The Forum in Sri Lanka

History

Sri Lanka, formerly known as the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, is a diverse multicultural country home to many different religious and ethnic groups. The nation, with a documented history of 3,000 years, and evidence of human settlement on the island dating back at least 125,000 years, was initially home to various ancient kingdoms, with Buddhism becoming the dominant religion of the island after its introduction from India around 250BC. During the medieval period, the island of Sri Lanka was comprised of a collection of shifting dynastic kingdoms, some of which were established by invaders, particularly from Southern India and China.

In the early 16th Century, Portuguese soldiers effectively invaded and occupied coastal areas around the island, particularly near the city of Colombo. Over the next one hundred years the Portuguese successfully attempted to expand their control over the territory, coming into conflict with the forces of the Kingdom of Kandy and Jaffna. In the mid-16th Century Dutch explorers arrived on the island, and after defeating the Portuguese forces, effectively took the place of the Iberian former occupiers. During the Napoleonic Wars the coastal areas were occupied by the British (who referred to Sri Lanka as Ceylon), specifically the British East India Company. In February 1815 British forces occupied Kandy, ending Sri Lankan independence and making the island part of the British Empire.

Under British control the formerly distinct interior and maritime provincial authorities were amalgamated into a single unit of government. In this period an Executive Council and Legislative Council were established (providing the foundation for a later representative legislature), as well as a Civil Service. Following the end the Second World War, pressure began to mount for Sri Lankan independence.

In February 1948, the British Colony of Ceylon achieved independence as a Dominion of the British Empire. While the British retained a significant military presence on the island, Sri Lankans became free to choose their government. Over the next quarter of a century the political climate was characterized by increasing tensions between various ethnic groups in the county, particularly between the Sinhalese and Tamils. In 1972 Sri Lanka repudiated its dominion status and became a republic, but militancy and violence began to emerge in the 1970s as the Tamil and Sinhalese groups fought each other to protect their various interests. In the early 1980s Sri Lanka became the first South Asian country to liberalize its economy.

The ethnic tensions increased throughout the 1980s, leading to the outbreak of the Sri Lankan Civil War, an on-and-off conflict fought between the (majority Sinhalese) government, and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The war was punctuated by temporary ceasefires and attempts to come to a peaceful resolution, but each time these resulted in failure. In 2009 the Sri Lankan Armed forces defeated the LTTE, and re-established Sri Lankan Government control over the whole country, effectively ending the war. Both sides have been accused of committing human rights abuses and war crimes through the conflict. It is estimated that between 60,000 and 100,000 people we killed during the 25 year conflict, and that the final stages of the war left approximately 240,000 people displaced.

Today Sri Lanka is working towards developing a political system that allows the country to move forward and develop, while creating a society in which the wounds inflicted by the war can be healed, and the nation’s diversity accommodated and leveraged for the benefit of the citizens.

Past Work

The Forum enhanced the peace process in Sri Lanka and efforts for a credible political solution in the war-torn country through providing of technical expertise and recommendations on federalism.

Through a number of public education activities, the journalists, political scientists, academics, civil servants and high court judges, enhanced their knowledge and understanding of federal and multi-level governance models, including such issues as power-sharing, minority rights, intergovernmental relations and fiscal arrangements within federal systems. The workshops held for diaspora in Canada achieved greater engagement of both the Tamil and Sinhala communities in the peace process.
The Forum produced a video on federalism, The Challenge of Diversity that was shown in Tamil and Sinhala versions in different parts of Sri Lanka. It also developed a lexicon on terms used in federalism in the Tamil and Sinhala languages; in addition to developing, publishing and distributing educational materials on federalism and power-sharing in Sinhala and Tamil including several special editions of Federations magazine.

Forum’s work in Sri Lanka was funded by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT), Norway’s Royal Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC). The grants received by the Forum throughout 2002-2011 amounted to a total of $1.54 million.