POPULATION AND ECONOMIC CONDITIONS
In 1998, according to an estimate by the United Nations, the population amounted to 18,455,000 units and almost 80 % resided in rural areas; the only city of notable demographic amplitude is the capital Colombo (615,000 residents in 1990). The country is the scene of serious ethnic conflicts: in fact the Tamil group (about 2,000,000 people of different languages and religions from those of the Sinhalese majority) claims complete autonomy of the territories in which it predominates (north-eastern coast and in particular the peninsula of Jaffna).
The economy of the Sri Lanka recorded in the nineties a continuous albeit weak expansion, with GDP growth (3.4 % annual average) greater than that of the population (1, 4 %), and a general improvement of living standards, however, it was constantly put at risk by the internal guerrillas. Since 1990 the government has begun to privatize some important sectors, such as transport and energy production, trying to encourage the influx of foreign capital. Around the mid-nineties the local economy was severely damaged by the consequences of a long drought that penalized hydroelectric production, with serious damage to industrial activity, and drastically reduced rice production.
More than 30 % of the active population is dedicated to the activities of the primary sector and the main cultivation is still that of tea, in very valuable varieties, practiced in large plantations already in the colonial period and still expanding today, so much so that since 1990 the island it has deprived India of the world record for export; other commercial crops are those of hevea, coconut palm and, to a lesser extent, cocoa, coffee and sugar cane, as well as spices which hold a prominent place in exports. Food production destined for internal consumption sees rice in first place, followed by cassava, sweet potato and tropical fruit. Still important are fishing and farming; on the island there are some centers for the breeding and training of working elephants.
The mining activity concerns precious stones, which once gave the island a great reputation: sapphires, rubies and topazes are still extracted, even if the deposits are becoming impoverished, and graphite which is important as an export commodity. There is a lack of fuel resources and energy is mostly produced by hydroelectric power plants. The manufacturing industry occupies only 13.3% of the active population and mainly concerns the food sector (tea preparation, oilseed processing, beer production, sugar refining), the textile sector (cotton spinning), clothing (in which specialized sectors of activity are developing), tanning and leather processing. Two medium-sized steel plants, a few cement factories and an oil refinery are in operation on the island.
The trade balance is passive and the country has to resort to international aid or loans. The main supplier is Japan, followed by China (Hong Kong), while exports are mainly directed to the United States, Germany and the United Kingdom. The problems associated with the difficult internal situation and the impossibility of guaranteeing balanced development throughout the country cause widespread unemployment and continuous emigration, as well as highly negative effects on tourism.
According to Themotorcyclers, the conflict between the Sinhalese majority and the Tamil minority, which since 1976 claimed an independent state in the territories of the northern province, with a Tamil majority, and in those of the eastern province, continued to dominate the political scene of the country assuming, starting from 1983, the character of a real civil war. The uncompromising line adopted by the government, an expression of the conservative United National Party (UNP), in power since 1977, had determined a stiffening of the independence front, led by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam guerrilla movement (LTTE), which, having rejected the mediation attempts made on the basis of a proposal for administrative decentralization, managed to gain military control of the contested areas and started a violent terrorist campaign across the island.
The government’s inadequacy to cope with the growing climate of tension, which culminated in 1993 with the killing of the President of the Republic R. Premadasa (elected in December 1988), led to the defeat of the UNP in the general elections held in August 1994. and to the victory of the Popular Alliance, made up of Communist and Trotskyist formations and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) whose leader, CB Kumaratunga, was elected prime minister. The new executive tried to reopen dialogue with the LTTE aiming at a negotiated solution to the conflict and, as a sign of readiness, the economic blockade imposed on the territories occupied by the guerrillas was partially lifted. The latter, for their part, agreed to resume peace negotiations (September 1994) declaring themselves ready for a truce. The policy of détente inaugurated by the executive – despite suffering a temporary arrest in October following the killing of the leader of the opposition party, G. Dissanayache, in a terrorist attack in Colombo attributed to the LTTE – was strengthened by the electoral victory of Kumaratunga, which in November 1994 was elected, with the 62, 3 % of the votes, President of the Republic. The leadership of the government was taken over by his mother, Sri Lanka Bandaranaike, who thus returned, at the age of 78, to hold the position for the third time. In December, the LTTE accepted the proposal for a truce and talks between the parties resumed, however, destined to end again in April 1995.
The new wave of violence that hit the country led the government to change its strategy: while reaffirming the commitment to implement institutional reforms aimed at expanding regional autonomies, as part of a federal state project, Kumaratunga decided to launch a new tough offensive at the same time. military aimed at reconquering the north-eastern territories. Despite the initial successes, the army did not succeed in overcoming the LTTE and the clashes continued in alternating phases throughout 1997 and 1998, while the proposals for autonomy found in Parliament the firm opposition of the UNP. The resumption of the guerrillas weakened the prestige of Kumaratunga who was reconfirmed as president in December 1999 with only 51.4% of votes.