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  • 7/21/2010

The Day in History:

Sirimavo Bandaranaike Becomes World's First Female Prime Minister (1960)


Sirimavo Ratwatte Dias Bandaranaike (April 17, 1916 - October 10, 2000) was a politician from Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon). She was Prime Minister of Ceylon and Sri Lanka three times, 1960-1965, 1970-1977 and 1994-2000, and was the world's first female prime minister. She was a leader of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party. She was the wife of a previous Sri Lankan prime minister, Solomon Bandaranaike and the mother of Sri Lanka's third president, Chandrika Kumaratunga. She was also mother of the late Anura Bandaranaike, former speaker and minister and Sunethra Bandaranaike, philanthropist.


Early life

Born April 17, 1916 to as Sirimavo Ratwatte to a prominent Radala family, who where descended from Ratwatte Dissawa, Dissawa of Matale a signatory on behalf of the Sinhalese to the Kandiyan Convention of 1815. She was educated at St Bridget's Convent, Colombo, but was a practicing Buddhist. In 1940 married Solomon West Ridgeway Dias Bandaranaike a member of the State council and son of the powerful Sir Solomon Dias Bandaranike the Maha Mudaliyar (the chief native interpreter and advisor to the Governor).


Political background

On her husband Solomon West Ridgeway Dias Bandaranaike's assassination, Bandaranaike took over the leadership of his Sri Lanka Freedom Party kept it for forty years until her death, became a Senator and lead her party to an election victory in 1956. She became prime minister on July 21, 1960 as a member of the Senate and ruled her country on and off throughout the 1960s and 1970s until she was crushingly defeated in a general election in 1977. In 1980, she was expelled from parliament for abuse of power, and banned from public office for seven years.


Sirimavo Bandaranaike in 1969

A staunch socialist, Bandaranaike continued her husband's policies of nationalizing key sectors of the economy, such as banking and insurance. Unfortunately, she was on a roller-coaster ride from the moment she took office and 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 President's state takeover of foreign businesses, particularly the petroleum companies, which upset the Americans and the British, who imposed an aid embargo on 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 in 1962 by Catholic officers. In 1964, she entered into a historic coalition with the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP). At the end of that year, she was defeated on a confidence vote, losing the general election that followed. Six years later she bounced back, her United Front winning a substantial majority in the 1970 elections.

Her second term saw a new Constitution introduced, which ended the country's status as a Commonwealth realm. Ceylon was renamed Sri Lanka and declared a republic. But after just 16 months in power, a left-wing youth uprising almost toppled her government:1971 JVP Insurrection. Sri Lanka's small army was caught off guard due to the lack of early warning since the county's intelligence unit was disbanded by Mrs Bandaranaike fearing it being loyal to the UNP the year before. However the Sri Lanka Army quickly mobilized its reservist and held its ground although some remote areas of the country where occupied by the insurgents. She was saved by her skillful foreign policy when the country's non-aligned friends rushed to her help. In a rare move, both India and Pakistan sent troops to Colombo to aid Bandaranaike in crushing the insurgency by deploying them to guard airports and port, freeing up Sri Lankan service personal for offensives. 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.

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.


Style of functioning

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".



By 1976, Bandaranaike was more respected abroad than at home. Her great triumph that year was to become chairman of the Non-Aligned Movement and host the largest heads of state conference the country had ever seen. Despite her high standing internationally, she was losing Sri Lankan support rapidly amid allegations of corruption and against the background of a rapidly declining economy . Nothing, it seemed, could save her. This led her government, which enjoyed a large majority of more than 75% in parliament, to use its majority gained in the previous election to postpone elections by two years, extending her administration's term to 8 years from the legal 6 years. This undemocratic action was the main reason her civic rights were suspended in the later years.

She suffered a crushing election defeat in 1977 and was stripped of her civic rights due to abuse of power. 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 control despite losing every subsequent general election. She finally met her match in Chandrika who outmanoeuvred her mother to become prime minister of Sri Lanka in 1994, when a SLFP-led coalition won power in the general elections, and president the following year.

Bandaranaike became prime minister again, but the constitution had changed since her last tenure; she, as the prime minister was subordinate to her daughter, the president. She remained in office just a few months before her death, but had little real power. She died on election day October 10, 2000, having cast her vote for the last time.


Family life

She married Solomon West Ridgeway Dias Bandaranaike in 1940, who became the third prime minister of Ceylon. She was mother of Chandrika Kumaratunga, who was subsequently Prime Minister and President of Sri Lanka; Sunethra Bandaranaike and Anura Bandaranaike.

Source: encyclopedia.thefreedictionary.com

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