LAND AND PEOPLE--Sri Lanka, or Ceylon as it was known until 1972, is a tropical island republic in the Indian Ocean about 20 miles off the southeast tip of India. The northern half of the pear-shaped island is a sultry plain, and the southern part--where high-quality tea, the nation's dominant export, grows--is mountainous.

The size of West Virginia, Sri Lanka has 14.5 million people. About 72 percent of them are Sinhalese, descendants of Buddhist invaders from northern India who occupied the island more than 2,000 years ago. The country long has been plagued by ethnic conflict between the Sinhalese, whose strength is in the south, and the Tamils, who were brought from India in the 19th century to work in plantations in the north. Rejecting Buddhism and clinging to their Hindu beliefs, many Tamils have in the past decade sought to establish a separate Tamil state in the north. The Tamils, many of whom do not have full citizenship rights, constitute 20 percent of the population.

ECONOMY--Tea, rubber and coconuts are the leading exports in Sri Lanka's predominantly agricultural economy. They account for 70 percent of foreign exchange earnings and employ about 20 percent of the work force. The country, which does not produce enough food to feed its people, is vulnerable to slack world prices for its cash crops. In the past two decades, with export prices failing and the cost of imports, particularly oil, soaring, the standard of living has declined. However, the average Sri Lankan, with a yearly income of less than $200, is better off than many Asians. Aid from the United States, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund has helped prop up the economy in recent years and is a major source of low-cost food.

HISTORY AND POLITICS--The island has been known to the West since Roman times, when it exchanged ambassadors with the Caesars. Attracted by spices, particularly cinnamon, the Portuguese seized the coast in the early 16th century. They were supplanted by the Dutch, and finally the British seized the island in the late 18th century, turning it into a crown colony with a plantation economy, based on tea, rubber and coconuts. Ceylon become an independent member of the Commonwealth in 1948, and a new constitution in 1972 changed the country's name to Sri Lanka.

In spite of occasional ethnic violence, which four years ago led to island-wide rioting and the death of 100 people, Sri Lanka has a strong democratic tradition. Control of the government has changed hands six times in the past 35 years through peaceful elections. The Tamil separatist party, although powerful in the north, garnered less than 7 percent of the popular vote in the last presidential election. President J.R. Jayewardene rejects any Tamil claims to a separate state but has backed a plan to meet some Tamil grievances.