Sri Lanka became independent on February 4th 1948, a year after India and Pakistan were created.. Sinhalese and Tamils joined forced to oust the British. The transfer of power was achieved without conflict or bloodshed. The country kept the name Ceylon. In 1955, it became a member of the United Nations. On May 22, 1972, Ceylon adopted the name Sri Lanka, which means "resplendent land," and proclaimed itself a republic.

Sri Lanka initially opted for dominion status in the Commonwealth, like nearby India and Pakistan. But, unlike India and Pakistan, it retained dominion status only until 1972 when the island was formally proclaimed a democratic republic and a unitary state with the office of governor-general converting to a ceremonial presidency. Sri Lanka became a constitutional democracy. During that period, real power was vested in Parliament and in a prime minister under the British Westminster model. [Source: Cities of the World , The Gale Group Inc., 2002]

The British negotiated the island's dominion status with the leader of the State Council,D.S. Senanayake, during World War II. Senanayake was also minister of agriculture and vice chairman of the Board of Ministers. The negotiations ended with the Ceylon Independence Act of 1947, which formalized the transfer of power.

After independence English remained the national language. The country was largely governed by an English-speaking Christian elite. Many Sinhalese resented this. They resented the Christians and wanted Sinhala to be made the official language. "Back in 1948 independence meant nothing to the majority of Sri Lankans," a Sinhalese politician told National Geographic, "because the government continued to be run in English, but only about 10 percent of the people spoke English.

Time magazine reported: “Sri Lankans enjoy a party, and Independence Day — February 4, 1948 — was one of the grandest. There were fashion shows in the oceanside capital of Colombo, fireworks, ranks of spit-and-polish honor guards and special air tours over the proud, illuminated city. A day earlier the new parliament had opened in an exotic spectacle. Justices wore British horsehair wigs, the Duke of Gloucester gave a fond farewell on behalf of the King of England, and the parliament floor was adorned with massive, bowed elephant tusks and the gilded throne of the final King of Kandy, who was ousted by the British 133 years before. Even a year after the celebrations, the first Prime Minister of independent Ceylon (as the country was then called) remained on a rhetorical high. "We have now the priceless possession of freedom," announced D.S. Senanayake on the nation's first birthday, "and the opportunity to make our country one of the happiest spots on earth." [Source: Time, February 9, 1998]

And why not? Sri Lanka had it all-and still does: rubies and sapphires in the ground, orchids dangling from trees, jungle elephants, cinnamon, cardamom and bare-shouldered Buddhist monks with parasols. Its beaches are exquisite; the mountainous interior boasts sublime Buddhist sculpture...More temporally, the sultry Indian Ocean island was one of the most manageable of Britain's colonies, a kinder and gentler version of vast, chaotic India immediately to the north. The local freedom struggle was gentlemanly, and independence was sedately achieved. By the time the fireworks began over Colombo, some 500,000 to 1 million people had been killed during the creations of independent India and Pakistan the year before. No such tumult occurred in sleepy, happy-go-lucky Sri Lanka — or, at least, not for a good long time. "We have had it so good in this country in every way. Nature has blessed us so much," says current President Chandrika Kumaratunga, daughter of two former prime ministers. In the years just after independence, she says: "We had the highest per capita income in the entire region ... and one of the highest in Asia."

Events Before the Independence of Sri Lanka

In 1931, the British granted Ceylon self-rule and a universal franchise. Sri Lankans were given the right to vote. The Donoughmore Constitution, promulgated in 1931, was a unique document that provided Sri Lankans with training for self-government. The document, however, reserved the highest level of responsibility for the British governor, whose assent was necessary for all legislation. The legislative branch of the government — the State Council — functioned in both an executive and legislative capacity. Seven committees performed executive duties. Each committee consisted of designated members of the State Council and was chaired by an elected Sri Lankan, who was addressed as minister. Three British officers of ministerial rank, along with the seven Sri Lankan ministers, formed a board of ministers. The British ministers collectively handled responsibility for defense, external affairs, finance, and judicial matters. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

In July 1944, Lord Soulbury was appointed head of a commission charged with the task of examining a new constitutional draft that the Sri Lankan ministers had proposed. The commission made recommendations that led to a new constitution. As the end of the war approached, the constitution was amended to incorporate a provision giving Sri Lanka dominion status.

British constitutional principles served as a model for the Soulbury Constitution of independent Sri Lanka, which combined a parliamentary system with a bicameral legislature. Members of the first House of Representatives were directly elected by popular vote. Members of the Senate, or upper house, were elected partly by members of the House and partly by the governor general, who was primarily a figurehead. The British monarch appointed the governor general on the advice of the most powerful person in the Sri Lankan government — the prime minister.*

A government sponsored internal colonization project that began in 1945 encouraged Sinhalese to move into traditional Tamil occupied areas in the central and northeast dry zone.

According to Time: “Sri Lanka won its freedom from the British in 1948 as an offshoot of Indian independence. There was no popular agitation to match the 28-year mass movement in India led by Mohandas Gandhi and the Congress Party. In India, the fight for freedom forged a pan-Indian identity that transcended ethnic divides. That process didn't occur in Sri Lanka. When elections got rolling, therefore, post-independence politicians couldn't rally voters on deeply felt issues of national pride. The next best strategy was to appeal to different ethnic groups. The Sinhalese made up the biggest community, and so politicians pandered to them.” [Source: Time, February 9, 1998]

World War II and Sri Lanka

When Singapore fell to the Japanese in February 1942, Sri Lanka became a central base for British operations in Southeast Asia, and the port at Trincomalee recaptured its historically strategic importance. Because Sri Lanka was an indispensable strategic bastion for the British Royal Navy, it was an irresistible military target for the Japanese. For a time, it seemed that Japan planned a sweeping westward offensive across the Indian Ocean to take Sri Lanka, sever the Allies' lifeline to Persian Gulf oil, and link up with the Axis powers in Egypt. Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, mastermind of the raid on Pearl Harbor, ordered Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo to command a large armada to seek and destroy the British Eastern Fleet in the Indian Ocean. The two nations' fleets played a game of hide-and-seek, but never met. Some military historians assert that if they had met, the smaller British fleet would have met with disaster. The British instead fought several desperate air battles over Colombo and Trincomalee and lost about thirty-six aircraft and several ships. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

Yamamoto's grand strategy failed to isolate and destroy any major units of the British fleet. But if the Japanese had persisted with their offensive, the island, with its limited British naval defenses, probably would have fallen. The Japanese carrier force, however, suffered such high aircraft losses over Sri Lanka — more than 100 warplanes — that it returned to Japan for refitting rather than press the attack. By returning to Japan, the force lost its opportunity for unchallenged supremacy of the Indian Ocean. The focus of the war in this theater then shifted away from the island.*

On the whole, Sri Lanka benefited from its role in World War II. The plantation sector was busy meeting the urgent demands of the Allies for essential products, especially rubber, enabling the country to save a surplus in hard currency. Because Sri Lanka was the seat of the Southeast Asia Command, a broad infrastructure of health services and modern amenities was built to accommodate the large number of troops posted into all parts of the country. The inherited infrastructure improved the standard of living in postwar, independent Sri Lanka.*

Unlike India, where nationalists demanded a guarantee of independence as recompense for their support in the war effort, Sri Lanka committed itself wholeheartedly to the Allied war effort. Although the island was put under military jurisdiction during the war, the British and the Sri Lankans maintained cooperative relations. Sri Lankan pressure for political reform continued during the war, however, and increased as the Japanese threat receded and the war neared its end. The British eventually promised full participatory government after the war.*

Sri Lanka After Independence

The prospects for an economically robust, fully participatory, and manageable democracy looked good during the first years of independence. In contrast to India, which had gained independence a year earlier, there was no massive violence and little social unrest. In Sri Lanka there was also a good measure of governmental continuity. Still, important unresolved ethnic problems soon had to be addressed. The most immediate of these problems was the "Indian question," which concerned the political status of Tamil immigrants who worked on the highland tea plantations. The Soulbury Commission had left this sensitive question to be resolved by the incoming government. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

After independence, debate about the status of the Indian Tamils continued. But three pieces of legislation — the Ceylon Citizenship Act of 1948; the Indian and Pakistani Residents Act No. 3 of 1948, and the Ceylon Parliamentary Elections Amendment Act No. 48 of 1949 — all but disenfranchised this minority group. The Ceylon Indian Congress vigorously but unsuccessfully opposed the legislation. The acrimonious debate over the laws of 1948 and 1949 revealed serious fissures in the body politic. There was a cleavage along ethnic lines between the Sinhalese and the Tamils, and also a widening rift between Sri Lankan Tamils and Indian Tamils.*

In 1949 a faction of the Ceylon Tamil Congress (the major Tamil party in Sri Lanka at the time) broke away to form the (Tamil) Federal Party under the leadership of S.J.V. Chelvanayakam. The creation of the Federal Party was a momentous postindependence development because it set the agenda for Tamil exclusivity in Sri Lankan politics. Soon after its founding, the Federal Party replaced the more conciliatory Tamil Congress as the major party among Sri Lankan Tamils and advocated an aggressive stance vis-à-vis the Sinhalese.*

The two dominant parties during years after independence have been the UNP (conservative) and the SLFP ( socialist -left, and more recently center-left). The two political parties alternated in positions of power for half a century, with the UNP heading the government from 1948 to 1956, 1965 to 1970, and 1977 to 1994. An SLFP-led coalition government was in power from 1956 to 1965, 1970 to 1977, and since 1994 as a coalition called the Peoples Alliance (PA). The Sri Lankan government epitomizes a classic democratic 2-party political system in operation. The UNP regimes during the period 1948 to 1970 placed emphasis on private sector participation with several ongoing subsidized programs such as free education, free health care, village land settlement, and colonization. The SLFP regimes continued the welfare programs and moved increasingly to public ownership and nationalization with limited private sector participation. In the early and the mid-1970s, they placed strict restrictions on imports and currency movement.

Early Government Under the United National Party (UNP)

For the first eight years after independence, from 1948 to 1956, Sri Lanka was ruled by the United National Party (UNP), which claimed to be at least a panethnic party of unity. After independence things initially went well. The post-World-War-II economy was strong and Sri Lanka had one of the highest standards s of living in Asia. But later various conflicts boiled to surface. Monks and members of Buddhist nationalist movement faced off against the Christian English-educated elite that ruled the country and Sinhalese began fighting with Tamils.

The United National Party (UNP) was the largest political party after Sri Lanka became independent. It emerged as an umbrella party from the colonial era and was similar in some respects to the Indian National Congress, the party of Mahatma Gandhi. Like its Indian counterpart, the UNP represented a union of a number of groups espousing different personalities and ideologies. Known later as the "uncle-nephew party" because of the kinship ties among the party's top leadership, the UNP served as the standard-bearer of conservative forces. *

The UNP easily won the 1947 elections, challenged only by a collection of small, primarily leftist parties. On February 4, 1948, when the new constitution went into effect (making Sri Lanka a dominion), the UNP embarked on a ten-year period of rule.

D. S. Senanayake

Don Stephen (D.S.) Senanayake was the leader of Sri Lanka from independence in 1948 to his death in a horseback-riding accident in 1952. Despite the benevolent guidance of Senanayake, the UNP could not defuse the nascent dissension between the Sinhalese and the Tamils. Some of Senanayake's policies, particularly his awarding of land grants to Sinhalese settlers for the resettlement of the northern dry zone, precipitated renewed competition between the two ethnic groups. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

D.S. Senanayake was the founder and leader of the United National Party (UNP), a partnership of many disparate groups formed during the Donoughmore period, including the Ceylon National Congress, the Sinhala Maha Sabha, and the Muslim League. Senanayake negotiated the island's dominion status with the British during World War II. Senanayake was also minister of agriculture and vice chairman of the Board of Ministers. The negotiations ended with the Ceylon Independence Act of 1947, which formalized the transfer of power. *

After the election the UNP attempted to establish an anticommunist, intercommunal parliamentary form of government. Prominent nationalists, such as D.S. Senanayake and S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike(the country's first and fourth prime ministers, respectively), led the UNP. The party's internal differences gradually worsened, however. The first and most serious break came in July 1951, when Bandaranaike's left-of-center bloc seceded to form the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), the first major non-Marxist political movement to oppose the UNP.*

One of the first policies initiated by the UNP after independence was free rice rations to every Sri Lankan citizen and generous rice subsides to farmers After economic realities forced the government increase rice prices in 1953 there were food riots, which resulted in many deaths and the declaration of state of emergency.

D. S. Senanayake’s Life and Family

D.S. Senanayake was born October 20, 1884, at Botale, a village in the Hapitigame Korale of the Negombo district in the Western Province. Stephen Senanayake’s father, Don Spater Senanayake, came of a land-owning family. The prefix ‘Don! had been used, since Portuguese times, by the low country gentry. Don Spater’s father, Don Bartholomew, was born in Botale in 1847 where the ancestral house still stands. It was for Don Stephen a hideaway to rest from the burdens of office or think out a solution to some knotty problem. It was here that he mixed freely with the country folk and shared his thoughts and aspirations with them. They brought their problems as well as their disputes to him and it is said that an aggrieved party in the village rarely resorted to a court of law, for Senanayake was judge and arbitrator in all causes which they referred to him. [Source: The Island, October 22, 2000, Virtual Library Sri Lanka ]

Don Spater finished his schooling at St Thomas’ College, Matale. He married a Miss Senanayake (no relation) from Kehelella which was in the same district as Botale. They had three sons, of whom Stephen was the youngest, and a daughter. After the father’s death the four children remained close to their mother who was a deeply religious woman.

The Senanayakes of Botale were rooted to the land but Don Spater saw possibilities in mining plumbago (graphite) for which there was a growing demand in Europe, the United States and Japan. Ceylon plumbago was regarded by experts as "so much superior to any other turned out". It was mined in many parts of the island but chiefly in the Kurunegala district, where the Dodangaslande, Ragedera and Maduragoda mines were situated, and in the Kelani Valley where the Bogala mine was the largest. Stephen grew to manhood when the plumbago trade was booming and even as a school boy he knew a great deal about the ‘black gold’ and the men who dug it from his father’s mines.

At the end of the nineteenth century, many Sinhalese families interested themselves in the public life of the country. D. S. Senanayake was the first member of the Senanayake family of Botale to enter the Legislative Council though his older brother, ‘F. R.’, could have at any time won a seat by election and was always a powerful influence behind the scenes until his premature death.

After D.S. Senanayake: Dudley Senanayake

When Senanayake died in a horseback-riding accident in March 1952, not only the UNP, but also the entire nation suffered from the loss of the only man who could pose as a credible symbol for the country's unity. In the election that was held immediately after Senanayake's death, the UNP, led by his son Dudley, and the SLFP, led by Bandaranaike, vied for Sinhalese votes, while the Tamil Congress and Federal Party competed for the Tamil vote. The UNP won the election, and the SLFP emerged as major opposition party. The SLFP managed to win only nine out of forty-eight seats in Parliament. The Tamil Congress, having supported the UNP, lost much of its following to the Federal Party, which continued to advocate an autonomous homeland within a Sri Lankan federation. Ethnic tensions, although mounting, remained manageable. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

After D. S. Senanayake's death, the nation's economic problems became apparent. The terms of world trade were turning against Sri Lanka. The population was growing faster than production in most sectors. A World Bank study completed in 1952 noted that social and welfare services were consuming 35 percent of the budget. The report recommended that the government rice subsidy — which accounted for the major portion of the expenditure — be reduced. Prime Minister Senanayake followed the advice, but the move proved to be his political undoing. A massive, sometimes violent civil disobedience movement was launched to protest the reduction of the rice subsidy and provoked the resignation of Senanayake. *

Dudely Senanayake would eventually serve four times as prime minister but the first time around he only served about 18 months..

John Kotelawala

In October 1953, Dudely Senanayake was replaced by his uncle Sir John Kotelawala and the UNP was nicknamed the “Uncle Nephew Party. Kotelawala remained in office until the UNP defeat in the 1956 election. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

The UNP government under Kotelawala disagreed with India's interpretation of political solidarity in the developing world. This divergence became painfully clear to India at the Colombo Conference of 1954 and the Bandung Conference in Indonesia in 1955. Kotelawala's strident condemnation of communism, as well as the more fashionable condemnation of Western imperialism, especially irritated India's Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Kotelawala was also anxious to have Ceylon join the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), but he encountered strong domestic opposition to the plan. The Soviet Union was especially sensitive to what it considered the government's pro-Western attitude and repeatedly vetoed Sri Lanka's application to join the United Nations (UN). Sri Lanka was finally admitted in 1955 as part of an East-West agreement.*

The UNP continued a defense agreement with the British that spared Sri Lanka the cost of maintaining a large military establishment. National defense consumed less than 4 percent of the government budget in the postindependence years, and hence the military was not in a position to interfere with politics. Kotelwala retired from politics after his defeat at the polls in 1956 and resided in his estate in Kent, United Kingdom for some years.*

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Sri Lanka Tourism (, Government of Sri Lanka (, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Wikipedia and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated February 2022

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