Sirimavo Ratwatte Dias Bandaranaike (April 17, 1916 – October 10, 2000) was a Sri Lankan politician and the world’s first female head of a state. She served as Prime Minister of Sri Lanka three times, 1960–65, 1970–77 and 1994–2000, and was a long-time leader of her party, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party.
Bandaranaike was the widow of a previous Sri Lankan prime minister, Solomon Bandaranaike and the mother of Sri Lanka’s third President, Chandrika Kumaratunga, as well as Anura Bandaranaike, former speaker and cabinet minister
Sirimavo Bandaranaike was born on April 17, 1916, as Sirimavo Ratwatte to a prominent Radala family, who were descended from Ratwatte Dissawa, Dissawa of Matale, a signatory on behalf of the Sinhalese to the Kandyan Convention of 1815. Born to Barnes Ratwatte Dissawe and Rosalind Mahawelatenne Kumarihamy of Mahawelatenne Walauwa, Balangoda, she was the eldest of six, with four brothers and one sister. Bandaranaike was educated at St Bridget’s Convent, Colombo, but was a practising Buddhist. In 1940 she married Solomon West Ridgeway Dias Bandaranaike, a member of the State council and son of Sir Solomon Dias Bandaranaike, the Maha Mudaliyar (chief native interpreter and advisor to the Governor). They had three children, Chandrika, Sunethra and Anura.
Her husband Solomon, was a founding member of the United National Party (UNP) in 1946 and was elected to the House of Representatives (elected lower house of Parliament) in the first elections of the Dominion of Ceylon in 1947. Breaking away from the UNP he went on to form the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and became its leader. A coalition led by the SLFP won a majority in the House of Representatives in 1956 general election and Solomon became Prime Minister. After initiating much change on socialist and nationalistic lines, he had his tenure cut short three years later when he was assassinated by a Buddhist monk on September 26, 1959.
The assassination created a power vacuum, due to Solomon’s likely successor C. P. de Silva (leader of the House of Representatives and Finance Minister) being gravely ill and in London for treatment at the time. Wijeyananda Dahanayake, Minister of Education, was appointed caretaker Prime Minister. Turmoil in the government followed as Dahanayake sacked and appointed ministers. This led to a defeat of the SLFP in the March 1960 elections.
First termDuring this time Sirimavo was brought forward as legitimate successor to her husband’s party leadership and she entered politics. In 1960 M. P. de Zoysa Jnr stepped down from his seat in the Senate (appointed upper house of Parliament) paving the way for Sirimavo to be appointed as a member of the Senate from the SLFP. She led her party to win the July 1960 elections on the pledge to continue her husband’s policies, notably the Sinhala Only Act, and to proceed with repatriation of the estate Tamils to India. On July 21, 1960, as a Senator she became prime minister, thus becoming the first female prime minister in the world.
Known to her fellow Sri Lankans as “Mrs. B,” she could skillfully use popular emotion to boost her support, frequently bursting into tears as she pledged to continue her assassinated husband’s policies. Her opponents and critics called her the “weeping widow”.
Bandaranaike was a socialist who continued her husband’s policies of nationalizing key sectors of the economy, such as banking and insurance, and also nationalizing all schools then owned by the Roman Catholic Church in 1961. Bandaranaike was on a roller-coaster ride from the moment she took office. Within a year of her 1960 election victory she declared a “state of emergency”. This followed a civil disobedience campaign by part of the country’s minority Tamil population who were outraged by her decision to drop English as an official language and her order to conduct all government business in Sinhala, the language of the majority Sinhalese. This they considered a highly discriminatory act and an attempt to deny Tamils access to all official posts and the law. This led to an increase in Tamil militancy which escalated under succeeding administrations.
Further problems arose with the state takeover of foreign businesses, particularly petroleum companies, which upset the United States and the Britain; they ended aid to Sri Lanka. As a result, Bandaranaike moved her country closer to China and the Soviet Union and championed a policy of nonalignment. At home, she crushed an attempted military coup by Christian officers in 1962. In 1964, she entered into a historic coalition with the Marxist Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP). At the end of 1964, she lost a vote of confidence. The SLFP coalition was defeated in the 1965 elections, ending her first term as Prime Minister.
She regained power after the United Front coalition (SLFP, LSSP, and the Communists won the 1970 elections with a large majority. But after just 16 months in power, the government was almost toppled by the 1971 JVP Insurrection of left-wing youths. Bandaranaike had disbanded the government’s intelligence service, suspecting that it was loyal to the opposition United National Party (UNP). Thus there was no warning of the uprising, and Sri Lanka’s small army was caught off guard. The army mobilized its reserves and held the capital, but some outlying areas were occupied by the insurgents. The government was saved by military aid from both India and Pakistan, thanks to Bandaranaike’s skillful foreign policy. In those tough political years, she turned herself into a formidable leader. “She was the only man in her cabinet”, one of her officials commented during the height of the insurgency.
Her second term saw a new constitution introduced in 1972, replacing the Soulbury constitution. Ceylon was renamed Sri Lanka and became a republic instead of a Commonwealth realm, nominally subject to the British crown. The 1973 oil crisis had a traumatic effect on the Sri Lankan economy: the government had no access to Western aid and her socialist policies stifled economic activity. Rationing had to be imposed. Bandaranaike became more and more intolerant of criticism and forced the shut-down of the Independent newspaper group, whose publications were her fiercest critics. Earlier she had nationalized the country’s largest newspaper, Lake House, which has remained the government’s official mouthpiece. Bandaranaike enjoyed continued success in foreign affairs. She was chosen chairman of the Non-Aligned Movement in 1976, and hosted the Movement’s conference, attended by numerous heads of state. Despite her high
international standing, she was losing Sri Lankan support rapidly amid allegations of corruption and against the background of a rapidly declining economy.
Under the Soulbury constitution, election would have been held in 1975. However, the government had become very unpopular. Bandaranaike used a clause of the 1972 constitution to delay elections until 1977. This did not help. In the 1977 elections, the United Front was routed, winning only 8 seats.
OppositionBandaranaike held her own seat in 1977, but in 1980, she was charged with abuse of power for the 1975-77 delay in elections. She was expelled from parliament and banned from public office for seven years.
The 1980s were her dark days. She became a political outcast, rejected by the people who had once worshipped her. Banadaranaike spent the next seventeen years in opposition warding off challenges to her leadership of the SLFP, even from her own children. Always the politician, she played her ambitious daughter Chandrika and son Anura against one another, holding on to party control despite losing every subsequent general election.
Third TermIn 1994, the SLFP-led coalition won the general elections Chandrika then outmanoeuvred her mother to become prime minister; and then was elected President the same year.
Bandaranaike became prime minister again, but the constitution had changed since her last tenure. As prime minister she was now subordinate to her daughter, the President. She remained in office till a few months before her death, but had little real power. She died on Election Day, October 10, 2000, after having cast her vote for the last time.