Bandaranaike, Sirimavo (1916–2000)

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Bandaranaike, Sirimavo (1916–2000)

Sri Lankan politician and the first woman prime minister in the world, who led her country through a stressful period of national growth and raised Sri Lanka to a respectable position in the community of Asian nations. Name variations: Sirimavo Ratwatte Dias Bandaranaike. Born Sirimavo Ratwatte (or Ratevatte) in Ratnapura, Balangoda, in southern Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), on April 17, 1916; died on October 10, 2000; daughter of Barnes Ratwatte and Rosemund (Mahawalatenne) Ratwatte; educated at Ferguson High School, Ratnapura, and St. Bridget's Convent, Colombo; married Solomon West Ridgeway Dias Bandaranaike, in October 1940; children: one son,Anura (b. 1949); two daughters, Sunethra Rupasinghe, andChandrika Kumaratunga (elected president of Sri Lanka in 1994).

When her husband became prime minister, Bandaranaike was active in Ceylon's main political women's organization, the Lanka Mahila Samiti; after his assassination (1959), she succeeded him as leader of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), then as prime minister (1960–65 and 1970–77).

Born into a family of wealthy and aristocratic landowners in the Ceylonese countryside, Sirimavo Ratwatte grew up a serious, retiring girl who considered herself the heir to a great civilization built on the rational and humane qualities of Buddhism. In the world of international Asian politics, she was to become a popular advocate for national interests and a capable, determined leader of her people.

Ceylon, later called Sri Lanka, is a green tropical island that was a British Crown Colony from 1802 to 1948. British rule ended when Ceylon achieved the dominion status, and the government passed into the hands of the Ceylonese gentry who were Western-educated and oriented. Sirimavo's birthplace was Ratnapura, the capital city of the rural province of Sabaragamuwa. She was one of six children in a family whose members had held high offices under the ancient line of Sinhalese kings. Her maternal grandfather was a Kandyan chieftain, her father a member of the Ceylonese senate, and some of her relatives held high positions in local government service. Sirimavo was close to her father, Barnes Ratwatte, a benevolent administrator who often sided with the interests of the common man. In her youth, she took a keen interest in the conversations of her relatives which related to politics and business.

Sirimavo attended the Ratnapura Convent for her early education. Like many couples of means in developing countries, Sirimavo's parents wanted their daughter to receive a sound secondary education at a Western-style boarding school. At age eight, she was sent off for her formal schooling to the prestigious Ferguson High School in Colombo. Later, one of her teachers would recall the young boarding student as meticulous, orderly, careful, and with a tendency at times to brood.

At home, Sirimavo learned domestic work with her sister as they assisted their mother and the servants in the kitchen. As the eldest child, she took her family responsibilities seriously, helping to care for the younger children and also joining in when they were called upon to help

serve guests. By age 18, she was a robust and radiant girl according to the Kandyan standards of feminine beauty and charm. Yet despite the tendencies of youth, Sirimavo was never preoccupied with fashion: "I wore the Kandyan saree in its traditional form with a few pieces of jewellery my mother had made for me: a necklace, a few bracelets and earring…. I have always been conventional-minded in dress and fashion for fashion's sake has never meant anything to me."

More interesting to Sirimavo at the time was a dynamic new venture in social service which was being introduced to the young people of the area by the district medical officer of Balangoda. She joined the Social Service League, participated in fund-raising projects, and was appointed the group's treasurer, a post she held until early 1940, the year she married.

Her husband Solomon West Ridgeway Dias (S.W.R.D.) Bandaranaike (informally known as Banda) was a highly educated aristocrat, who had already formed a politico-cultural group with clearly defined views that would become his own political party. He was a facile writer who had a reputation as an orator with a golden tongue, and he had already established himself as a chief advocate of the common man. His wife shared his values, and the couple moved to the capital at Colombo, where Sirimavo's husband bought a villa in 1946. They had two daughters and a son.

In 1941, Sirimavo joined the Lanka Mahila Samiti, the primary women's movement organization in Ceylon, which strove to improve the conditions of rural women in the island country. One of the organization's goals was to launch a massive food production effort to meet the shortages that became acute during World War II. As secretary of the western province group of Samiti, Bandaranaike worked with experts and goiyas (farmers) to introduce new methods of growing crops that increased paddy yields by more than 150 fold. She did not agree with the commonly held assessment that the peasants made no efforts on their own. Practical and elemental in her ideas and approach, she once remarked, "I came to know at first-hand the agony as well as the ecstasy of the farmer." Family planning and political rights for women were also among the causes she supported.

As a dedicated Buddhist, she visited the sacred city of Anuradhapura several times. Bandaranaike climbed to the peak of Sri Pada, the mountain that had tantalized her as a child when she gazed upon it daily on her way to and from the kindergarten school she attended in Ratnapura. She visited the ancient temple of Mahiyangana, the traditional site of Buddha's first visit to Ceylon, made shortly after his Enlightenment.

Sirimavo Bandaranaike">

I walk the Middle Way in my political career as much as I try my utmost to emulate the tenets of [Buddha's] Middle Path in my personal life.

Sirimavo Bandaranaike

In 1950, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike founded the nationalist Sri Lankan Freedom Party (SLFP). In 1956, his party took power over the United Nationalist Party (UNP), which had ruled Ceylon since the country gained independence in 1948. He became prime minister, a post he held until September 1959, when he was assassinated by a Buddhist monk who opposed his support of Western medicine over traditional herbal remedies. Sirimavo entered the world of active politics after her husband's death to rally support for the Sri Lanka Freedom Party. Although opponents called her a political novice, Bandaranaike held that as the wife of a great leader she'd had 20 years of political education before her husband's death.

In the 1960 election campaign, she played tape-recordings of her husband's speeches and made speeches of her own across the country. Her visible emotion was turned against her by opponents who dubbed her "the weeping widow." In May, she was unanimously appointed president of her party. In the July election of that year—receiving the support of many of the small parties on both the right and the left—she won the election with an absolute majority in Parliament. As the seventh prime minister of Ceylon, she became the first woman prime minister in the world. Bandaranaike also held the position of external affairs minister from 1960–65 and remained a member of the Senate until 1965.

From a contemporary perspective, her talents seem the very ones her country needed during the critical years of the 1950s and 1960s, a period of deep unrest that involved a rising tide of nationalism and the collision of traditional Buddhist interests with the Christian values and education that had gained dominance under colonial rule. Her husband's failure to fulfill his political promise to bring the Buddhists back into power had been one of the factors contributing to his assassination. Now in office, his wife wanted to reinstate Buddhism at the center of the national culture while weakening the Western influences that had led to a Westernized, and alienated, elite.

As the new leader of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, Bandaranaike pressed hard to satisfy some of the Buddhists' demands. She reminded the people that the "Buddha Dharma" (Buddhism) was "one of our chief contributions towards world civilization," and in 1960 her government took over the country's Christian-run schools. These schools had been at the forefront of the development of education on the island and were considered to be the best in Ceylon; the move effectively weakened the role of the Christian churches, and particularly the Roman Catholics, at a time when the Christian minority comprised an economic and political elite in the country. As Bandaranaike explained, "We were committed to a constructive, socialistic policy—of equal opportunities for all." The popularity of this action was evident after the UNP came to power in 1965 and extended Buddhist influence one step further by replacing the Christian Sunday as a public holiday with the Buddhist "poya" day.

Bandaranaike regarded the policy of required English for government officials and proceedings as unnatural, and so introduced a new language policy. She asked, "Was not the whole idea of independence incomplete so long as an exclusive knowledge of the English language was more or less the only passport to the Public Service?" From 1960, her government passed laws enacting the progressive substitution of Sinhalese for English in court proceedings. This act remained inoperative because regulations necessary to make its provisions effective were not promulgated. Nevertheless, she stressed the desire to incorporate the broad masses of the people into the effective life of the polity. She remarked:

We have tried to eliminate the wide gap which existed between the Government and the governed, between the elite and the masses…. By giving the due and rightful place to the Sinhala language as the Official Language of the country we have made it possible for those voiceless nations who spoke only that language, to play an effective part in the affairs of the country. As long as English reigned, their freedom was limited.

Her moves to restore Sinhalese over English were strongly opposed by the country's Tamil-speaking minority.

From 1961, Bandaranaike's government faced a series of strikes organized by leftist trade unions. Urban workers, beset by inflation and high taxes, created a wave of labor disputes; when a strike immobilized the transport system, the prime minister disclosed that the strike was politically motivated and nationalized the Ceylon Transport Board, but she was eventually forced to concede to the strikers' demands. In foreign affairs, her government established a delicate balance between Eastern and Western interests. In general, her government was more sympathetic to the Communist world than any previous Ceylonese government. The friendly ties with China which had existed since 1953 were strengthened, and in order to accommodate various communist groups she broke relations with Israel, but she did not let her pro-Chinese orientation allow her to damage relations with India and the Soviet Union. She also maintained Ceylon's tea exports to Britain and its reliance on the World Bank. At the conferences of non-aligned nations held in Belgrade in 1961 and in Cairo in 1964, she forcefully demanded the immediate suspension of atomic and hydrogen bomb testing. It was the policy of Bandaranaike's government to seek friendship with the African peoples and to condemn South Africa's policy of apartheid; she also appointed the first woman ambassador to Ghana. The primary purpose of her non-alignment policy was to obtain acceptance in the community of nations of her own proposal to make the Indian Ocean a peace zone. In 1962, her country's well established position of positive neutralism enabled her to initiate peace moves over the Sino-Indian border dispute.

Though in 1965 Bandaranaike lost the next elections to the UNP, she remained leader of the opposition and was reelected prime minister in 1970. Her victorious return to office on May 27, 1970, was seen as a justification of the decision made six years before to forge a permanent alliance between the nation's leftists and Sri Lankan Freedom Party; her reelection opened the way to a new round of reforms intended to change the fundamental structure of Ceylonese government. In that year, the SLFP came together with the Communist Party and the Trotskyite Samaj Party to form a "United Front" coalition government. In 1972, Bandaranaike led this government in promulgating a new constitution to remove various alien British elements from the country's institutions. The English name of Ceylon was changed in favor of the Sinhala name of Sri Lanka, and the upper house of the National Assembly, the Senate, was abolished, along with a number of other institutions borrowed from the British political system. Followers of Buddhism and Sinhala were also given special constitutional status in the new government, although the state was to remain secular under the constitution, which stated that it was the duty of the state "to protect and foster Buddhism" while assuring all religions the rights of protection. From 1970, the transition from the post-colonial society of Ceylon, still deeply influenced by the British ways, to the fully independent, authentically Sinhalese society of Sri Lanka based on 2,000-year-old traditions, seemed almost complete.

In 1975, the country's nationalistic movement took an economic turn when the government seized tea, coconut and rubber estates, owned mostly by foreign individuals or British corporations, as Bandaranaike strove for an equitable distribution of land. Legislation was proposed to put a ceiling on the individual and family holdings of agricultural land in order to guarantee its equitable distribution among land-poor peasants who had no other means of livelihood. One of Bandaranaike's main aims was to remove the great weight of rural indebtedness that afflicted a large portion of the peasant population.

After her return to power in 1970, one of Bandaranaike's most constructive achievements was the settlement, on a permanent and amicable basis, of the vexing question of persons of Indian origin in Sri Lanka. She signed an agreement with Indira Gandhi , prime minister of India, in which some people were asked to repatriate to India while others were allowed to stay in Sri Lanka, resolving all future questions regarding their status.

Critics argued that Bandaranaike allowed too much power to pass into the hands of members of her family during her years as prime minister. In 1970, at least eight of her relatives were elected to Parliament, all as members of the SLFP. After the coalition victory, the prime minister's daughter Sunethra Rupasinghe became increasingly important as her mother's political secretary, and Bandaranaike's son Anura became leader of the SLFP Youth League. (Daughter Chandrika Kumaratunga would be elected president of Sri Lanka in 1994.) Other relatives who attained powerful positions included the governor-general William Gopallawa, who was commander of the army from 1962 to 1966.

One flaw in her exercise of power was her failure to enlist the support of the country's Tamil minority, who comprised about 11% of the Ceylonese population and who were steadily being forced into positions of second-class citizenship. As early as 1961, the Federalist Party, dominated by the Tamils, demonstrated their resolve to retain their ethnic identity through civil disobedience, by establishing their own postal service and issuing stamps in violation of the postal laws. The government proscribed the Federalists, thereby heightening tensions between the ethnic and religious groups of Sri Lanka. Under Bandaranaike, the government remained indifferent to the legitimate Tamil claims, while the rebel movement gained strength among Tamil youths. In the early 1970s, they began to rebel, at first by launching occasional amateurish attacks against government installations or personnel. By the 1980s, these rebels, now called "tigers," were organized into trained and well-equipped armies of liberation with the northern Jaffna peninsula as their geographical stronghold.

At the polls, in 1977, Bandaranaike and her party suffered a humiliating defeat. In 1980, a Presidential Commission under President J.R. Jayewardene of the United National Party found the Bandaranaike guilty of abuse of power in office. She was denounced and stripped of her civic rights for seven years.

Bandaranaike had begun her administration with clear goals to open up the society of her own country and to destroy the privileged position of the Western-educated elite. It is likely that even her political enemies would agree that she was a person of stout heart, firm will, and rare energy. In her political world, she was dedicated to democratic, socialist, and non-aligned policies. As the first female prime minister, she helped to raise the status of the women throughout the world, and in Asia she helped to make the island nation of Sri Lanka a respected power.


Seneviratne, Maureen. Sirimavo Bandaranaike: The World's First Woman Prime Minister. Colombo: Hansa Publishers, 1975.

suggested reading:

Ceylon Today. Colombo: The Ceylon Government Information Department. Vols. 1971–1972.

Nyrop, Richard F., et al. Area Handbook for Ceylon. 1971.

Santosh C. Saha , formerly Assistant Professor of History, Cuttington University, Liberia