Sri Lanka (formerly known as Ceylon) is a tropical island lying close to the southern tip of India and near the Equator. From the coast, the land rises to a central plateau, where tea plantations are found. Sinhalese form the country's major ethnic group (74 percent) and Tamils are the largest minority, at 18 percent. Population density is highest in the island's southwest corner—where Colombo, the capital, is located. The Tamil minority tends to be geographically concentrated along the eastern and northern coastal areas.
Under European control for some 450 years, Ceylon won independence from the United Kingdom in 1948 and changed its name in 1972. Since then a segment of the Tamil Hindu minority has pressured the Sinhalese Buddhist majority for a separate state. Conflict broke out in 1983 and escalated to civil war. Violence continued after the assassination of President Premadasa in 1993 by Tamil separatists. Thousands of lives have been lost. Hundreds of thousands of Tamil civilians have fled Sri Lanka. The civil war has had a negative impact on economic growth, which is based largely on tea and garment manufacture.