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The insider's guide to Sri Lanka

(CNN)
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The Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka is a tropical island sitting just off the southern tip of India. Its commercial capital is Colombo and administrative capital is Sri Jayawardenepura. Its main exports are clothing and textiles along with tea and rubber. The currency is the Sri Lankan rupee.

Who lives there?

There are around 20 million inhabitants. 74 percent are Sinhalese and 18 percent Tamil. Languages spoken are Sinhalese, English and Tamil. 69 percent of the population are Buddhists, 15 percent Hindu, and the rest split between Islam and Christianity. The average man lives to 71 and woman to 77.

And who doesn't ...

About 800,000 Sri Lankan's work outside the country, the majority of them in the Middle East. They send home around $1 billion a year.

Tell me the island's history in brief

Like most island histories, it's one of immigration. Sinhalese migrants from India settled the island in the fifth century BC. Two centuries later Tamil migrants arrived from India. In the 16th century the Portuguese arrived, followed three centuries later by the British.

Under British control the island became known as Ceylon. The British imported more Tamil workers from India to work on their tea plantations. English became the official language in 1833. In 1948 Ceylon gained full independence. A year later Tamil workers were disenfranchised and in 1956 Sinhalese became the official language.

What about the current conflict?

The growth of Sinhalese nationalism after independence saw a rise in ethnic divisions and the formation of the separatist Tamil Tigers (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) in 1976.

The 1980s were marred by fighting in the north as the Tamils pressed for home rule. More than 60,000 people were killed. In 1987 Tamil fighters were pushed back to the northern city of Jaffna. India was persuaded to deploy a peace keeping force, but three years later pulled out. The violence intensified.

In the 1990s Tamil fighters killed President Premadas. Hopes of a peace agreement brokered by President Kumaratunga failed. The conflict spiraled into a series of tit-for-tat manoeuvres with government offensives being met by a Tamil bomb attack on Colombo and an attack on President Kumaratunga in 1999 which left her wounded.

The new millennium kicked off with more fighting and attempts to negotiate a peace. In 2001, Tamil suicide bombers attacked Colombo airport. In 2003 a peace of sorts was agreed during talks in Norway, with the Tigers agreeing to a power sharing arrangement. Since then, however, there have been numerous violations.

What now?

Peace talks in Geneva finally collapsed at the end of October and on Wednesday Sri Lanka's air force bombed Tamil Tiger targets. The current impasse centers on the government's closure in August of the main north-south A-9 highway, which runs through rebel territory and to the northern army-held Jaffna peninsula. Many analysts and ordinary Sri Lankans fear the collapse of the talks could signal the escalation of the civil war.

Apart from war, any natural disasters?

Sri Lanka is still suffering the effects of the tsunami which struck much of South East Asia in December 2004. 31,000 died when the sea engulfed the coastline. Two million people were displaced, whole villages were destroyed and nearly 3,000 schools flattened.

Oh dear, any positives?

Yes. The Lonely Planet guide book is fulsome in its praise. "The entire island is teeming with bird life, and exotics like elephants and leopards are not uncommon. To top it all off, the people are friendly, the food is delicious and costs are low."

Other highlights ...

Sri Lanka has about 4,000 wild elephants. They are a major tourist attraction and it is forbidden by law to kill them. Unfortunately their habitat has come under pressure and some have been caught in the cross-fire between government troops and Tamil Tigers.

It has some pretty hot curries. Hoppers are a unique Sri Lanka snack, similar to a pancake, served with egg or honey and yogurt.

And some impressive literary connections: Chilean poet Pablo Neruda lived in Colombo in the 1930's, Arthur C. Clark spent many years on the island and Michael Ondaatje, author of the award-winning The English Patient, was born there.


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Wild elephants are one of Sri Lanka's most popular tourist attractions.

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