supervision of local government is delegated to provincial councils. Each province has a governor who executes policies through a board of ministers and is appointed by the president to a five-year term.
Subsequently, there are 335 local government authorities, with 23 municipal councils for cities and larger towns; 41 urban councils covering smaller towns and less urbanised areas; and 271 rural pradeshiya sabhas, which are the smallest representative bodies in Sri Lanka. Municipal councils are headed by a mayor, who serves a four-year term and is nominated by the primary party in power at the time, while urban councils are headed by a full-time chairperson serving four years, also nominated by the presiding party. Local authorities are tasked with managing public health, utility services, roads, tax collection and property rates. The pradeshiya sabhas have additional local developmental responsibilities.
Perhaps the most notable development since independence has been Sri Lanka’s social achievements. Human development indicators have improved steadily despite the country’s economic growth being muted at times.
According to the UN Development Programme’s 2016 human development index (HDI), Sri Lanka was categorised as having “high human development” and ranked 73rd out of 188 countries surveyed. The HDI takes into account life expectancy, education and GNI per capita, which stood at $3830 in 2016. While this was below the World Bank threshold of $3956 that separated lower-middle-income and upper-middle-income countries in 2016, Sri Lanka’s headcount poverty rate stood at 4.1% in 2016/17, a substantial decrease from 22.7% in 2002. On income inequality, the World Bank found that Sri Lanka’s 2012 Gini coefficient, a measure of the distribution of income among individuals and households, was 39.2, putting it 76th, well above neighbouring India at 135th and Pakistan at 142nd.
World Bank indicators show literacy among 15- to 24-year-olds reached 98.8% in 2015, while enrolment for primary education topped 97.2%, thanks to the universal education system established in 1945. Meanwhile, free universal health care and a network of health institutions have increased life expectancy to 74.8 years, reduced infant mortality to 8.4 out of 1000 live births and lessened communicable disease.