Sunday, March 26, 2017

Women in Power: Sirimavo Bandaranaike

Sirimavo Bandaranaike
Indira Gandhi became the first Prime Minister of India and the most notable leader in South Asia. But in the small island nation of Sri Lanka, a wife of a prominent politician beat Prime Minister Gandhi in becoming the world’s first woman Prime Minister – Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike.

Early Life

Sirimimavo Ratwatte Dias Bandaranaike was born on April 17, 1916 in Ratnapura, Sri Lanka, then known as Ceylon. Sirima came from a wealthy background, descending from old Kandyan family that dominated old Ceylon. Thus it was no surprise she got an influential politician for a husband – Solomon West Ridgeway Dias Bandaranaike – or simply SWRD Bandaranaike, the son of the aide-de-camp of the governor of Ceylon. The couple married in 1940. Their marriage resulted to 3 children: Sunethra, Chandrika (became President of Sri Lanka), and Anura.

Wife of Prime Minister

SWRD Bandaranaike
Her husband, took important political roles such as becoming a founding member of the influential United National Party (UNP). But the UNP then began to show support to minorities like Catholics, Muslims and Tamils as well as liberal views in economic policy that infuriated SWRD Bandaranaike, leading him to leave the party and establish the left leaning Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) in 1951.

In 1956, SWRD Bandaranaike became the Prime Minister, and Sirimavo took an active role in becoming a wife of a world leader, serving as a hostess to foreign dignitaries and attending political events. She also showed interest in social welfare, becoming aware of poverty among her countrymen.

As Prime Minister, Bandaranaike showed simplicity, love for the masses, and support for local industries. His husband showed great deal of support in promoting Buddhism as well as Sinhalese as the language of the country. He also showed great skills as an orator, earning the nickname “Silver Bell of Asia.”

However, Prime Minister Bandaranaike’s tenure cut short by an assassin on September 26, 1959. The leaders of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) decided to choose Sirimavo Bandaranaike as their new leader, hence candidate for Prime Minister, capitalizing on the prevailing emotion of longing for the short era of the demised Premier. But Sirima refused several times the offer of leadership, but eventually, she gave in for the sake of preserving his husband’s legacy.

She showed determination during the campaign, even though she lacked the oration skills of her husband, she displayed great deal of emotions during her speeches, weeping as she remembered her husband. Her opponents, especially the UNP, mocked her, dubbing her as the “Weeping Widow.”

Yet, the weeping Weeping Widow’s appeal to the people won her the elections and on July 21, 1960, she took her oath as Prime Minister, becoming the first woman to become the head of government. Her victory came as a result of large influx of women voting for her.

News of Sirimavo’s rise to power astounded the world. In Britain, newspapers created the word “stateswomen” in respect of her new status.

First Premiership

Nationalism, socialism, and active foreign policy marked Sirimavo’s first tenure as Prime Minister. She followed the same path of nationalism based on Sinhalese and socialism as the corner stone of her economic policy, just like her husband.

Sinhalese and Buddhism topped Ceylon’s identity under PM Sirimivo as initially shown in January 1, 1961, when the Sinhalese language became the sole language of administration in the island state. She also placed state funded schools, mostly Catholic schools, under direct state control.

Wave of nationalization in the economy followed, starting with banking and then oil industries. Much of her nationalization, however, earned her the animosity of western countries, especially the United States that controlled most interest in the country’s oil industry.

Her foreign policy on the other hand, expanded Ceylon’s profile in the international community. She cooperated with neighboring countries over strenuous issues such as the Indian minorities in the country, which she worked to settle with an agreement with Indian Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri in October 1964.

The issue of Indian minorities in Ceylon started in 1950’s when they found themselves deprived of citizenship under the rule of Sirimavo’s husband. Indians in the island sought refuge to India, which refused them as well. The agreement between Prime Minister Bandaranaike and Shastri hoped to end their misery with India accepting 500,000 Ceylonese Indians while 300,000 would remain in the island and given citizenship.

But the Prime Minister later faced criticism over her betrayal of the Indian minority when she placed them in a separate electoral registry rather than alongside normal Ceylonese citizens, a symbolical shunning of them from national suffrage.

On the other hand, beyond relations with India, Sirimavo also extended relations with other socialist and non-aligned countries, such as China, Egypt, and Yugoslavia. She found it beneficial to strengthen relations with such country in light of the West’s uproar on her nationalization policy.

Sirimavo’s policy on economics on the other hand failed to help in alleviating poverty within the country, which damaged her politically. She had to form an alliance with the Marxist Lanka Sama Samaja Party or Ceylon Socialist Party and form the United Front to maintain her position.

Worst came further, when she passed the Press Bill, which placed the media under state control, prompting the defection of 14 prominent party members to the opposition. Ultimately, the failures and the defections translated to political defeat in December 1964 and the United National Party took power briefly.

The UNP’s attempt, however, to solve poverty through liberalization of the economy worsened conditions that significantly damaged their position. After few years in power, in the May 1970 election, they lose once again to Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s party.

Sirimavo Bandaranaike, then took started her 2nd tenure as Prime Minister.

Second Premiership

Challenges immediately confronted Sirimavo upon her comeback. The insurgency of the Jatika Vimukti Perumana (JVP) or the National Liberation Front stunned the Ceylon.  The rebellion erupted as result of prevailing economic hardships, especially of the country’s youth that formed the bulk of the rebel group.

Sirimavo faced the insurgency head on, sending the army to crush the rebellion and seeking the assistance of foreign countries. Her appeal spread far and wide that brought a huge and unbelievable coalition of nations to come into her aid. Pakistan, India, United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union sent troops, supplies, or any military support that helped the Ceylonese army to win the insurgency in a matter of months.

After the insurgency, Prime Minister Bandaranaike returned to her nationalist socialist policy, along with her active foreign policy. It also came in with political reforms that altered Ceylon’s name, government structure, and the center of political power.

Her government continued to pursue a command economy, nationalizing prominent industries, especially agriculture and the tea industry. Private enterprise lessened by the year under her government.

Sinhalese language and Buddhism dominated further in Ceylon at the expense of the minorities especially the Tamils in the northern part of the country. Their alienation and marginalization resulted eventually to one of the most bloody and notorious conflicts in world history.

In foreign policy, she continued to be an active voice in the non-alignment movement. She even hosted a summit of third world countries of the movement in Colombo with herself as the chairperson.

But the hallmark of her second premiership also was the constitutional reform she ushered. In 1972, the government transformed from a parliamentary bicameral system to a presidential form with a unicameral legislature. Hence, the power in the government moved from the office of Prime Minister to the office of the President. Also significant was the change in the country’s name, from Ceylon to its present name Sri Lanka.

Her second tenure, however, also failed to meet the problems of a declining economy. Moreover, the country started to become a tinder box for ethnic conflict between the Sinhalese and the Tamils. Under such circumstances, her SLFP lose in the July 1977 elections, keeping only 8 seats in the 168 members National Assembly.


Sirimavo’s opponents, especially the UNP, worked to undermine and to crush her. In 1980, she was expelled from Parliament and banned from holding any political office. But in 1986, she surprisingly received a pardon from President Junius Jayawadene, who belonged to the UNP. After her pardon and years in the political wilderness, she attempted to stage a comeback in 1988 by running for President. She completely failed. Nevertheless, she did won back her parliament seat in 1989 and led the opposition.

Last Premiership and Death

Although she failed to be the President and remained an MP, Sirimavo continued to be a strong political force. Her children also showed themselves as political astute as their mother. Her daughter, Chandrika, became a socialist force within the SLFP and she became the President of Sri Lanka in August 1994. As a tribute to her mother, Chandrika appointed Sirimavo as her Prime Minister. The mother-daughter tandem waged war against the results of their policies decades ago. A war fought against Tamil separatist, disillusioned and infuriated over decades of discrimination and marginalization.

In August 2000, Sirimavo’s health faltered and during the elections in October, she had a fatal heart attack, on which she succumbed and passed away. Sirimavo Bandaranaike received numerous praise and criticism during the course of her political life.

See also:

 “Hon. (Mrs.) Sirima Bandaranaike.” In Official Website of the Prime Minister’s Office. Accessed on March 14, 2017. URL:

"Sirimavo Bandaranaike." Encyclopedia of World Biography. (March 17, 2017).

Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica. "Sirimavo Bandaranaike.” In Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed on March 14, 2017.

Jeyaraj, DBS. “’Stateswoman’ Sirimavo made history as the world’s first woman prime minister.” In Daily Mirror Sri Lanka. Accessed on March 18, 2017. URL:

Mowlana, Alavi. “Golden Memories of a Political Prodigy.” In Daily News. Accessed on March 18, 2017. URL:

Silva, K.M. A History of Sri Lanka. London: C. Hurst & Co., Ltd., 1981.

No comments:

Post a Comment