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History, The Republic

Ratnasiri Wickremanayake, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, Ranasinghe Premadasa, Jayewardene, northern Sri Lanka

With the nation in a period of economic decline, Dudley Senanayake was returned to power in the 1965 legislative elections. His policy of nonalignment, economic development, and increased domestic production did not satisfy the voters, as high unemployment, food shortages, and labor unrest continued. In 1970 a leftist coalition headed by Sirimavo Bandaranaike won the elections; the new government began to move the country toward socialism. In March 1971 a brief but violent armed revolt took place, sparked by leaders of the Marxist-oriented People’s Liberation Front. By September, the Bandaranaike government had almost completely suppressed the rebellion. In that month the Senate was abolished and the House of Representatives was renamed the National Assembly. On May 22, 1972, the country, until then known as Ceylon, officially became the socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, when the assembly adopted a new constitution. Bandaranaike continued as prime minister, and William Gopallawa was appointed president.

In 1977 Bandaranaike’s government was decisively defeated at the polls. She was replaced as prime minister by Junius R. Jayewardene, leader of the UNP. His government in 1978 replaced the 1972 constitution with one providing for an executive president, an office which Jayewardene then assumed. Reversing the socialist trend of his predecessor, he achieved some initial economic gains. By 1980, however, inflation and falling wages led to a general strike, which the government thwarted only by calling out troops. Later in the year Bandaranaike was expelled from the National Assembly and barred from voting or standing for election for seven years. The supreme court had previously found her to have abused her power during her years as prime minister. Jayewardene won reelection to a second six-year presidential term in October 1982. Subsequently, in December, a government proposal to extend the life of parliament until 1989 was approved by popular referendum.

In 1983 a civil war broke out between the Sinhalese-dominated government and the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a group that seeks to create a separate nation for the Tamil minority in the northern and eastern portions of Sri Lanka. In June 1987, after an agreement with Jayewardene, Indian troops moved into northern Sri Lanka to enforce a peace agreement between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamils. Warfare subsided, and Jayewardene retired in 1988; Ranasinghe Premadasa was elected to succeed him that year, defeating Bandaranaike. Premadasa’s UNP retained its majority in the parliamentary elections of February 1989, and the last Indian troops departed in March 1990. The period of relative peace was short-lived. In 1991 and 1992 several major battles were fought between the army and the LTTE, and in early 1993 the government was rocked by two assassinations. On April 23 Lalith Athulathmudali, who had founded the opposition Democratic United Liberation Front in 1991, was shot to death during a political rally. A week later, during the annual May Day parade, President Premadasa was assassinated by a suicide bomber who allegedly was a member of LTTE. Days later the Parliament unanimously elected UNP member and former prime minister Dingiri Banda Wijetunge to serve as president until the next national election. In November 1993 LTTE forces managed to seize a government military base in Pooneryn, about 32 km (20 mi) southeast of Jaffna. Several days later government forces drove the rebel forces back and recovered the base. The fighting was some of the worst between the Sri Lankan government and rebel Tamil forces; the Sri Lankan government estimated that about 1,200 people were missing or killed. Since fighting between the two groups began in 1983, an estimated 64,000 people have been killed.

In parliamentary elections held in August 1994, the People’s Alliance Party defeated the UNP, and Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, the daughter of former prime minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike, became prime minister. In presidential elections held that November, Kumaratunga defeated the UNP’s candidate, Srima Dissanayake, to become Sri Lanka’s first female president. The UNP’s original candidate, Gamini Dissanayake, had been killed during an election rally in October. As president, Kumaratunga appointed her mother, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, to serve as prime minister and pledged to open peace talks with the Tamil rebels. In January 1995 the government and the LTTE agreed to a cease-fire, and both sides made efforts toward reconciliation by releasing political prisoners. However, the 14-week cease-fire, the longest since the onset of the war, ended in April, when rebels blew up two government gun boats. The fighting worsened as the Sri Lankan government took the offensive with the help of the Indian military. By the end of 1995 the government, after a two-month siege, recaptured the city of Jaffna, which had been held by the LTTE since 1985. By 1996 the government regained control of the Jaffna Peninsula.

In August 1995 President Kumaratunga proposed a peace plan that would give limited autonomy to Sri Lanka’s provinces—including Tamil areas. To be enacted, the plan required passage of a constitutional reform bill by a two-thirds vote in the parliament and approval in a national referendum. Passage of the proposal was the central goal of Kumaratunga’s administration and was debated by the parliament throughout the late 1990s. Just days before presidential elections in December 1999, Kumaratunga was injured in a suicide bombing assassination attempt attributed to the LTTE. The elections proceeded, and Kumaratunga was reelected to a second six-year term. In August 2000 Kumaratunga abandoned her plan to call a parliamentary vote on the constitutional reform bill after it became clear the bill did not have the necessary backing. Also that month, Bandaranaike resigned as prime minister, citing the need for a vigorous campaign on behalf of the People’s Alliance Party in the October parliamentary elections. Kumaratunga appointed a close confidante, Ratnasiri Wickremanayake, in her mother’s place. Bandaranaike died of a heart attack on election day shortly after casting her vote. Although the People’s Alliance won a majority of seats, it fell short of gaining the two-thirds majority needed to pass Kumaratunga’s constitutional reform bill. In the meantime, the LTTE continued to demand complete independence for the Tamil minority, and the civil war between government forces and the rebels continued into 2001.

In June 2001 the People’s Alliance lost its slim majority in parliament when a small party defected from the ruling coalition. Facing the possibility of a no-confidence vote, Kumaratunga suspended parliament until September. Another political crisis compelled Kumaratunga to dissolve parliament in October and call for legislative elections. Held in early December, the elections gave a majority of seats to the opposition UNP. The party named Ranil Wickremesinghe, Kumaratunga’s archrival, the new prime minister of Sri Lanka.

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