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Sri Lanka

To read stories about our work in Sri Lanka, click here.

Sri Lanka is a large island in the Indian Ocean located off the tip of India. The country itself is slightly larger than West Virginia. Sri Lanka has population of a little over 21.3 million people.

Sri Lanka’s terrain is mostly low, flat to rolling plains. There are also some mountains in the south-central part of the country. The climate is tropical, with a northeast monsoon occurring from December to March and a southwest monsoon occurring from June to October. Sri Lanka’s natural resources include limestone, graphite, mineral sands, gemstones, phosphates, and clay. Approximately 14 percent of the land is arable.

The people of Sri Lanka are about 74 percent Sinhalese. Other major people groups include Sri Lankan Moor, Indian Tamil, and Sri Lankan Tamil. Almost 70 percent of Sri Lankans are Buddhist, while Muslims, Hindus, and Christians also make up the population. Sinhala, spoken by 74 percent of the population, is the official and national language of the country. Tamil is also a national language spoken by 18 percent of the population.

The island known today as Sri Lanka was first populated by Sinhalese people in the late 6th century B.C. A great civilization formed in the cities of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa. In the 16th century, coastal areas of the island fell under the control of the Portuguese and then under the Dutch in the 17th century. In 1796 the British took over and made the island a colony of the British Empire. Ceylon, as the country was named then, became independent in 1948 and renamed itself Sri Lanka in 1972.

In the 1980s war erupted between the Sinhalese majority and the Tamil minority. This war, in which the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) fought government troops, resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands. During this conflict the Tigers essentially invented the suicide bomb belt and pioneered the use of suicide bombings as a terrorist tactic. The government waged a continuous campaign against the rebels and declared victory over the Tigers in May of 2009, having captured control of all Tamil territory and killing the Tigers’ leader.

Sri Lanka faces a great number of challenges. Although the conflict between the government and Tamil Tigers has come to an end, the effects of the war still remain. The most visible of these effects are the tens of thousands of Tamil civilians who were displaced by the conflict. Sri Lanka is also quite poor, as 22 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, 14 percent on one dollar or less a day.