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Sirimavo Ratwatte Dias Bandaranaike

[sE rE mah' vaw bahn drah nE' kE] Prime Minister of Ceylon/Sri Lanka, 1960-1965, 1970-1977, 1994-2000

S.R.D. Bandaranaike

Early Life

Sirima Ratwatte was born into Ceylon aristocracy on April 17, 1916, at Pussaliyadda Walauwwa, Mahawelatanna, Balangoda. She was the eldest of six children (two girls and four boys) of Barnes Ratwatte Dissawe and Rosalind Hilda Mahawelatanna Kumarihamy. She was educated at St. Bridget's Convent school in Colombo, but was a practising Buddhist her entire life. In 1940 she married Solomon West Ridgeway Dias Bandaranaike, with whom she had three children.

the Bandaranaikes

Rise to Power

While her husband rose through the political ranks, Bandaranaike ran the household and raised their children. She remained in the political background after he became Prime Minister in 1956, but was thrust into the foreground after his assassination on September 26, 1959.

S.W.R.D. Bandaraike's assassination left a power vacuum within his Sri Lankan Freedom Party (SLFP), as his hand-picked successor was undergoing medical treatment abroad and was, therefore, unable to take charge of the party and government. Education Minister Wijayananda Dahanayake became Acting Prime Minister, but divisions within the party made it difficult for him to govern effectively and he was forced to call for new elections in March 1960. By the time those elections were held the Freedom Party was in turmoil, allowing the United National Party to win just enough seats in Parliament for its leader, Dudley Senanayake, to become Prime Minister. Senanayake was unable to forge alliances with rival parties in Parliament, and he was forced to call for yet another round of elections in July. It was during this period of turmoil that the SLFP unanimously chose S.W.R.D. Bandaraike's widow as its new leader.

Dubbed "Weeping Widow" by newspapers, Sirima Bandaraike spent much of her campaign speaking about her late husband and his ideals. Her lack of oratorical skills were offset by her charisma, and she drew large crowds everywhere she spoke. The SLFP won 75 of 150 seats in the lower house of Parliament on July 20, 1960, and Sirima Bandaraike was sworn in as the world's first woman Prime Minister the next day. She had not contested a seat in Parliament because she had no wish to be opposition leader if her party lost the election, but a month after the election Governor-General Sir Oliver Goonetilleke appointed her to one of 15 reserved seats in the upper house.

First Term as Prime Minister

Upon taking office Bandaranaike announced her intention to continue the foreign policy pusued by her husband, namely nonalignment, neutrality, and co-existence. She also made it clear that she intended to revise the constitution and establish a republic. Those announcements were generally well received, but her establishment of Sinhalese as the government language angered the Tamil minority. She also earned public derision when she directed the government to take control of seven newspapers by creating a corporation in which the public and government held shares. By 1964 a deepening economic crisis and the SLFP's coalition with the Ceylon Socialist Party had eroded popular support for her government and the SLFP lost the 1965 election to Senanayake.

Second Term as Prime Minister

Bandaranaike was returned to office in 1970 as head of a socialist coalition called the United Front. In 1972 she fulfilled one of the promises made during her first term, the promulgation of a new constitution and the renaming of the country as the Republic of Sri Lanka. Resuming the domestic policies begun during her first term, her second government further restricted free enterprise, nationalized industries, and carried out land reforms. One again, however, Bandaranaike failed to effectively deal with ethnic rivalries and economic distress. The SLFP only managed to win 8 National Assembly seats in the July 1977 elections, and the prime ministership passed to Junius Jayawardene of the United National Party.


Bandaranaike had very little influence as an opposition leader in Parliament, especially after Jayawardene changed the constitution to elevate himself to the presidency and make the prime ministership a primarily ceremonial office. President Jayawardene approved a formal inquiry into complaints that Bandaranaike had abused her office, and in 1980 she was found guilty, stripped her of her civil rights for seven years, and expelled from Parliament.

Her rights were restored by President J.R. Jayawardene in 1986, but by then Sri Lanka had suffered three years of civil war between Tamils in the north, fighting for an independent homeland, and Sinhalese nationalists in the south. A presidential election was to be held in 1988, and Bandaranaike was chosen by the Freedom Party as its candidate. After a campaign marked by terrorist attacks, she lost the election of December 1988 to Ranasinghe Premadasa, who had been Prime Minister in Jayawardene's government. Terrorism also marred the campaign and election of February 1989. Bandaranaike's party lost that election as well, but she was returned to Parliament.

While Bandaranaike was fighting to regain her national prominence, her children were becoming important political figures within the Freedom Party. Her son Anura, elected to Parliament in 1977, had become the leader of the Party's Right-wing faction by 1984 and had hopes of becoming the party's leader. Those hopes were dashed, however, by his sister, the more Left-wing Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, her mother's favored candidate for the leadership. Frustrated by his mother's favoritism, Anura defected to the rival United National Party in 1993. A series of election victories propelled Chandrika to the leadership of an alliance led by the Freedom Party, although her mother continued as its nominal head.

Third Term as Prime Minister

In August 1994 after a campaign again marred by murders, intimidation, and mud-slinging, the alliance won the general election. Chandrika became Prime Minister, and in November her mother stepped aside as SLNP leader to give her a free run at the presidential elections. Chandrika won the presidency over the UNP candidate and appointed her mother Prime Minister in her new government. By then, however, the office of Prime Minister was an almost entirely ceremonial one.

Bandaranaike resigned as Prime Minister on August 10, 2000. At time of her retirement she was the world's oldest serving Prime Minister, and her total of 18 years as Prime Minister remains the most ever served by one individual in Sri Lanka. She died in Colombo on October 10, 2000, shortly after voting in parliamentary elections.


D.B.S. Jeyaraj
The Telegraph

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This page was last updated on 09/06/2018.