By Satharathilaka Banda Atugoda This essay is to commemorate a global personality, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, in view of the 56th anniversary of her becoming the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka and the world’s first woman prime minister on July 21, 1960. Another political happening in July, the most recent, to be precise on July 13, is [...]

Sunday Times 2

In Sirimavo’s life, lessons for women world leaders


By Satharathilaka Banda Atugoda
This essay is to commemorate a global personality, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, in view of the 56th anniversary of her becoming the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka and the world’s first woman prime minister on July 21, 1960.
Another political happening in July, the most recent, to be precise on July 13, is the assumption of the prime-ministership of Britain by a woman: Theresa May, the Home Secretary of David Cameron’s Cabinet. However, this is not an attempt to compare the two political phenomena; but it was coincidental.

Sirimavo Bandaranaike: The world's first woman prime minister. Inset: British Prime Minister Theresa May: The newest woman Prime Minister


Madam Bandaranaike’s acceptance:
Sri Lanka’s political history at the end of the fifth decade of 20th century was worth looking back as it was wrought with instability. Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike was assassinated on September 26, 1959, after a political coup, and the governing party, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party and the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna caoliton it led, got dislodged; Wijayananda Dahanayake, the Education Minister, became the caretaker Prime Minister, and there were others aspiring for the leadership.

The caretaker premier left the SLFP and formed his own party, the Lanka Prajathanthrawadi Pakshaya. His cabinet colleagues were shifted, forced by a power struggle within, it. As the political situation became unmanageable, Premier Dahanayake called elections in March 1960. There were a plethora of political parties, that the March elections did not give an overall majority to any. It was a hung Parliament, the United National Party winning 50 seats and the SLFP 46 seats while the other parties got the rest of a total of 151. Premier Dahanayake himself was unseated and the legendary leader left Temple Trees with his suitcase and travelled to Galle, his home town, in a bus. He was Premier from September 26, 1959 to March 20 1960. For a brief period from March 1960 to July 1960, Dudley Senanayake became Prime Minister. But his United National Party was defeated at the vote on the Throne Speech, or the Policy Speech of the governing party. Parliament was dissolved once again, and elections were held in July 1960, with the country at the throes of instability.

It was at this moment of crisis that Ms. Bandaranaike came to the rescue of the nation, by accepting the leadership of the SLFP which was rudderless. She was invited by the whole party to take the leadership as that was the need of the hour. Under her leadership the SLFP, won 75 seats and the UNP 31. As Ms. Bandaranaike did not contest she was given a seat in the Senate, the Second Chamber. She became the Prime Minister, and created history, as the World’s First Woman Prime Minister. She held the leadership of the country till March 1965.

It was a turbulent period in the political history of Sri Lanka and Ms. Bandaranaike brought stability to the country. There was dissention among the left parties, but Ms. Bandaranaike coalesced with the Samasamaja and Communist parties to develop the economy on the basis of socialist policies, although, her efforts did not succeed to the fullest. Democracy was preserved, and foreign relations were improved with Socialist countries, and generally with the capitalist western bloc. The stress was on Non-Aligned Foreign Policy.

In March 1965, elections were held and Ms. Bandaranaike’s coalition lost and she became the first woaman opposition leader, while Dudley Senanayake leading a seven-party-coalition became Prime Minister. These parties included among others, Philip Gunawardene’s MEP, and M. Tiruchelvam’s Federal party. At the elections of May 1970, Ms. Bandaranaike’s coalition with socialists won the elections and she became the Prime Minister for the second time. She led the country till 1977.

Parliament was renamed as the National Assembly, and the country became a Republic on May 22nd 1972. Her most fruitful contribution and eventful career was perhaps, from 1970-1977. In the domestic sphere, she had to contend with a youth insurrection, bilaterally, she had to solve issues with India. They included the Kachchativu, the Indian Immigrant issue, the up-country Indian Issue. She strengthened friendly relations with neighbours, China and the West.

And internationally, she led the Non-Aligned Movement as a third force in a bipolar world. She was successful in all these areas. In the domestic economic sphere, her controlled economic policies of socialist mix perhaps were not to the liking of many. As a result, in 1977 her Government was defeated by J.R. Jayewardene’s United National Party. She was the Leader of the Opposition, but Mr. Jayewardene was instrumental in taking away her Civic Rights; later it was restored. A new Republican Constitution was promulgated in 1978.

Still active in politics, Ms. Bandaranaike became the Prime Minister in her daughter Chandrika Bandaranaike’s Cabinet in 1994.
Her life’s achievements in the global scene stand as a shining example to women who have come to the fore as crisis handlers. The newest addition is British Prime Minister Theresa May. She became the Prime Minister when the country was in a political confusion, after Britain left the European Union. Another Iron Lady is Chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel. Elected in November 2005, she has brought the Germany’s economy to the highest level among other European countries. She had taken bold decisions like welcoming immigrants from the war-torn Middle-East despite heavy opposition. There are four other lady Prime Ministers in West Europe: In Norway, Erna Solberg, in Denmark, Helle Thorning Schmidt, in Poland Ena Kopacz, and in Switzerland, Simonette Sommeruga .

As at present, there are twenty two women Presidents and Prime Ministers in different countries, handling domestic as well as world issues. There are five leaders in the Balkans and the Mediterranean countries, five in Latin America, and the Carribean, three in Africa, and two in Asia. May be, there is a likelihood of the United States having its first woman President after the November elections. The discerning factors behind their rise to power are political uncertainties, family backgrounds, and the sheer will to serve their nations.

There is inadequate space to trace the political backgrounds of these countries and the life sketches of the leaders. However, mention should be made of Indira Gandhi of India (1966-77, 1980-1984), Golda Meir of Israel (1969-1974), Corazan Aquino of the Philippines (1986-1992), Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan (1988-1990), and Khalida Zia of Bangladesh (1991-1996), Sukarno-Putri of Indonesia (2001-2004), and Sheikh Hasina Wajed of Bangladesh since 2009. They emerged as leaders due to the responsibility they had towards their nations after the demise of a father or a husband, and also due to the instability that had to be dealt.

They were similar to the responsibility that Ms. Bandaranaike held. She was a leader from 1959 until she passed away on October 10, 2000. She was the pioneer who showed the way for all. Inspiration was in her presence and the name.
Whenever we said that we were from Sri Lanka, when in Foreign Service, the happy remark made by those friends, in the days gone by, was “Ha, so you are from the country of Madam Sirimavo Bandaranaike, the World’s First Lady Prime Minister.” We were made proud by that remark. Sri Lanka was Ms. Bandaranaike and Ms. Bandarnaike was Sri Lanka. We were fortunate to serve the country during her premiership; and also privileged to have attended to her needs, at-least, in a small way, when she was in New Delhi receiving treatment at the All India Medical Institute. Ms. Bandaranaike was indeed, a world statesperson, who gave leadership to all.

(The writer is a formerdiplomat)

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