In the 16th century Portuguese colonized the island now known as Sri Lanka (once known as Serendip), ending two thousand years of local rule. For the next several centuries Sri Lankans fought the Portuguese, who called the island Ceylon, then the Dutch, then the British, and in 1948, after acting as an Allied military base during World War II, finally became independent. In 1972, Ceylon changed its name to Sri Lanka, which means “venerable island” in Sanskrit. This marked a break from Ceylon’s colonial-era past. (It also required the nation to print a whole lot of new stationery.)
In the years after independence the primarily Buddhist Sinhalese — comprising over 80% of the Sri Lankan people — dominated national politics, marginalizing a primarily Hindu Tamil minority that had long played a significant role in Ceylonese society. For example,
the nation’s new flag featured a lion, symbol of the Sinhalese fight for independence, and had only a single strip of orange to represent the Tamils. In 1956 Ceylon adopted the “Official Language Act” (locally known as the Sinhala Only Act) which made Sinhala the
official national language, forcing many non-Sinahalese-speaking Tamils out of the civil service. There was also an attempt to make Buddhism the nation’s official religion, as well as the installation of Sinhalese “affirmative action,” which supporters deemed necessary to counteract policies of the British that many Sinhalese deemed to be pro-Tamil.
Most Tamils protested their marginalization within Sri Lanka’s legal structures, but in 1983 a separatist movement called the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), known internationally as the Tamil Tigers, went to war to demand and independent state in the North and East of the island. The war was brutal and both sides accused the other of human rights abuses. In 2009 the Sri Lankan national government declared victory, though not everyone’s confident the conflict is over.
Wikipedia on the Sri Lankan civil war…blame the British? | “Seredipity on the Tear of India”: from serendipity to separatism | Sri Lanka: a multi-ethnic society? (a more detailed history) | About the Sri Lankan flag | The Council on Foreign Relations’ take on the Tamil Tigers | The U.N. investigates Sri Lankan human rights abuses (issues discussed in this link are primarily for grown-ups)|Sri Lankan Tamil Hindu culture | Wikipedia on the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, which devastated much of Sri Lanka’s coast (this link is not necessarily for kids)