29th October 2000
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Lanka: life and legacy of Sirima Bandaranaike

To review the life of former Sri Lankan prime minister Sirima Bandaranaike, who died on October 10, is to undertake an examination of the central political issues which have shaped the island nation since it obtained formal independence from Britain in 1948. This is doubly necessary because, of the 52 years since independence, one or another member of her family has been head of state for 22 years and leader of the opposition for 20.

The late Sirima BandaranaikeAs the current president Chandrika Kumaratunga, second daughter of Sirima, once remarked, running the state in Sri Lanka is a bit like entering a family business-a comment which might well be echoed by her estranged brother Anura Bandaranaike, a leading UNP figure who now occupies the position of Speaker in the newly elected parliament, from where he is no doubt contemplating a move to a higher position.

But the historical significance of Sirima Bandaranaike does not lie merely in the establishment of a political dynasty. Rather, it is to be found in the crucial role played by the ideology of 'Bandaranaikism'-a crude mixture of nationalist economic policies and Sinhala chauvinism-which proved so useful to the Sri Lankan bourgeoisie in combating the working class and peasant masses, and in the legacy it has left in the bloody civil war which continues to dominate the politics, economics and culture of the island.

Sirima Bandaranaike, nee Ratwatte, was born in 1916 to an aristocratic Sinhalese Buddhist family which had collaborated in the British conquest and consolidation of the Kandyan Kingdom in the high country. In 1940 she married S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, the scion of an equally aristocratic Christian family in the low country.

Though little of her early political views are known-she was educated at the exclusive St. Bridget's convent in Colombo and displayed an interest in social work-she cannot have been unaffected by the plantation workers struggles of the 1930s, led by the newly-formed Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP), which were of considerable concern both to the British colonialists and the native feudal landowners.

Her future husband, born in 1899, had a political career marked out from an early age. He entered Oxford University in 1921 and became secretary of the Oxford Union in 1923. Called to the Bar in 1924, he entered Sri Lankan politics in 1927 when he was elected to the Colombo Municipal Council. In 1931 he was elected to the First State Council, established under the British, and was returned to the Second State Council where he held the post of Minister of Local Administration.

S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike was a prominent member of the UNP government. Appointed to the position of Leader of the House in the new parliament, he was widely regarded as second-in-charge in the new regime. 

In July 1951 Bandaranaike announced in parliament that he was quitting the UNP to form the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). Ceylon, he declared, had only gained 'independence by name' and it was necessary to form a new party with the participation of the maha sangha (Buddhist clergy), indigenous physicians, teachers, farmers and workers.

The loss of its founder plunged the SLFP into a crisis. Faced with the possibility of the party disintegrating, its leaders called upon Bandaranaike's widow, Sirima, to assume the leadership-a position she was to retain for more than three decades. 

Elected as leader of the SLFP in May 1960, Sirima Bandaranaike became prime minister when her party was returned to office in July 1960 with a two-thirds majority. 

The return of the SLFP at the July elections saw Bandaranaike take up the program of Sinhala chauvinism begun under her husband. In December 1960, she introduced regulations to use Sinhala as the language of the courts to the exclusion of Tamil. 

Emboldened by the measures being implemented by the SLFP government, elements of the civil service, the military and the police tried to organise a coup in January 1962 with the aim of ousting the SLFP government and annihilating the LSSP leadership. Although the coup failed, the repression continued and the government tried to confiscate the head office of the Government Clerical Services Union (GCSU), which had played a major role in the workers' struggles.

Bandaranaike's second term in power
The late 1960s saw growing movements of the working class and Sri Lanka was no exception. In 1970, Bandaranaike's SLFP-LSSP-CP coalition was returned to power with a large majority on a wave of opposition against the UNP. 

In April 1971 the growing frustration and anger-produced by unemployment, lack of educational opportunities and landlessness-which had been steadily building up in the rural areas exploded in the form of a rebellion led by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP). The coalition government responded with the full force of the state.

The repression of the JVP marked the beginning of a period of emergency rule, lasting until 1976, which was used to suppress the struggles of the working class and the poor.

One of the most far-reaching measures of the coalition government was the enactment in 1972 of a new constitution. With the government increasingly restricting all activity by the workers organisations, LSSP leader N.M. Perera, fearful of losing all that remained of his support, criticised the government in a speech on August 12, 1975, the anniversary of the hartal. Bandaranaike announced she was removing him from the post of finance minister, compelling Perera and the other LSSP ministers to resign from the government and withdraw from the coalition. The Communist Party, the other coalition partner, stayed on until 1977.

In the general elections of 1977 the working class and rural masses registered their hostility to the SLFP, reducing it to just 8 seats out of a 168-seat parliament. While the struggles of the working class had in effect brought down the Bandaranaike regime, the absence of an independent political perspective meant that the beneficiary was the UNP, which was swept to power under the leadership of J.R. Jayewardene.

The legacy of 'Bandaranaikism'
The coming to power of the UNP government took place at the start of a sharp turn in world politics. The economic crisis that rocked world capitalism in the first half of the 1970s marked the end of the post-war boom. In the advanced capitalist countries it signified the end of the program of Keynesian national regulation and social welfare concessions and, in the countries of the so-called 'Third World', the breakdown of the programs of national economic development which had been pursued over the previous quarter century.

Almost immediately upon assuming office, Jayewardene started to systematically open up the Sri Lankan economy to foreign investment and began dismantling the large state-owned sector. New policies required new forms of rule. In 1978, using his massive majority in parliament, Jayewardene brought in a new constitution to create an executive presidency, thereby concentrating power in his own hands.

And as if to underscore the fact a break had been made with the previous economic program of national economic regulation, Jayewardene brought corruption charges against one of its chief proponents, Sirima Bandaranaike, depriving her of all civil rights for some six years while the new program was set in place.

But the new regime retained one crucial strand of 'Bandaranaikism': the racist attacks against the Tamil population were intensified. In 'Black July' of 1983, UNP-sponsored thugs were unleashed in a series of attacks which killed hundreds and made hundreds of thousands homeless. The July pogroms led to the civil war that has consumed Sri Lanka for the past 17 years, resulting in more than 60,000 deaths.

While Sirima Bandaranaike remained leader of the SLFP during the 1980s, her political power was much diminished with the collapse of the economic programs on which she based herself in the post-war boom. A struggle now erupted in the SLFP for succession to the leadership, taking the form of a family conflict between daughter Chandrika and son Anura-the issue only finally being settled with the formation of the People's Alliance (PA) under the leadership of Chandrika and the departure of Anura for the UNP.

It was somewhat symbolic that Bandaranaike should die within hours of casting her vote on October10 in a general election marked by violence and corruption, with a large section of the country under military occupation, and with Buddhist racist and fascist organisations dominating the political agenda. It amounted to a kind of summation of her political legacy.

It would, of course, be completely wrong to see these conditions as the product of one individual. Bandaranaike was representative of a whole generation of bourgeoisie nationalist politicians in the former colonial countries who dominated the political stage in the last half of the twentieth century.

Her particular significance lies in the fact that, in the case of Sri Lanka, the policies she advanced were consciously developed in opposition to a socialist and internationalist perspective. Bandaranaike's death is a physical expression of the fact that the era in which representatives of the national bourgeoisie were able to present themselves as anti-imperialists, defenders of the oppressed masses and even socialists is well and truly gone. But it cannot be simply dismissed. On the contrary, the working class will have to work over and consciously assimilate its political lessons in order to meet the challenges of the new century.

-World Socialist Web


Murder of a simple man from Jaffna

By Priyath Liyanage, Head, BBC Sinhala Service
Killing of a person is just a mere statistic in Jaffna. In a brutal war which has killed nearly 60,000 people, Mylwaganam Nimalarajan would be just another person. 

But, not to his three children who run to the door every time they hear a sound of a motorcycle looking for their father. Not to his wife who had lost a dear husband, not to his parents who are still in hospital as a result of the brutal attack. 

Mylwaganam NimalarajanCertainly not to me. For the whole world, he was the only voice which came out of the war zone in Sri Lanka. He was the only one, the only journalist who was brave enough to tell the world about what was happening to his people. 

He did it because he had to do it. He wrote about assassinations, agitations, riots, election rigging, intimidation, widows, rape, mass graves, disappe-arences, torture, and the suffering of a whole community.

He wanted to tell the world about the injustice against the thousands of civilians. It is understandable why the cowards who hide behind machine guns would want to silence the only independent voice coming out of Jaffna.

Nimal was a dear colleague, a friend, a brother. Whenever we wanted anything from Jaffna, he gave it. He never hesitated, never complained. He knew everyone in Jaffna, and everyone in Jaffna knew him. He was a journalist with dignity. He worked in Jaffna when the Tamil rebels were occupying it. 

Pro-IPKF militants once tied him to a lamp post to kill him. But even they could not kill him. Nimal continued to work even after the Sri Lankan Army took over the peninsula. He talked to the rebels and the government forces with equal ease. Both the Army, and the rebels respected him. Sometimes they complained, but never disputed his reports. 

He worked for the BBC over six years. He never got anything wrong. In 1983, the Sinhala mobs set fire to the house where I lived all my life. It changed my life for ever. The crime we did was to protect our Tamil neighbours. Another mob in a different part of the city, drove Nimalarajan and his family away from Colombo. 

The year 1983 changed our lives for ever. I came to London. Nimal went to Jaffna. He decided to tell the story of his people's plight to the world. He dedicated his life to what he believed. And he died doing it. We were both sons of the Black July.

Nimal believed, and I believed that anybody could kill him. He was pleasant and always wore a smile. He never wished any harm to anyone. He always joked about the brutality and the barbarism involved in the daily life in Jaffna. That may be a way of survival for a man who had to live through it day in day out. His personality would have discouraged the most ruthless of killers. No one can shoot a man as friendly and kind as Nimal. Maybe that is why they came in the dark. After the curfew. They brought guns, grenades to kill him. Because they were so afraid of this hard working cleanly dressed small man armed with his mighty pen.

The police might investigate this brutal, inhuman, act of barbarism against a simple but powerful human being. They are afraid. Very, very afraid about simple men with ideas. That is why they have to kill a simple person like Nimal. I do not believe that they will find the shameless barbarian who killed him. But, there are people who know in their hearts. The truth may never come out. The coward who is responsible of killing him may even roam the corridors of power. Yet, more than anyone else they will know the crime they committed. We as comrades of Nimal should make sure that they will never forget.

We know the people who are seasoned with the cowardly acts will never repent. Their obscene minds will never understand the value of a person like Nimal. One cannot blame them. 

Blame should be with the people who appoint these cowards to high positions. People who shake hands with them. People who sit with these murderers in the same table. Who attends for gatherings to discuss the future of our beloved country. My country. Nimal's country. I hope the people who appoint these barbarians to high office will hang their heads in shame. I hope any self respecting 'liberal intellectual', and 'peace loving socialists', will refuse to walk with the murderers. I hope each time cabinet colleagues gather for a meeting, at least one of them, would have the dignity to spare a thought for Nimalarajan.

Nimalarajan lived among enemies, and died trying to build bridges between two communities which are increasingly drifting apart. Sri Lanka is a country where it is a punishable crime to defame its leaders. They imprison journalists for defamation. Yet, it is a country where one can get away with killing a journalist. Is it not a crime anymore? They killed Richard. I wept on my own helplessly, far away from home, thinking about a lost friend. They killed Rajini. I could not understand why anyone wanted to kill her. I was bemused. They killed Premakeerthi. I did not have words to express myself about someone I always admired and aspired to be. Now they have killed my comrade Nimal. I do not have any more tears. I can only think of the burning rage within. I do not weep for him. 

I weep for my country. People of my beloved country has to choose between them. Which killer is going to rule us next? Which killer is going to promise us media freedom for the future?

In a country where ten thousand young lives are sacrificed every year, who is going to be worried about yet another man. Let us forget Nimal, and all the others. They are mere statistics. If we think about them more, all of us will realise that we are all guilty; because we let it happen, and stood by in silence. We should not detest the bad deeds of the bad people, we should be ashamed of the appalling silence of the good people.

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