The Sunday TimesPlus

14th April 1996



B'Day B

By Roshan Peiris

On her eightieth birthday which falls on April 17 Madam Sirimavo Bandaranaike can look back with nostalgic pride on a most outstanding political career.

Hers is a record unmatched by any person in this country and for that matter in the world. She has been the world's first woman Prime Minister, the first woman Leader of the Opposition, thrice Prime Minister of this country and the only political leader in the world to be sworn in by her daughter as President to be the fifteenth Prime Minister of this country. Today Sirimavo Bandaranaike is the much loved queen of politics in this country and one of its outstanding stateswomen.

It is a long way for the little girl with her roots deep in the soil of her native Balangoda to be among one of the world's well known statesmen. It was not roses all the way. Under the most personally traumatic conditions with her husband assassinated and three young children to look after, she courageously adhered to the call of duty and accepted the leadership her husband's Party in July 1960 winning the general elections with a handsome majority. Though she was yet untried in politics she became the first woman Prime Minister of this country and in the world.

Hers was the first government that took in the ever controversial Marxists to her Party, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party and formed a coalition in 1964 with the LSSP.

She became Prime Minister in 1970 for the second time having won a majority again with the United Left Front with both the LSSP and the Communist Party.

Ms. Bandaranaike is a feminine woman but underneath that womanly charm lies, as an iron character. She did not flinch when in 1962 as she herself recalled "when many a man in the forces and the unseen hands of some UNP politicians tried to topple my government." But she says simply "I overcame it all."

But she recalls that what she is most proud of was that she steered the country adroitly in the most trying period of its history when youth banded together as the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna tried to topple her government on the 5th of April 1971. "They wanted to kill me or take me as prisoner and this was the first taste of terrorism in the country." We have been told that many a stalwart in her Cabinet of Ministers quakled with fear, she kept her political cool. It was a morally strenuous time for her and her political opponent, the irrepressible Sir John Kotelawala remarked that she was the only man in the Cabinet.

In the hurly burly of shooting and counter shooting she recalled, a few youth were shot but she said "I as a mother appealed to them not to get mislead by a few hot heads but to lay down their arms. I did not resort to killing with tyres round their bodies to mutilate them."

Today it, to her honour that the JVP second in command Mahinda Wijesekera is a Cabinet Minister being Deputy Minister of Shipping, Ports Authority and Rehabilitation.

Ms. Sirimavo Bandaranaike is essentially a religious person. No matter the stress of work, she would keep to all the religious rituals in her daily life. it is perhaps this that has made her take both victory and defeat with equanimity. In 1980 President Jayewardene made her a political non-person by taking away her civic rights despite protests from some of his own democratic minded Ministers. She says now in retrospect, she was shocked, but again she showed her political mettle by buckling down and reorganising her husband's party with aplomb if not political sagacity.

It was this strength of character that paved the way for her daughter, the present President who had left the parent party to come back and fight the 1994 General Elections and so become Prime Minister and later the country's first woman President.

As President she swore in her mother as the fifteenth Prime Minister, another world first where a daughter swears in her mother as Prime Minister.

From 1970-1977 Ms. Bandaranaike made an impact on world politics first by hosting the Fifth Non-aligned Conference in August 4th 1976 and becoming its Chairperson.

She kept her friendly relations with India and helped solve the controversial Kachchativu problems and that of the Indian persons residing in Sri Lanka with the Sirima-Shashtri Pact.

In 1960 July, I still recall Ms. Bandaranaike wearing a voile white saree, sans jewellery still in deep mourning listening intently to the radio which announced the elections results making her the Prime Minister of this country. She came onto the steps of her husband's ancestral home at Horagolla and standing there, looked at the very many pol thel pahanas which she had lit she said, "I have not failed him." Her voice choked with tears and from that morning this simple woman in her white osariya and plait went onto become a world figure respected and listened to.

One flaw though marked her rule, the closing of the Sun Group of Newspapers and the taking over of the country's largest Groups of Newspapers 'The Associated Newspapers of Ceylon." It was, we have been told, not her idea but that of the left-minded of her Cabinet Ministers, but nevertheless it is an oft cited blot in her otherwise wise rule as Prime Minister.

Pomp, recognition by kings, queens and world statesmen have not spoilt the eighty year old matriarch of Sri Lankan politics. She still receives with smiles and entertains the many poor who come just to be near her and worship her. She is a fine hostess and on her birthdays with an open house she personally attends to her guests. Her home is a bower of flowers and among them are the roses sent by akki Sunethra and malli Anura. The President and her only two grandchildren give her presents.

Ms. Bandaranaike always displayed great charisma which appealed to those both at grassroots level and to the sophisticated. Her charisma still stays, it is by no means diminished and where she goes many still queue to meet her and shake her hand.

She remains today a much loved figure like the Queen Mother in England whom all respect, no matter their political differences with her. The Sunday Times wishes her a very Happy Birthday on the 17th.

Sirimavo Bandaranaike: the story of a different age

By Kumudini Hettiarachchi

It's a unique 80th birthday gift though it may be belated to elder stateswoman Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike. Her life story - her childhood, her likes and dislikes, her triumphs and failures - all from her own lips and those of her very near dear ones on video, which is simply titled, "Sirimavo Bandaranaike."

As the camera sweeps the broad staircase of "TINTAGEL", Sirimavo's Rosemead Place home focuses on an antique couch plumped with cushions or the old teepoy which stands on the antlers of a sambhur, to the accompaniment of classical music, one gets the distinct feeling that this is the inside view.

And when finally , Sirimavo comes into focus and starts talking of her lineage, her life and her feelings, it is like sitting at your grandmother's knee and listening to her story.

The story of a different age, an era gone by - a childhood spent in her grandfather's home in Mahawalatenna - how a ditch was cut to keep the wild elephants away. Her parents are buried in that village now. Then kindergarten in Balangoda and later early schooling in Ratnapura. The note of wistfulness as she speaks of the buggy-cart rides to school.

Reminiscences revealing the real 'Sirimavo' to the common person who so far had called his/her own impressions only from what the media had arbitrarily decided to dish out, on the grounds that, that was 'suitable' for public consumption. Thoughts in the innermost recesses of her mind unlocked to the common people.

Sirimavo also comments on the present situation in the country, and with more than 35 years in the political arena, supplemented by hindsight, those words can be considered wise. Perhaps the country needs to hear them and they are expressed forthrightly irrespective of whether they will be taken into account or not.

The video also captures how others close to her - children Sunethra and Anura, brother Clifford and friend and colleague Dharmasiri Senanayake - see her.

So far Chandrika's thoughts are absent, but that was only because the schedules of the President and Sunil Situnayake, the director and producer of the documentary did not tally.

Mr. Situnayake, Managing Director of the Asia Information Channel (Pvt) Ltd., who was in Bombay to make use of the state-of-the-art equipment here, to edit and polish up the video, has tened with the assurance that provision has been made to include Chandrika's view of her mother and re-edit the video.

He told me at Western Outdoor Studios in Bombay, where he was busy attempting to meet the looming deadline, that this video was the first in a series, of an ambitious plan to profile the private lives of public personalities in South Asia.

It is a gift to Sirimavo on her 80th birthday which falls on April 17, but may be released only at the end of the month. The still pictures are by Dominic Sansoni and the photography by M.D. Mahindapala. The video has been shot in collaboration with the Bandaranaike and the assistance of Sunethra.

"We hope this one will be the first in a series which will portray South Asian leaders as they and their families see themselves. This should be done because their histories are inextricably linked with those of the countries they have guided and steered. We are taking their lives as a period piece of history," he explained.

How much did it cost? Mr. Situnayake declined to divulge the amount except to say it cost a lot. The funding was through private contributions from those close to the Bandaranaikes he said.

And on whom will the TV cameras zoom in next. Mr. Situnayake is noncommittal. Maybe, Maldivian President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, he smiles.

Return to the Plus contents page

Go to the Plus Archive


Home Page Front Page OP/ED News Business

Please send your comments and suggestions on this web site to or to