On 21 July, 1960 Sirimavo Bandaranaike became the first woman Prime Minister of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). Despite being a novice in politics, she soon placed the stamp of her personality on the job of the chief executive of the country whilst beginning to play an especially notable role in the foreign policy realm. As [...]

Sunday Times 2

Sirimavo Bandaranaike: A leader in her own right


On 21 July, 1960 Sirimavo Bandaranaike became the first woman Prime Minister of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). Despite being a novice in politics, she soon placed the stamp of her personality on the job of the chief executive of the country whilst beginning to play an especially notable role in the foreign policy realm. As a celebrated leader of the Nonaligned Movement, her contribution to the furtherance of Third World solidarity in the 1960s and 70s and her successful interventions on behalf of peace and stability within and outside the Movement are striking.

Sirimavo Bandaranaike: The first ever woman Prime Minister of the world

As Prime Minister for the second time in her career, she hosted the 5th Nonaligned Summit in Colombo, 16 – 19 August, 1976. Her leadership qualities were tested during the challenging times of the 1962 coup d’etat and the youth insurrection of April 1971. Her diplomatic skills came to the fore during the successful negotiations associated with the Sirima-Shastri Pact on Citizenship of Plantation Tamils of Indian origin concluded on 30 October, 1964 and the award of Kachchativu Island to Sri Lanka on 23 June, 1974. She was conferred the Food and Agriculture Organisation Ceres Gold Medal on 12 May, 1977 for her notable contribution to the creation of the International Fertiliser Fund.

Despite political victimisation that led to the deprivation of her civic rights from 16 October, 1980 until their restoration on 1 January, 1986, Sirimavo Bandaranaike continued to serve Sri Lanka loyally and diligently. She returned as Prime Minister of Sri Lanka for the third time on 14 November, 1994 subsequent to the election of her younger daughter, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga as President of the Republic at that time.

The early years…
Born on 17 April, 1916 she was the eldest child of Barnes Ratwatte Dissawa of Kandy and Rosalind Mahawelatenne Kumarihamy of Mahawelatenne Waluwa. Barnes (Junior), Patricia, Mackie, Sivali and Clifford followed her. As Raté Mahaththaya, Sirimavo’s father led an active life given his role in the governance of the day. Her mother, in addition to her housewifely duties, was also known for her skills as an honorary Ayurvedic Physician, assisting the villagers on a voluntary basis whenever her services were called for. Sirimavo spent most of her early childhood in Mahawelatenne and Balangoda and moved thereafter to Fergusson High School in Ratnapura and eventually to St. Bridget’s Convent, Colombo. She helped look after the younger ones in the family. She also assisted her father in certain of his official duties. Thus we note that from an early stage in her life, Sirimavo was accustomed to shouldering responsibility and playing the role of a leader and this early training in leadership would have stood her in good stead when higher responsibility was placed on her shoulders later in life as wife, mother, young widow and as Prime Minister.

Youth and marriage
On 3 October, 1940 Sirimavo married Solomon West Ridgeway Dias Bandaranaike, the son of Sir Solomon Dias Bandaranaike, the Maha Mudaliyar of Horagolla. The young Bandaranaike was by now an established and successful politician serving at the time as the Minister of Health and Local Government in the State Council of Colonial Ceylon. Shortly after marriage, the young couple moved to ‘Wendtworth’ in Guildford Crescent, Colombo 7, their first matrimonial home, prior to moving to ‘Tintagel’ at Rosmead Place where they continued to live until death did them part.

The young Sirimavo
After marriage, Sirimavo immersed herself enthusiastically in activities that drew her into playing a wider social role in the community. She joined the Lanka Mahila Samiti (LMS) in 1941, which was a women’s movement founded in 1930 by Dr. Mary Rutnam, and dedicated to the task of uplifting the rural poor. By the 1940s, the LMS had grown, expanded and widened its horizons. It was now involved in all aspects of rural development, including but not limited to health, sanitation, entrepreneurship, cottage industries and education. Work in and for the LMS took Sirimavo to the far flung rural hinterland of the Western, North Central and Sabaragamuwa Provinces. The experience of meeting her fellow-citizens from diverse socio-cultural backgrounds would have acquainted her with the minutiae of their daily lives and the grinding poverty they had to contend with in their effort to make ends meet. The experience and insights gained thereby stood her in good stead in later years when public service and duty of a more serious kind beckoned. Sirimavo spent nearly 20 years as a member of the LMS, progressing from Treasurer to Vice President before becoming its President, a position she vacated on becoming Prime Minister in 1960. And, despite marrying into a Christian family, she also served the Vipassana Bhavana Society for a period of time.

The point that needs emphasis here is that Sirimavo, despite the conventional role assigned to women in Sri Lankan society, in particular in the 1940s and 50s, was an intelligent and versatile companion to her husband, despite being in his shadow. There indeed were far more strings to Sirimavo’s bow than had been acknowledged at this time. In this regard, it is necessary to bear in mind that during this era there was little or insufficient recognition and acceptance of the role that women could play outside the home and in the social arena.

Wife and mother
Sirimavo and SWRD Bandaranaike had three children. Daughters, Sunethra the elder, was born on 27 July, 1943 and Chandrika, the younger, on 29 June, 1945. Son Anura arrived on 15 February, 1949.

Tragedy struck the young Bandaranaike family with the assassination of Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike. He was shot at close range at his residence ‘Tintagel’ by a Buddhist monk as he bent in obeisance before the clergyman. On the 26th of September, 1959 the Prime Minister died of gunshot injuries sustained the previous day. His death, barely three years since he became prime minister, plunged the country into political crisis and turmoil. A vacuum was thus created in the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) now bereft of an undisputed leader.

Consequently the SLFP was riven by division and confusion. The party was shaken to the core as several aspirants jockeyed for the vacant leadership position following the assassination of its late charismatic leader. Professional rivalry and personality conflicts within the senior membership of the party now threatened to rend asunder the SLFP. It is in this fraught context that the stalwarts of the party sought to persuade Sirimavo Bandaranaike to accept the leadership of the SLFP in order to preserve and perpetuate the ‘Bandaranaike vision and mission’. After much deliberation, and not without some hesitation, Sirimavo decided to step into the breach.

The first elected woman Prime Minister of Ceylon and the world
On 21 July, 1960 Sirimavo Bandaranaike became the first ever woman Prime Minister of Ceylon and the world. A Bandaranaike had once again, barely five years after the previous occasion, led the SLFP to a decisive political victory. In the case of SWRD’s triumph, the SLFP had been the dominant partner in a coalition of like-minded parties. Sirimavo’s was the more impressive achievement because she led the SLFP to a clear victory, securing a majority of the seats on offer in the legislature and her party was hence free of dependence on the fringe parties in Parliament. Only a few months earlier, most had written the SLFP off as a lost cause.

There were, however, political and constitutional complexities associated with the historic victory of Sirimavo. The Prime Minister of Ceylon (as we were in 1960) was expected to be a member of either the House of Representatives (Lower House) or of the Senate (Upper House) in our bi-cameral legislature of the time. There thus arose the need for the new Prime Minister to become a member of either House of Parliament within three months. With the resignation of M.P. de Zoysa, the path was paved for Sirimavo to be sworn in as a member of the Senate on 5 August, 1960.

Her first official visit as Prime Minister on 17 March, 1961 was to London, U.K. to attend the 11th Commonwealth Prime Ministers’ Conference. In the first week of September of that same year, she attended her first Nonaligned Summit meeting in Belgrade, Yugoslavia. These prime ministerial visits overseas were perhaps among some of the more relaxed official duties that Sirimavo Bandaranaike was called upon to undertake. Soon she was to be challenged by complex matters of state, the most significant among them being the abortive coup d’etat of 27 January, 1962. Fortunately for the country, the attempt to overthrow its duly elected government did not succeed and far from destabilising it, the attempted coup actually served to strengthen it. The long term impact of the coup, however, was to deepen national fissures that had first come into being post-1956 — those of linguistic and religious nationalism. Because those involved in the coup were mostly Catholics and other Christians belonging to the western-oriented segment of our society, it provided justification for the government to give overt support to Buddhist-Sinhala nationalists. A worrying consequence arising in the aftermath of the coup of 1962 was the ‘ethnicisation’ of the soldiers and policemen that would make the management of ethnic relations in the 1970s and beyond that much more difficult. The other major challenge that confronted the Prime Minister was the division within her cabinet. Senior Ministers were divided on ideological grounds, with those leaning to the left favouring greater state control of the economy and of education while those leaning to the right were opposed to such state control and furthermore apprehensive of the rise of the left wing within the SLFP.

Two policy decisions that had a harmful and far reaching effect on the country and the government were the nationalisation of schools and Training Colleges and the ‘ethnicisation’ of the Army and Police after the failed coup of 1962. The passage of Assisted Schools and Training Colleges (Special Provisions) Act No.5 of 1960, and the Assisted Schools and Training Colleges (Supplementary Provisions) Act No.8 of 1961 led to the creation of a bloated bureaucracy and increased political interference in education. Whether or not it was the express intent of the government to disadvantage the non- Buddhist Sinhala segment of our society, its acts of nationalising schools and giving preference to Buddhist Sinhalese in the Army and Police led to a perception that the government was not in favour of inclusivity, a vital ingredient for success in a pluralist society. The feelings of the non-Sinhalese and non-Buddhists were thereby bruised( and they were wounded further by the introduction in the early 1970s of ‘media-wise standardisation’ and the ‘district quota system’ in regard to university admission).

Sirimavo Bandaranaike enacted legislation in late 1963 for the nationalisation of the foreign oil companies in the island. The Ceylon Petroleum Corporation was made the sole importer and distributor of petroleum products in the country. In the following year, she extended her support to Nelson Mandela and his struggle to free South Africa from apartheid.
On 3 December, 1964 Parliament was dissolved consequent to the defeat suffered by the government on the vote of the Press Take-Over Bill. The UNP at this time had the support of the disenchanted SLFP right wing. Thus ended Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s first term as Prime Minister.

Leader of the Opposition and the second phase as Prime Minister
If Sirimavo’s first term as Prime Minister was marred by her mishandling of Sinhala – Tamil relations, egged on or not by extremist nationalists and mercurial kinsman colleagues, nothing much changed on this front in the period 1965 – 1970 when she was the Leader of the Opposition. “Ethnic outbidding”, the bane of Sri Lanka’s politics since 1956, became the order of the day. During her first epochal term as Prime Minister, Sirimavo failed to make good on an assurance given to the Federal Party to settle the Sinhala – Tamil political differences in terms of appropriate modifications to her late husband’s pact with the Federalists known as the Bandaranaike – Chelvanayakam Pact. Sirimavo despite her pledge to address concerns of the Federal Party, saw to it that her new government enacted the Language of the Courts Act of December, 1959 which provided for legal decisions being given in Sinhala even to Tamil-speaking areas of the country, and decided to proceed with the implementation of Sinhala as the sole language of administration throughout the island with effect from 1 January, 1961. If this was bad enough, when the new UNP government in agreement with the Federal Party (now a constituent partner of the National Government led by the UNP) sought to implement in 1966 the language provisions in terms of the Bandaranaike – Chelvanayakam Pact of 1958, Sirimavo and the SLFP opposed the legislation stating it was not in harmony with “Bandaranaike Policies”. To their eternal discredit, Sirimavo’s left wing allies in the opposition, predominantly the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) and also the Communist Party, who had earlier been principled supporters of parity of status for Sinhala and Tamil, now joined the SLFP in playing the game of “ethnic outbidding”. This same political game-playing impeded the implementation of the District Council Bill of 1969 modelled on that of its predecessor of 1957, an impediment which led to the resignation of the Federal Party from the National Government, a move that resulted in a deeper rupture in Sinhala – Tamil relations.

1970 and after
Sirimavo returned triumphantly to power and was sworn in as Prime Minister for the second time on 29 May, 1970. The United Front (UF) that was made up of the SLFP in coalition with the LSSP and the CP, swept the polls winning in the process an unprecedented two-thirds majority in Parliament. The UF was the first government since independence to secure such a majority. In addition to being Prime Minister, and Minister of Defence and External Affairs, Sirimavo was now also Minister of Planning and Employment. It was surly the zenith of Sirimavo’s political power.

Early in her second term, Sirimavo hosted a number of notable visitors among who were the Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yew, Pope Paul IV and the Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. A stalwart of the Nonaligned Movement and a close friend of Sirimavo, Gamel Abdul Nasser died on 29 September, 1970. This sad event necessitated her second visit to Africa within the month when she travelled to Cairo for the well-attended funeral. Earlier in the month, she was in Lusaka, Zambia to attend the 3rd Nonaligned Summit, a highlight of which was Sirimavo’s proposal to declare the Indian Ocean as a Zone of Peace.

The youth insurrection  of April 1971
Having faced the abortive coup d’etat a mere two years or so into her first term as Prime Minister, barely before 12 months had lapsed of her second term, she had to meet the challenge of an equally demanding state crisis triggered by a youth-led armed insurrection planned and executed by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP). These JVP rebels were young, educated though unemployed or disadvantageously employed, poor, and mostly from the rural areas of the island. Whilst the government succeeded in quelling the revolt easily, this youth rebellion had an enormous impact on the political direction of the new government. It marked the beginning of a more pronounced leftward turn in policymaking. Though defeated militarily, the rebels played a part in shaping the future of the country. Sri Lanka was pushed more rapidly towards becoming a socialist society. Among a series of radical socio-economic changes introduced, the most far reaching were the Land Reform Law of 1972 and the nationalisation of plantations in 1974-75. The Land Reform Law was the first attempt to alter the land tenure structure of the country by a redistribution of privately owned land. The youth rebellion also led to the inauspicious beginning of emergency rule in the country. Sirimavo won plaudits for the stern and effective yet sensitive handling of the political crisis engendered by the 1971 insurrection. Her sympathetic and understanding response to the misguided young revolutionaries was in sharp contrast to the ruthless put down of the JVP during their second coming in 1987-1989. It needs to be recorded, however, that the level of violence unleashed by the JVP the second time around was far more brutal and hideous than during the first.

Abolition of the Senate and  the Birth of a Republic
On 26 September, 1971, the Upper House of Parliament, the Senate of Ceylon through which Sirimavo entered Parliament in 1960, was abolished. This abolition was a precursor to the adoption of the first Republican Constitution of the country. On 22 May, 1972 Ceylon became the Republic of Sri Lanka with the adoption of its new autochthonous Constitution replacing the existing Soulbury Constitution. This latter document had for long been regarded by left wing politicians and left leaning groups in the country as an imperialist imposition.

A significant consequence arising from the establishment of the first Republican Constitution was the deepening discontent of the Federal Party which had walked away from the Constituent Assembly in June 1971 as a mark of protest against the failure of the framers of the new constitution to provide adequate safeguards for the protection of minority rights. All Tamil political parties thereafter came together under a common umbrella of the Tamil United Front (TUF) which later became the Tamil United Liberation Front – -TULF. Thus began a new phase of communal disharmony in Sri Lanka. The acrimonious ethnic divisions in the country, begun post-1956, were now exacerbated and these divisions vitiated the exercise of nation- building that the first autochthonous Constitution of the island aimed at. This marked the early beginnings of the disastrous separatist movement which devastated Sri Lanka for well over a quarter century.

The break-up of the United Front
Sharp differences between the SLFP and the LSSP, the two major constituent partners of the United Front, reached breaking point in 1975. These differences eventually led to the expulsion of the LSSP from the UF in the same year, thereby ending an over- a- decade long political partnership that had begun in 1964 between the two political entities. The CP left the coalition a little later together with a few disenchanted SLFP members. A mere two years after their expulsion, the LSSP and the ‘Old Left’ were virtually wiped out of the national political map when the revitalised UNP now under the shrewd leadership of J.R. Jayewardene swept all before it at the July 1977 general election.

Sirimavo dissolved Parliament on 18 May, 1977 and scheduled the next parliamentary poll for 21 July. She, as did her Marxist colleagues, suffered a resounding defeat seven years after her monumental triumph of 1970 thus proving once more that political power and fame are but transitory.

Imposition of civic disability
A special Presidential Commission was appointed by the new government that took office in July 1977 to investigate into allegations laid against Sirimavo Bandaranaike for what was perceived as ‘abuse of power’ during her years as Prime Minister. Charges were also levelled against her colleague Felix Dias Bandaranaike. On 25 August, 1980, a copy of the report of the Commission was handed over to President J.R. Jayewardene under confidential cover. The Commission held against both Sirimavo Bandaranaike and Felix Dias Bandaranaike. The government moved on 16 October, 1980 to adopt the motion imposing civic disability on Sirimavo Bandaranaike and Felix Dias Bandaranaike for a period of seven years and for Sirimavo’s expulsion from Parliament. The motion was approved by 139 votes to 19( the members of the SLFP and the TULF) while Sirimavo Bandaranaike declined to vote. Her civic rights were restored on 1 January, 1986.

End of an era
Despite her electoral defeats at the presidential and general elections held on 19 December, 1988 and 15 February 1989 respectively, Sirimavo continued to serve the country and the SLFP with dedication. On 14 November, 1994 she returned to occupy the post of Prime Minister for the third time on the election of Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunge as President of the Republic.

She was now not in the best of health and was no longer the energetic personality she once was. Despite the infirmities of advanced age and related health concerns, Sirimavo continued to perform her public duties with courage and fortitude, especially in helping the SLFP to resolve its inner contradictions. A consistent thread that runs through her life and career, literally to the very end, is her solid devotion to the party. Through all the changing scenes of her political life, through all of its triumphs and reversals, Sirimavo’s loyalty to the SLFP was a constant. In fact her end that came on 10 October, 2000 was during her return journey home from the Sangabodhi Maha Vidyalaya in Nittambuwa, the polling station to which she had gone to perform her civic responsibility of casting her vote at the general election of that year.

Advertising Rates

Please contact the advertising office on 011 - 2479521 for the advertising rates.