Sirimavo Bandaranaike

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Sirimavo Bandaranaike
Sirimavo Ratwatte Dias Bandaranayaka (1916-2000) (Hon.Sirimavo Bandaranaike with Hon.Lalith Athulathmudali Crop).jpg
Prime Minister of Sri Lanka
In office
14 November 1994 – 10 August 2000
President Chandrika Kumaratunga
Preceded by Chandrika Kumaratunga
Succeeded by Ratnasiri Wickremanayake
In office
22 May 1972 – 23 July 1977
President William Gopallawa
Preceded by Position established
Succeeded by J. R. Jayewardene
Prime Minister of Ceylon
In office
29 May 1970 – 22 May 1972
Monarch Elizabeth II
Governor General William Gopallawa
Preceded by Dudley Senanayake
Succeeded by Position abolished
In office
21 July 1960 – 25 March 1965
Monarch Elizabeth II
Governor General Oliver Goonetilleke
William Gopallawa
Preceded by Dudley Senanayake
Succeeded by Dudley Senanayake
Leader of the Opposition
In office
9 March 1989 – 24 June 1994
Prime Minister Dingiri Banda Wijetunga
Ranil Wickremesinghe
Preceded by Anura Bandaranaike
Succeeded by Gamini Dissanayake
In office
5 April 1965 – 25 March 1970
Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake
Preceded by Dudley Senanayake
Succeeded by J. R. Jayewardene
Leader of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party
In office
Preceded by C. P. de Silva
Succeeded by Chandrika Kumaratunga
Member of the Sri Lankan Parliament
for Attanagalla
In office
5 April 1965[1] – 1980
Preceded by James Obeysekera
Succeeded by Lakshman Jayakody
Personal details
Born (1916-04-17)17 April 1916
Ratnapura, British Ceylon
Died 10 October 2000(2000-10-10) (aged 84)
Colombo, Sri Lanka
Political party Sri Lanka Freedom Party
Spouse(s) Solomon Bandaranaike (1899–1959)
Children Sunethra
Residence Horagolla Walauwa

Sirima Ratwatte Dias Bandaranaike (Sinhalese: සිරිමා රත්වත්තේ ඩයස් බණ්ඩාරනායක, Tamil: சிறிமா ரத்வத்தே டயஸ் பண்டாரநாயக்கே; 17 April 1916 – 10 October 2000), commonly known as Sirimavo Bandaranaike[note 1], was a Sri Lankan stateswoman. She became the world's first female head of government when she became Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, serving three terms 1960–1965, 1970–1977 and 1994–2000.

The widow of S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike, she filled the leadership void created in the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) after his assassination. As Prime Minister, she moved Ceylon towards embracing socialist policies in the economy and undertook major constitutional changes that resulted in the island becoming a republic. An advocate of the Non-Aligned Movement, she developed and maintained strong international relations.

Her daughter Chandrika Kumaratunga – who succeeded her as leader of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party – went on to become Sri Lanka's fourth President, while her son Anura Bandaranaike went on to become Speaker and later, a Cabinet Minister.

Early life[edit]

The Mahawalatenne family, No.3 Mahawalatenne Rate Mahattaya, No.8 Agnes Mahawalatenne (Nee Ellawala). Maternal grandparents of Sirima Ratwatte.


Sirima Ratwatte was born on 17 April 1916 at the Ellawala Walawwa in Ratnapura. Her father was Barnes Ratwatte, later Rate Mahatmaya of Balangoda, a native headman; he was a member of the Ratwatte family, which was an old Radala family hailing from the Kingdom of Kandy.[3] Her mother was Rosalind Mahawalatenne Kumarihamy, daughter of Mahawalatenne Rate Mahatmaya of Balangoda. Her parental ancestors were courtiers in the courts of Sinhalese monarchs, and one, Ratwatte, Dissawa of Matale was a signatory of to the Kandyan Convention. Sirima was the eldest in a family six children, which included four brothers, Barnes Ratwatte II, Dr Seevali Ratwatte, Dr Mackie Ratwatte and Clifford Ratwatte, and one sister Patsy Ratwatte who married Colonel Edward James Divitotawela. The family resided at her maternal grandfather's Mahawalatenne Walawwa and later at their own Balangoda Walawwa. She remained a practicing Buddhist through her life.[2][4]


Sirima Ratwatte first attended a private school in Balangoda, then moved briefly in 1923 to the primary school of Ferguson High School, Ratnapura, and was then sent to boarding school in Colombo at St Bridget's Convent.[5][6] After completing schooling, she became involved in social work, distributing food and medicine during the malaria epidermic of 1934/35, organizing clinics and helping empower rural industry.[2]


In 1940, Sirima Ratwatte married Solomon West Ridgeway Dias Bandaranaike, a Oxford educated lawyer turned politician, who was at the time Minister of Local Administration in the State Council of Ceylon.[4] Their wedding was dubbed "the wedding of the century",[4] but caused a sensation within the Ratwatte family, as Bandaranaike was not considered to be an "acceptable" family; as the Ratwattes were an old and established Radala family from Kandy, while the Bandaranaike's were an old and wealthy family from the low-country which had been in service of the colonial rulers for centuries.[4] This marriage, however, was noted to have helped break down social barriers in Sri Lanka over the years.[2][4] The newly married couple moved into Wentworth in Guidford Cresent, Colombo which was taken on rent from Lionel Wendt. Their first two children, Sunethra and Chandrika were born and the family stayed at Wentworth till 1946, when Sir Solomon bought a mansion at Rosmead Place, Colombo for his son and the family settled into it. Here their only son Anura was born.

Social work[edit]

Following her marriage, Sirima Bandaranaike joined the Lanka Mahila Samiti which was the country's largest women's voluntary organisation. She became an active member undertaking many of the social projects initiated under the Mahila Samiti for the empowerment of rural women and disaster relief. She served as its treasurer for eight years and was elected vice president. Two years later she became president of the Lanka Mahila Samiti, holding the post till she resigned from it in 1960. Apart from the Mahila Samiti, she was an active member of the All Ceylon Buddhist Women's Association; Ceylon National Association for the prevention of Tuberculosis; Nurses Welfare Association and the Cancer Society.

Early political involvement[edit]

Mrs Bandaranaike assisted her husband in his political and government work since her marriage. This included accompanying him on his official travels both local and overseas. She and her husband were the on site after the Mental Asylum in Angoda was bombed by the Japaneses during the Easter Sunday Raid resulting in many deaths.

Mrs Bandaranaike was noted to have persuaded her husband to resign from government, resign from the United National Party, and establish the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) in 1951.[2] She campaigned for her husband during the 1952 parliamentary election in his constituency of Atthanagalla, as her husband campaigned across the country.[2] While the SLFP only won 9 seats during that election, Bandaranaike won his seat in Parliament and became Leader of the Opposition.[2]

When fresh elections were called in 1956 by Prime Minister Sir John Kotelawala, sensing opportunity Bandaranaike formed a broad four-party coalition Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (MEP) and contested the 1956 elections. Mrs Bandaranaike once again campaigned for her husband in his constituency of Atthanagalla and also in her home town of Balangoda and Ratnapura for the SLFP. The MEP won a landslide victory at the 1956 elections and S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike formed a government as its Prime Minister. Given that the Governor General Sir Oliver Goonetilleke was a widower, Mrs Bandaranaike became the de-facto first lady of Ceylon. While on a state visit to Malaysia on it Independence in 1957, the couple had to cut short the visit and return when word reached of the grave illness of her father the Ratwatte Dissawa following a heart attack, he died two weeks after their hasty return in a RAF bomber from Singapore.

Entry into active politics[edit]

Mrs Bandaranaike was at home Rosmead Place on the morning of 25 September 1959, when her husband S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike was shot multiple times by a Buddhist monk while meeting the public. She accompanied him to hospital where he succumbed to his wounds the following day. In the political chaos that followed under the caretaker government of Wijeyananda Dahanayake, many cabinet ministers were removed and some arrested and tried for the Bandaranaike assassination. The MEP collapsed without Bandaranaike to keep it together and elections were called for March 1960.[4]

In the weeks before the general elections in March 1960, Mrs Bandaranaike took to the stage supporting and speaking on behalf of her husband's party the SLFP. In the election, the SLFP won 46 seats, but the UNP under Dudley Senanayake formed a short-lived government. During this time Mrs Bandaranaike was brought forward as the legitimate successor to her husband's party leadership and she formally entered politics.

Leader of the SLFP[edit]

In May 1960, Mrs Bandaranaike was appointed President of the SLFP. With the UNP unable to form a stable government, fresh elections were called for in July 1960. SLFP formed around Mrs Bandaranaike's leadership and she campaigned on carrying forward the policies of her late husband, notably the Sinhala Only Act, and to proceed with repatriation of the estate Tamils to India.[7]

During the campaign in the July 1960 elections, Bandaranaike toured the country and made emotional speeches, frequently bursting into tears as she pledged herself to continue her late husband's policies. That earned her the title "The Weeping Widow".[8][4]

First female Prime Minister[edit]

On 21 July 1960, following a landslide victory of the SLFP, Sirima Bandaranaike took oaths as the first female Prime Minister in the world and Minister of Defence and External Affairs. As she was not an elected member of parliament at the time, but leader of the party holding the majority in parliament, a constitutional requirement required her to become a member of Parliament within three months to continue to hold office as Prime Minister. Therefore, Mrs Bandaranaike was appointed to the Senate of Ceylon (upper house of Parliament) on 5 August 1960 following the resignation of M. P. de Zoysa. She remained in the Senate until 1965.[9]

Soon after she undertook a trip with her family to India, on an invitation extended to her by Jawaharlal Nehru, Prime Ministers of India following the assassination of her husband in 1959. Bandaranaike, accompanied by her brother and private secretary Dr Mackie Ratwatte and his family, traveled to India on Nehru's personal aircraft and were guests at 7, Lok Kalyan Marg, before traveling to a Buddhist site of pilgrimage.[2]

Mrs 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.[10] 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 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. The Bank of Ceylon was nationalized and the scope of the Insurance Corporation was extended. The government took over private schools run by the Catholic church.

In 1960 at home, she crushed an attempted military coup by Christian officers in 1962 and she again declared a state of emergency. That same year she had her uncle William Gopallawa appointed Governor General and also marked the death of her mother. In December, six non-aligned nations Egypt, Burma, Cambodia, Ceylon, Ghana and Indonesia, met in Colombo and she was selected to present their peace proposal for the Sino-Indian War.[11] In 1963, her government abolished the independent Ceylon Civil Service and replaced it with the Ceylon Administrative Service which was subject to influence of government politicians.

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.

Pact with India[edit]

Under the terms of the 1964 agreement with India, 600,000 Indian Tamils were to be repatriated, while 375,000 were to be granted Sri Lankan citizenship. By 31 October 1981, when the two countries were to have settled this issue, India had taken more than 300,000 persons as repatriates. Sri Lanka had granted citizenship to over 185,000 plus over 62,000 post-1964 offspring. Over 207,000 Indian Tamils in Sri Lanka before 1964, plus nearly 45,000 offspring, were granted Indian citizenship but still awaited repatriation. In the wake of the July 1983 anti-Tamil violence, some in this latter group are being processed for repatriation or have emigrated to India.

With the lapse of the 1964 agreement, India declined to consider any more applications for citizenship. The government of Sri Lanka believes that the 1964 pact remains in force until the citizenship cases and permanent residence of all Indian Tamils covered by the pact have been settled. The All-Party Conference has agreed that the government should grant Sri Lankan citizenship to stateless Indian Tamils who did not apply for Indian citizenship and were not granted Sri Lankan citizenship under the 1964 agreement.[citation needed]

Leader of the opposition[edit]

In the 1965 elections, she resigned from the Senate and contested from her late husband's constituency of Atthanagalla and won a seat in parliament. With her party gaining 41 seats, she became the Leader of the opposition holding it till 1970. During the five years in the opposition, she established the party printing press of the SLFP, which printed the Sinhala Balaya followed by a daily Sirilaka. She restructured the party trade unions, women's movements and youth leagues. In early March 1970, she began her election campaign.

Second term[edit]

Sirimavo Bandaranaike with Soviet Union Prime Minister Alexei Kosygin, Senior Advisor (Foreign Affairs) to the Prime Minister Tissa Wijeyeratne and her son Anura Bandaranaike

She regained power after the United Front coalition (SLFP, LSSP, and the Communists) won the 1970 elections with a large majority in May 1970. 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. 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 chairwoman 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, elections 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, citing that the insurrection delayed the development plans of the administration. This did not help and in the 1977 general elections the United Front was routed, winning only 8 seats.


Bandaranaike retained her parliamentary seat in Atthanagalla in 1977 general elections and remained a member of parliament. A. Amirthalingam became the leader of the opposition as the TULF became the largest opposition party in parliament, surpassing the SLFP.

Suspension of civic rights[edit]

A Special Presidential Commission appointed by J. R. Jayawardene to investigate allegations against Bandaranaike on abuse of power during her tenure as Prime Minister. Following the submission of the report to the President Jayawardene, the UNP government adopt a motion in parliament on 16 October 1980 imposing civic disability on Sirimavo Bandaranaike and Felix Dias Bandaranaike for a period of seven years and for her expulsion from parliament. The motion passed by 139 votes in favor and 19 against, while Bandaranaike declined to vote. She, however, remained leader of the SLFP.[12]

During this time she attended the funerals of two of her close friends, Marshal Tito and Indira Gandhi. Her son Anura Bandaranaike succeeded Amirthalingam in 1983 as leader of the opposition.

Restoration of civic rights[edit]

Her civic rights were restored in January 1986 by a presidential decree issued by President Jayewardene. The decree also posthumously restored the civic rights of Felix Dias Bandaranaike. Bandaranaike opposed the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord in 1987 and she contested in the 1988 presidential election, but was narrowly defeated by Ranasinghe Premadasa who succeeded Jayewardene as President.[12]

Leader of the opposition[edit]

In 1989, under her leadership the SLFP contested the 1989 general election and was defeated by the UNP under Premadasa with the SLFP gaining 67 seats. This allowed her to take up the post of leader of the opposition again for a second term succeeding her son after having been re-elected to parliament from Atthanagalla in the Gampaha electoral district. During her tenure as opposition leader, she supported the impeachment of Premadasa in 1991, which was lead by senior UNP members such as Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake. The impeachment failed, as Premadasa adjourned Parliament and the Speaker Mohamed dismissed the impeachment stating a lack of signatures.[13] She held the post of opposition leader till the 1994 parliamentary election. In 1993, following the assassination of Premadasa; her daughter Chandrika Kumaratunga returned to the island. She had left the SLFP to join her husband's newly formed Sri Lanka Mahajana Party and thereafter left the island to the United Kingdom following the assignation of her husband Vijaya Kumaratunga in February 1988; on her return in 1993 she rejoined the SLFP. Kumaratunga soon gained popularity in the party over her mother and brother. Anura Bandaranaike left the party and crossed over to the UNP having been suspended from the party. SLFP gained a decisive victory at the southern provincial council elections and Kumaratunga was soon after elected as the Chief Minister of the Western Province of Sri Lanka in 1993 in a landslide election victory.

Minister without Portfolio[edit]

Kumaratunga lead a new coalition, the People's Alliance (PA) to form a government in August 1994 following the 1994 general election, becoming its Prime Minister. Having been re-elected to parliament Sirimavo Bandaranaike was appointed to her daughter's cabinet as Minister without Portfolio in August 1994. By this time her daughter has also succeeded her as the leader of the SLFP.

Third term[edit]

In the presidential election that followed, Kumaratunga won against Srima Dissanayake the widow of the recently assassinated Gamini Dissanayake. Becoming the first female President in Sri Lanka, Kumaratunga appointed her mother as prime minister. Constitutional changes in the years since her last term meant the office has been transformed into a mostly ceremonial post, devolved of any real power or authority; with her daughter retaining complete executive power.[14] Despite the office's lack of powers, Bandaranaike was noted to have wielded great influence among her party's faithful supporters.[15]It was noted by the BBC in 2000 that Bandaranaike and Chandrika did not get along, largely due to leadership issues.[8] Chandrika was known to be keen on Bandaranaike leaving, in order to make way for a younger face.[8] She remained in office until August 2000, when she stepped down citing health reasons.[14]


Bandaranaike Samadhi (the place where S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike and Sirimavo Bandaranaike were entombed) at Horagolla, Sri Lanka

Bandaranaike died on 10 October 2000 of a heart attack [16], as she was heading home after casting her vote in the parliamentary election that was held on that day.[8][17]

Sirimavo Bandaranaike's remains lay in state in the parliament and her funeral took place at Horagolla where she was interned in the mausoleum built for her husband, Horagolla Bandaranaike Samadhi.[18]

See also[edit]

  • List of political families in Sri Lanka
  • Attempted military coup in Ceylon, 1962
  • Bandaranaike family
  • Skard, Torild (2014) "Sirimavo Bandaranaike". Women of Power, Half a century of female presidents and prime ministers, Bristol: Policy Press. ISBN 978-1-44731-578-0


  1. ^ The suffix "vo" denotes respect; Mrs Bandaranaike, Mrs B, or Mathini[2]


  1. ^ "Sessions of Parliament". Parliament of Sri Lanka. Retrieved 17 May 2018.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h Rettie, John (10 October 2000). "Sirima Bandaranaike". The Guardian. Retrieved 14 February 2018.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g "Sirimavo Bandaranaike". The Daily Telegraph. 11 October 2000. Retrieved 15 February 2018.
  5. ^ Fernando, Manjula. "100 Years of Outstanding Performance". Sunday Observer. Retrieved 30 March 2018.
  6. ^ Jeyaraj, D. B. S. ""Stateswoman" Sirimavo made history as the world's first woman prime minister". The Daily Mirror. Retrieved 14 February 2018.
  7. ^ "1960: Ceylon chooses world's first woman PM". BBC News On This Day. Retrieved 13 February 2018.
  8. ^ a b c d "Sirimavo Bandaranaike: First woman premier". BBC News. 10 October 2000. Retrieved 12 February 2018.
  9. ^ Sirimavo Bandaranaike: A leader in her own right
  10. ^ "Ceylon: Sinhala Without Tears" (subscription required for full story). Time Magazine. 5 May 1961. Retrieved 12 February 2018.
  11. ^ "Indo China Time Line". Archived from the original on 9 February 2017. Retrieved 10 March 2017.
  12. ^ a b "Sirimavo Bandaranaike; World's First Female Prime Minister". Los Angeles Times. 12 October 2000. Retrieved 13 February 2018.
  13. ^ Unsuccessful Impeachments and legal arguments
  14. ^ a b Ganguly, Dilip (10 August 2000). "World's First Woman Prime Minister Resigns". ABC News. Retrieved 13 February 2018.
  15. ^ "Veteran Sri Lankan PM resigns". BBC News. 10 August 2000. Retrieved 13 February 2018.
  16. ^ Kirinde, Chandani (15 October 2000). "People's Mathiniya buried amidst people's tears". Retrieved 4 May 2018.
  17. ^ Dugger, Celia W. (11 October 2000). "Sirimavo Bandaranaike of Sri Lanka Dies at 84; First Woman Premier". The New York Times. Retrieved 12 February 2018.
  18. ^ SWRD's vision lives on

External links[edit]

Political offices
Preceded by
Dudley Senanayake
Prime Minister of Ceylon
Succeeded by
Dudley Senanayake
Prime Minister of Ceylon
Position abolished
New office Prime Minister of Sri Lanka
Succeeded by
Junius Jayewardene
Preceded by
Chandrika Kumaratunga
Prime Minister of Sri Lanka
Succeeded by
Ratnasiri Wickremanayake