Officially the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, (pronounced Sinhala: , Tamil: இலங்கை; known as Ceylon before 1972 and as Taprobane in ancient times), is an island country in South Asia, located about 31 kilometres (19.3 mi) off the southern coast of India. It is home to around twenty million people.
Because of its location in the path of major sea routes, Sri Lanka is a strategic naval link between West Asia and South East Asia. It has been a center of Buddhist religion and culture from ancient times. The Sinhalese community forms the majority of the population; Tamils, who are concentrated in the north and east of the island, form the largest ethnic minority. Other communities include Moors, Burghers, Kaffirs and the Malays.
The country is famous for the production and export of tea, coffee, coconuts and rubber. The natural beauty of Sri Lanka's tropical forests, beaches and landscape, as well as its rich cultural heritage, make it a world famous tourist destination.
After over two thousand years of rule by local kingdoms, parts of Sri Lanka were colonized by Portugal and the Netherlands beginning in the 16th century, before control of the entire country was ceded to the British Empire in 1815. During World War II, Sri Lanka served as an important base for Allied forces in the fight against the Japanese Empire. A nationalist political movement arose in the country in the early 20th century with the aim of obtaining political independence, which was eventually granted by the British after peaceful negotiations in 1948.
Following the war, popular pressure for independence intensified. The office of Prime Minister of Ceylon was created in advance of independence on 14 October 1947, Don Stephen Senanayake being the first prime minister. On February 4, 1948 the country won its independence as the Commonwealth of Ceylon. On July 21, 1960 Sirimavo Bandaranaike took office as prime minister, and became the world's first female prime minister and the first female head of government in post-colonial Asia. In 1972, during Sirimavo Bandaranaike's second term as prime minister, the country became a republic within the Commonwealth, and the name was changed to Sri Lanka. The island enjoyed good relations with the United Kingdom and had the British Royal Navy stationed at Trincomalee.
One of the aspects of the independence movement was that it was very much a Sinhalese movement. As a result, the Sinhalese majority attempted to remodel Sri Lanka as a Sinhalese nation-state. The lion in the national flag is derived from the banner of the last Sinhalese Kingdom, which, to the Sinhalese majority, is a symbol of their fight against British colonialism. One single strip of orange on the left part of the flag represents the Tamil population, and it is seen by many Tamil as a symbol of their marginalization.
From 1983 to 2009, there was an on-and-off civil war against the government by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a separatist militant organization who fought to create an independent state named Tamil Eelam in the North and East of the island. LTTE have been accused of various human rights violations.
On May 19, 2009, the President of Sri Lanka Mr. Mahinda Rajapaksha officially claimed an end to the insurgency and the defeat of the LTTE, following the death of Velupillai Prabhakaran and much of the LTTE's other senior leadership.