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Sirimavo Bandaranaike

In a career spanning four decades, Lanka's Bandaranaike witnessed triumph and defeat in equal measure.
PTI | By
UPDATED ON APR 20, 2004 01:29 PM IST

World’s first elected woman Prime Minister. The wife of a Prime Minister who was assassinated. The mother of a President. A woman expelled from parliament and stripped of her civic rights because of alleged abuse of power. In a remarkable political career spanning four decades, Sirimavo Bandaranaike of Sri Lanka witnessed triumph and defeat, joy and tragedy in equal measure.

Bursting into the political spectrum

Born in a wealthy landowning family in 1916, she burst into the political scene in 1959 following the assassination of her husband and then Prime Minister, Solomon Bandaranaike.

She took over the presidency of the slain husband’s Sri Lankan Freedom Party (SLFP) and was elected to power in 1960.

 Family Dynasty at work
*World's first woman premier

*Former PM's widow

*Daughter Kumaratunga became President

*Son Anura a politician

Dubbed the "weeping widow" because of her tendency to burst into tears while talking about her husband, she showed her more ruthless side in 1961 when she declared a state of emergency in what was then called Ceylon after a prolonged civil disobedience campaign by the minority Tamil population. The Tamils were protesting against 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.

The seeds of the Tamil separatist movement were sown by this action.

In a move that invited the wrath of the Americans and British, her government announced nationalisation of all foreign businesses. Faced with their opposition, she moved her country leftward and closer to China and Russia. In 1963, Bandaranaike suppressed an attempted military uprising but a year later she lost a confidence vote, as well as the subsequent general elections.

Return to power with an iron fist

Bandaranaike returned to power after six years in the 1970 general election and proceeded to introduce a new constitution. Ceylon was renamed Sri Lanka; the country was declared a republic; and links with the UK were severed. For much of the 1970s, she ruled Sri Lanka with an iron fist.

A left wing youth uprising was put down with the support of Indian and Pakistani troops. Dissent and criticism was not tolerated. The oil crisis of 1973 broke the back of the Sri Lankan economy and resulted in large scale rationing.

Humiliation at Polls

Democracy, however, is a great leveller and even the most powerful have to bite the dust at times. In 1977, Bandaranaike was humiliated in the polls and her dark ages began. She was stripped of her civic rights and expelled from parliament. While these rights were restored in 1986, she remained in opposition till 1994, losing election after election, but refusing to let go of her party.

Daughter becomes a political match

Finally, in 1994 she met her match in her daughter Chandrika Kumaratunga, who seized control of the party in 1994. Chandrika led the SLFP to power in the same year. She became president of her country, and made her mother the figurehead Prime Minister.

Bandaranaike remained Prime Minister till 2000, when ill health forced her to step down. She died the same year, at the ripe age of 84, having outlived and outlasted almost all her political opponents 

Chronology of events:

*She and her husband, S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike , converted to Buddhism from Christianity before he became prime minister of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) in 1956.

*After his assassination (1959), she became the first woman in the world to serve as a nation's Prime Minister.

*She led the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, which her husband had founded, and headed two coalition governments (1960-65, 1970-77).

*As Prime Minister, she emphasized Buddhist and Sinhalese nationalist policies and promoted a new constitution (1972) that proclaimed a republic and changed the country's name to Sri Lanka.

*The coalition broke up in 1975, and her government was defeated in 1977.

*She was expelled from parliament in 1980 and stripped (1980-82) of her civil rights because of abuses as Prime Minister. She re-entered politics in the late 1980s and was an unsuccessful candidate for president in 1988.

*In 1994 her daughter, Chandrika Kumaratunga , was elected President, and appointed Bandaranaike Prime Minister, a post she held until she resigned because of ill health in 2000. 
*Mrs Bandaranaike, having returned to the post of Prime Minister, reluctantly gave up the reins of power on 10 August 2000.

*Sirimavo Bandaranaike suffered a heart attack while driving home after casting her vote in the general elections.

Source (chronoplogy):

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