issue 214 - December 1990
Marco Polo called it 'undoubtedly the finest island of its size in the world', and travellers and traders from Rome, China, India, Abyssinia, Arabia and Europe have for over 2,000 years remarked on its beauty and wealth. Today Ceylon is known by its ancient name of Sri Lanka - 'resplendent isle' - and it is a place of great natural beauty. With its palm-fringed beaches and fertile coastal plains climbing to a lush mountainous interior, Sri Lanka is firmly on the tourist map offering aromatic teas, spices, gems and handcrafts.
Financially, too, Sri Lanka has been attractive. For the last 13 years it has been the number-one centre for off-shore capital in the Near East. It is also well-sited for time-zone operations - being two hours behind Singapore and two hours ahead of Bahrain.
But the years of war have made investors and inhabitants nervous. In the North, thousands of Tamils are still being killed as the army tries to gain control. The Sinhalese guerilla movement, the JVP, was strong only last year but is now almost defunct. Muslims, Tamils and Sinhalese continue to bludgeon each other in the east of the country.
Foreign tourists still come, and the Colombo casinos are busy. As in many other capital cities, Mercedes purr along the streets and whisky slips down the throats of the wealthy. Away from the bright lights, there is a gloomier picture.
Despite the Government's attempts - such as the 'Jansaviya' (People's Strength) Poverty Alleviation Programme (PAP) - people, especially children, are growing increasingly hungry. Last year's political chaos and numerous allegations against the Government totally disrupted the economy. Nevertheless foreign investment continues to flow into the country.
The restructured policies of the Premadasa Administration have increased the confidence of donor agencies and foreign investors - especially Japan. But the renewed fighting has thrown everything into the balance once again.
This time there is the additional problem of the Gulf Crisis. Some 100,000 Sri Lankans are coming back from Kuwait, looking for jobs that are scarce. The loss of their remittances will be a blow to the economy, already quaking from the continuing conflict. In addition, sanctions against Iraq mean that Sri Lanka has lost over a quarter of its tea exports.
Some say that the difference between the former President Jayawardene and current leader Premadasa is that the former hails from the upper-crust society of Colombo, while the present incumbent has emerged from the people's classes. And that is why he was called the Messiah of the Masses. But maybe no more.
Leader President Ranasinghe Premadasa
Economy GNP per capita $400 (US $18,530)
Main exports textiles and clothing, tea, rubber, coconut, gems, petroleum products.
Main imports petroleum, capital goods, fertilisers and chemicals, food and mineral products. Sri Lanka is one of the main tourist destinations in the near East and Colombo is second only to Singapore as a regional transhipment port. The Mahaweli hydroelectric and irrigation programme provides energy and waters the country's dry zone. Large tea, rubber and coconut plantations; smaller holdings grow rice, sugar-cane, cassava, soyabeans, cashew nuts, castor, spices and cocoa. Sri Lanka is now self-sufficient in rice.
People 16.8 million
Health Infant mortality 32 per 1000 live births (US 10 per 1,000)
Culture Roughly three-quarters of the population are Sinhalese, about 20 per cent are Tamils and the rest Malays and Burghers (descendants of the Dutch).
Religion Sinhalese are mainly Theravada Buddhists and Tamils are Hindu, Malays/Moors are Muslim. Some Christians also.
Languages Sinhala, Tamil and English.
Sources: Asia and Pacific Review 1990; State of the World's Children 1990
Last profiled in November 1980
Multi-party socialist democracy.