Sirimavo – to the manor born, to lead a country

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Special report to mark 100th birth anniversary (17 April 1916-10 October 2016

A phenomenal lady Prime Minister of Ceylon and of Sri Lanka

Once, twice, three times a lady Prime Minister, popularly known as Mrs. B, affectionately dubbed Queen B by the media, shattered the glass ceiling, set world records and destroyed forecasts of the defunct pundit male chauvinists but made true the astrological prediction at her birth

BUP_DFTDFT-10--11Premier Sirimavo R.D. Bandaranaike’s crowning glory was chairing the Non-Aligned Summit held in Colombo, at which she stormed the world stage with her outstanding diplomatic skills



The male chauvinists typically relished making known of it being a fluke stroke – that the lady dubbed the ‘Weeping Widow’ won her journey in 1960 from Colombo 7’s Tintagel to Queen’s House in Fort and to Temple Trees in Colpetty as Ceylon’s first woman Premier and as the first woman Head of State in the modern world on the aftermath of her husband’s death, merely on one riding on a sympathy vote. 

They little realised that she, having been born into a family of high aristocracy, raised and groomed in the best of Kandyan tradition, a good disciplined convent education, coupled with quiet intellect, steely resolve and refined dress sense, would charm the country that enabled her to shatter the glass ceiling, to be not just the once, twice, but three times, a lady Prime Minister, setting another world record yet unsurpassed by no other in the world!

One hundred years ago on 17 April 1916, Sirima Ratwatte was born in Ratnapura, Ceylon at Mahawalathenne Walauwa Pussaliyadda Bulugahagedara Balangoda in the Ratnapura District, Sabaragamuwa Province to Barnes Ratwatte Dissawe and Rosalind Mahawalethenne Kumarihamy, a reputed Ayurveda physician.

A former Senator, Barnes (named after a British Governor-General), was of a prominent Radala caste family, who was a descendent of Ratwatte Dissawe of Matale, a signatory, on behalf of the Sinhalese to the Kandyan Convention of 1815. Although many leading Kandyan families also served the Government and adopted English first names, most remained staunchly Buddhist, and preserved Sinhalese traditions. Barnes Ratwatte was one such.



"What seemed most imposing as I entered Tintagel was the huge glass-framed box that hung on the wall which contained the blood-soaked banian of S.W.R.D. I remember staring at it, intrigued, yet a bit troubling while playing hide-and-seek and not quite understanding why it was there. Many years later, when I understood it all, I wondered if it was this grim reminder of the tragedy that they went past each morning that drove the lady of the house and two of the children with such determination in their respective political journeys and the eldest to abhor to tread that path"



At the time of her birth, a rare event occurred. A herd of elephants forcefully entered the enclosure. It was seen as a good omen. Hetuwa Gurunanse, an astrologer of repute was summoned to chart her horoscope as was traditionally done upon a birth of Ceylon’s aristocrats. He predicted that the baby girl would one day be the Queen of this country. 

Ceylon, at the time was a British Colony and George the Fifth, the King. Such a prediction coming true therefore seemed an impossibility. Those who knew this story were to understand what the astrologer meant, 44 years on. Uncrowned, but yet a Queen, had indeed arrived. Sirima was the eldest of six, brothers, Barnes Junior, Seevali, Mackie, Clifford and her youngest sister Patricia fondly called Patsy. The leadership qualities and the ability to excel in whatever she undertook and the exceptional intellect imbedded in young Sirima, an avid reader, was noted at an early age by her father Barnes Ratwatte. Wanting the best education for Sirima, which was decided to be in English, her parents sent her, at the age of eight, to St. Bridget’s Convent boarding school in the capital, Colombo. 

But they ensured that she remained a devout Buddhist, speaking Sinhala as fluently as English. After leaving school, she threw herself into social welfare work, walking miles through jungles and over mountains to distribute food and medicines, organise clinics and develop village industries. 

There had been a young man, a relative, who had eyed Sirima at the time, she too had liked him, but a ‘marriage to him would be like a flower in a wild jungle’, her mother said. It didn’t happen. There was also a proposal from the then first family of the country. That did not transpire either.

Solomon West Ridgeway Dias Bandaranaike, born to an elite Sinhalese Anglican Christian family who later converted to Buddhism after getting into politics, was the son of powerful Sir Solomon Dias Bandaranaike, the Maha Mudaliyar (Chief native interpreter and Advisor to the Governor) of Horagolla Walauwe in Attanagalla.

In 1940, Solomon aged 41, then a bachelor and brilliant, young, Oxford-educated, member of the State Council, a Colonial Government Minister had met young Sirima at a function in Balangoda. After the meeting Solomon Junior, losing no time, through a well-known match maker asked Barnes Ratwatte for his daughter, Sirima’s hand in marriage. She was 24 years of age. The age difference of 17 years was no barrier for Solomon Junior, already impressed with Sirima’s intellect and persona.

The couple belonged to elite families of landowners respectively, and their horoscopes were found to match. With the two contentious issues of the families for marital unions then out of the way, the ceremony was held so grandly that it is reported to have been dubbed “the wedding of the century”. 

At first, Sirima’s public role was that of a dutiful wife. Her eldest child, Sunethra, was born in 1943, followed by Chandrika, and finally a boy, Anura. But in 1948, as the island of Ceylon edged towards independence, the, methodical wife and mother found her home invaded at all hours by her mercurial husband’s friends, forever discussing politics and demanding refreshments.


Hidden resolve

According to James Manor’s biography of Bandaranaike, ‘The Expedient Utopian,’ her main difficulty was her husband’s male chauvinism. James Manor cites a possibly apocryphal, but indicative, story about a delay and some shortcomings during a tea served at a political gathering in their Colombo house, to the host’s irritation.

When the tea appeared at last, and his wife retired to the kitchen, he shouted: “Sirima! These gentlemen drink tea with sugar. For the sugar to get into the cup, there must be some instrument. You have not put a spoon in the sugar bowl.” Manor writes, “The dutiful wife went to fetch a spoon, and Mr. Bandaranaike quipped: ‘We have to think for them too.’”

Writer Manor observes: “She made no complaint. No wonder the men failed to foresee what a forceful leader she would be – perhaps too forceful,” Manor adds drily. Sirima was no pushover but knew when to remain silent and when to air her views, possessing a hidden resolve.  


Sirima, as S.W.R.D’s confidante

Sirima soon became Bandaranaike’s valued confidante. It was she who persuaded him to resign from the Government and the ruling United National Party (UNP) in 1951. She had long been aware of his exasperation and differences in political thinking since independence. They worked as a team. 

Two months later, he formed the Sri Lankan Freedom Party (SLFP), with Democratic Socialism and Sinhalese resurgence at its heart, setting the party political battle lines in the country for the rest of the century. 


First campaign for her husband

General elections the following year brought Sirima what has been described as her first baptism of political fire, as she campaigned on her husband’s behalf in his constituency, while he carried his new party’s message to the rest of what was still Ceylon. She was rewarded with the biggest majority for him of any candidate, though the SLFP won only nine seats. 

However at the next elections, in 1956, Bandaranaike, a convert to Buddhism, won by a landslide, after a nationalistic movement in which he gathered the support of the Buddhist Sinhalese people, the majority of the country who were considered underprivileged compared to the Christian minority, and formed a left-wing coalition. The key factor in his victory was the ‘Sinhala Only’ policy – the promise to replace English with Sinhala as the island’s sole official language, and a watershed policy in Ceylonese history.

It was aimed at the dominance of the English-speaking elite, but, in fact, sowed the seeds of bitter conflicts with the Tamils. Bandaranaike used Sinhalese chauvinism to gain power, but found he could not control it. Although the influential Buddhist monk who planned his murder in 1959 was motivated primarily by personal grievances, his chauvinism perhaps played a part in it 


Assassination of a Prime Minister 

26 September 1959 was the day on which Sirima Ratwatte Bandaranaike’s fate was to change forever. She was in the garden of their Rosmead Place house in the morning, always open to visitors, as was the case of the then political homes, when she heard a commotion inside.

First she had thought it to be fire crackers and then she rushed indoors to find her husband collapsing, gravely wounded, with a BUP_DFTDFT-10--11-01Buddhist monk pointing a gun at him. She courageously flung herself at the gunman, who was then felled by Police fire, but Bandaranaike died in hospital the next day.

Premier S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike’s assassination left a power vacuum within his Sri Lankan Freedom Party (SLFP), as his hand-picked successor C.P. de Silva 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 this time 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. Ironically, he was once proposed in marriage to Sirima. 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. Bandaranaike’s widow as its new Leader.



"At the time of Sirima Ratwatte’s birth, a rare event occurred. A herd of elephants forcefully entered the enclosure. It was seen as a good omen. Hetuwa Gurunanse, an astrologer of repute was summoned to chart her horoscope as was traditionally done upon a birth of Ceylon’s aristocrats. He predicted that the baby girl would one day be the Queen of this country The test of her indomitable courage came when the JVP launched an insurrection in 1971 to topple her democratically-elected Government. It was at that time then that the incorrigible Sir John Kotelawala observed that the height of the insurgency that she was “the only man in the Cabinet”. It was swiftly crushed, though at the cost of an estimated 1,000 young lives. More than 10,000 were jailed, although most were later released"



Politics by invitation

For Mrs. Bandaranaike, her husband’s death was naturally a traumatic tragedy. Sirima was given little time to grieve in peace. She reluctantly gave into the SLFP’s desperate pleas to assume the party leadership, and got into politics by invitation. 



“What does she know of politics?” scornfully asked a cousin of the assassinated Prime Minister of Ceylon, Solomon Bandaranaike, known to them as “Solla”, when his widow Sirima announced that she was taking over his party’s leadership in 1960. 

“In Solla’s time, Sirima presided over nothing fiercer than the kitchen fire,” Paul Pieris Deriyanagala had said, who had been best man at the Bandaranaikes’ wedding, adding, “She’ll end by spoiling her personal reputation and ruining the family name.” 

This was a typical scene of a family in Sri Lanka when a female is spoken of as a leader of any given situation. And the criticism from within the family is usual. Yasmine Gooneratne, a cousin within the vast Bandaranaike clan, recounts “Uncle Paulie’s” scathing comments even in her family memoirs, ‘Relative Merits’.

Dubbed the ‘Weeping Widow’ by newspapers, Sirima Bandaranaike 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. What courage must she have had to confront such large-scale male chauvinist prejudices, especially from some jealous relatives, as is typical in Sri Lanka?

However, the results were announced on 20 July 1960.The SLFP won 75 of 150 seats in the lower house of Parliament. The UNP had only 30. With the six appointed MPs, the SLFP had 81 out of 157 seats with a slender majority of five. Bandaranaike had the last laugh.

As Maureen Seneviratne, her biographer, wrote: “If Mr. Bandaranaike’s stature as a politician and leader was built up over decades of campaigning, Sirima donned hers like a cloak that had been lying in her wardrobe for years, unworn, but which had been pressed and kept ready for wearing at any given moment.”


Ceylon’s and world’s first Prime Minister 

And thus the moment had arrived for Bandaranaike. Her tryst with destiny. The world’s first woman Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike was sworn in as the country’s first woman Prime Minister. She was 44 years of age. 

When she was sworn in as Premier, Bandaranaike was neither a Member of Parliament nor Senate. She had not contested a seat in Parliament asserting she had no wish to be Opposition Leader if her party lost the election. She was required by the Constitution to be a member of the Lower or Upper House within four months or forfeit the PM’s post. 

Everyone expected J.P. Obeyesekera to resign and for her to contest the ensuing by-election and enter Parliament. But a month after the election Governor-General Sir Oliver Goonetilleke appointed her to one of 15 reserved seats in the Upper House.

Senate President Sir Cyril de Soyza led the procession into Independence Hall for the ceremonial sitting in July 1960. She was sworn in as a Senator consequent to the resignation of MP de Zoysa (Jnr) who stepped down in favour of Mrs. Bandaranaike. She surprised all by becoming a Senator and thereafter functioned as PM from the Upper House. Thus Mrs. Sirima R.D. Bandaranaike served her first term as Prime Minister from the Senate.

She forged ahead with the socialist reform programme her husband had initiated. That marginalised the minorities. Her establishment of Sinhalese as the Government language angered the Tamil minority. Resentment among the minorities grew.

In 1963, headlines were being made in the world. In November, President Kennedy is shot and killed by a sniper in Dallas. At the same time at Tintagel, the tensions were similar, in the aftermath of a coup attempt to topple the Government in power, aborted only at the 11th hour just months before of which the accused were being tried before the third Court to sit on the case. Just 500 metres away from the Premier’s residence the writer of this article was born at the McCarthy Hospital. It is incidental, but relates to the information that I share that would give authenticity and interest to a few related anecdotes. 

Straight after my birth I was taken home, to Capoch Estate, Balangoda, my father, Reginald Samarenayake Munasinghe’s tea estate. My parents prepared hurriedly for their baby daughter’s first visitors, their closest neighbours of Capoch Tea Estate in Balangoda, Clifford Ratwatte, youngest brother of the sitting Prime Minister, and Aboosaley, the then UNP organiser of the Balangoda electorate. The two belonging to two opposing political parties, as organisers of the electorate, were yet great friends. My father helped funding of both their political campaigns, but that didn’t matter either. Such was the goodwill between opposing politicians of yesteryear. 


Coup d’état code-named Operation Holdfast

My father recounted in the later years that the hot topic at this social visit transpired to be more on the aborted coup d’état than of the baby just born! What he related together with the ones by my granduncle M.B. Dedigama, who was the coup time DIG, Kurunegala became more valuable, on how Mrs. B crushed an attempted military coup by Christian officers. Facts of which are hardly mentioned sufficiently today. It is an unsavoury period in our political history, nevertheless one that demonstrates a fearless feat of a true leader. I intend to highlight most on it in this 100th birth tribute to her.

The Prime Minister was scheduled to leave to Kataragama on the evening of Friday 26 January 1962, but ironically did not do so, oblivious to a coup to topple the elected Government. At 7 p.m. that evening it was her nephew Felix Dias Bandaranaike and two senior Police officers of the Criminal Investigation Department (CID), which included its Director DIG S.A. Dissanayake and SP John Attygalle (both later became IGPs), who personally informed the PM about an attempt of a coup known to be an action of mainly non-Buddhist right-wing reserve and retired military and Police officers largely comprising of racial and religious minorities intent on bringing the UNP back to power.

The coup plan code-named ‘Operation Holdfast’ was to arrest the Prime Minister, Ministers, key Govt. defence officials, and top brass of the armed forces, to be held in the underground bunker, in the ammunition magazine of the Army headquarters and other service commanders to be restrained and prevented from leaving their houses that night.

Newspaper office buildings, Police Headquarters, the CID office and other key points were to be taken over. The Central Telegraph Office, Colombo and other city telephone exchanges were to be put out of operation. Soon after midnight Police cars equipped with loud hailers were to be sent out to announce an immediate curfew in Colombo city limits. 

Troops from the Panagoda Cantonment were to be prevented from reaching Colombo that night. Armoured cars and Army vehicles fitted with radio equipment were to be stationed at the two Kelani bridges, the Kirulapone Bridge and other places. Armoured cars were to be stationed at certain points to ensure the success of the operation. Troops from the Panagoda Cantonment were to be prevented from reaching Colombo that night.

Signals Corps Dispatch riders, fully armed on motorcycles, were standing by from about 11 p.m. at Torrington (Independence) Square to storm Radio Ceylon once the password ‘Holdfast’ was given. A special direct telephone line had been laid the previous day, from Army Headquarters at Lower Lake Road to the echelon Barracks, for use by Army coup conspirators.  Once the coup was complete, the leaders were to meet at the Queen’s House where they were to get Governor General Sir Oliver Goonathileke to dissolve Parliament and take direct control of the State.

The news of the coup naturally shocked the PM, which was to take place within an hour of her being informed, but she swung into timely immediate prevention action. The Navy’s internal security personnel were detailed to guard Temple Trees, unsure of how deep the conspiracy had penetrated the ranks of the Army and Police. She immediately called an emergency meeting at Temple Trees with the top service commanders, to summon the junior Police and Army officers acting under the orders of the coup leaders to be questioned.

It was revealed that the coup’s conspirators’ military element was led by a cousin of S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, Colonel Fredrick C. de Saram of the Ceylon Artillery and Colonel Maurice de Mel, the Commandant of the Volunteer Force (second-in-command of the Army); the Police element was led by DIG C.C. “Jungle” Dissanayake, the Senior Deputy Inspector General of Police in change of Range I (brother of DIG S.A. Dissanayake, Director of the CID) and DIG Sydney de Zoysa responsible for coordination between the services; it was planned by Deputy Director of Land Development, Douglas Liyanage of the Ceylon Civil Service and supported by Rear Admiral Royce de Mel, later Commander of the Navy and brother of Colonel Maurice de Mel.

Just as the first of the arrest of the coup of Neil de Alwis, MP for Baddegama was to be effected at 9:30 p.m. C.C. “Jungle” Dissanayaka was informed the plan had leaked and the coup leaders retracted.


Military coup named ‘Holdfast’ crushed

Premier Sirimavo had by then ordered the arrest of Dissanayake and J.F. Bede Johnpillai (ASP Traffic) that very night and the following day Colonel F.C. de Saram, Colonel Maurice de Mel and Rear Admiral Royce de Mel were arrested along with many others. In all 31 conspirators, Commissioned Officers from the Army and the Navy, Gazetted Officers from the Police and one civil servant were arrested.

Mrs. B successfully crushed the military coup named ‘Holdfast’.

All the 26 charged with conspiring to overthrow an elected government were Christians; in terms of ethnicity, there were 12 Sinhalese, six Tamils and six Burghers among them. The remaining five were not prosecuted due to lack of evidence. The Air Force, under the command of seconded RAF officers, were ruled out of being involved. Among those named as not involved in the coup were Army Major General H. Winston G. Wijekoon, IGP M.W.F. Abeykoon and Captain of the Navy Commodore Rajan Kadirgamar.

The accused were defended by some of the best lawyers led by G.G. Ponnambalam, H.W. Jayewardena and S.J. Kadirgamar to counter the “inquisitor” Felix Dias Bandaranaike. 

A third Court sat for 324 days from 3 June 1963, and convicted 11 of the 24 accused including Col. F.C. de Saram, Col. Maurice de Mel, Rear Admiral Royce de Mel, Douglas Liyanage, Sidney de Zoysa, Wilmot Abraham (later died in prison in 1964), B.I. Loyola, Wilton White, Nimal Jayakody, Noel Matthysz, Victor Joseph, Basil Jesudason, John Felix, David Tambyah, Samuel Jackson and Rodney de Mel. 

The sentence was 10 years in jail and confiscation of property. However, the condemned sought redress from the Privy Council. In December 1965 it held the Special Act of 1962 ultra vires of the Ceylon Constitution had denied fair trial and acquitted all 11 on that technicality.

This episode in our history sheds light on Premier Sirimavo’s iron will pitted against an unseen military rebellion, endorsing her courage and accomplishment of sustaining democracy!   


Sirima-Shastri Pact

She resolved the contentious issue of “statelessness” of plantation workers of Indian origin living in the central highlands of the island, estimated at 975,000, which was regarded as a creditable accomplishment 

In 1964, the Sirima-Shastri Pact was hailed as a diplomatic breakthrough which saw India taking 525,000 such people, and Sri Lanka 300,000, leaving a residue of 150,000. Then both countries absorbed 75,000 each of the balance in the 1974 second accord she had with Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

However, under the SLFP’s radical Socialist policies, many Western business assets were nationalised. This caused disputes with the United States and the United Kingdom over compensation for seized assets. Such policies led to a temporary decline in SLFP power. Bandaranaike nationalised the oil companies. This led to a boycott of the country by the oil cartels, which was broken with aid from the Kanas Oil Producers Co-operative. The island was thrust full-tilt into the emerging Non-Aligned Movement; and all Government business was transferred to the State-owned Bank of Ceylon and the new People’s Bank, bringing an end to American aid; Soviet aid was sought for industrialisation projects; and education was reformed in favour of the Buddhist Sinhalese.


Loses Govt. power but elected to Parliament

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. For all this Mrs. Bandaranaike paid a high price. 

At the end of 1964, under pressure from right-wing Buddhist leaders, some SLFP MPs crossed the floor, and the Government collapsed. She lost a vote of no-confidence and the SLFP lost the following year’s elections, but was herself elected to Parliament for the first time. Tables turned in 1965; the UNP’s Dudley Senanayake was Prime Minister while she was Leader of the Opposition. 


Elected Prime Minister – “the only man in the cabinet”

Not to be outdone in 1970, the United Left Front, led by the SLFP, (SLFP, LSSP and the Communists) won a two-thirds majority in Parliament. She was elected to Parliament and Sirimavo (the suffix “vo” denotes respect) R.D. Bandaranaike took office for the second time as the Prime Minister. 

Soon after the socialist bandwagon set off again at full speed – although not fast enough for the militant and disaffected youths of the extreme left-wing People’s Liberation Front, the Janatha Vimukthi Peremuna (JVP). Having benefited from Mrs. Bandaranaike’s educational reforms, they found there were still no jobs for them. The test of her indomitable courage came when the JVP launched an insurrection in 1971 to topple her democratically-elected Government.

It was at that time then that the incorrigible Sir John Kotelawala observed that the height of the insurgency that she was “the only man in the Cabinet”. It was swiftly crushed, though at the cost of an estimated 1,000 young lives. More than 10,000 were jailed, although most were later released. 

After overcoming the traumatic period in 1972, a birthday party for her niece Heshani (brother Clifford’s daughter) fondly called Rose was organised at Tintagel. Her niece, the daughter of the PM’s brother who was our neighbour in Balangoda, was the writer’s school mate at Musaeus, now both living down Rosmead Place. Thus the first meeting of the Prime Minister happened at just nine years old, when the birthday girl’s aunt, Sirimavo was first introduced to the writer. 


Charismatic personality 

Her deep voice was unusual, but her attire, a pretty pink Kandyan sari, put me at ease, it seemed closer home and her sweet smile, and eventually her charm! – She ordered another round of sweets to be served to the children! Besides being the aunt of the birthday girl, she looked very much in charge. It showed with each gesture. What more, she had won over all the children gathered in no time.

What seemed most imposing as I entered Tintagel was the huge glass-framed box that hung on the wall which contained the blood-soaked banian of S.W.R.D. I remember staring at it, intrigued, yet a bit troubling while playing hide-and-seek and not quite understanding why it was there.

Many years later, when I understood it all, I wondered if it was this grim reminder of the tragedy that they went past each morning that drove the lady of the house and two of the children with such determination in their respective political journeys and the eldest to abhor to tread that path.

With the birthday party over, the lifestyle we had settled well into, in the heart of Colombo from which my father had now expanded the company portfolio tea estates into almost eight in number, was also to end. 


Nationalisation of the tea estates

Deeply shaken in the aftermath of the insurrection, the Government pressed on hurriedly with land reform, nationalisation of the tea estates. Mrs. B, driven by her husband’s socialist Radical policies, put the plans to first gear.

Nationalisation of plantations commenced with Stage 1 of the Land Reform Act in 1972 which covered the proprietary-owned plantations, Agency House-managed plantations were nationalised under Stage 11 of the Land Reform Act in 1975 in the country. The rule applied to all and was implemented to the letter.

The watershed moment crushed hundreds of proprietor and company planers. Seven tea estates were lost overnight, albeit just 50 acres, each, of my father and four other planter shareholders alone. Incidentally and ironically, two of the shareholders were cousins of the Prime Minister. The 50 acres my father was allocated however consisted of mostly rock. If this was because he was a brother-in-law of a sitting UNP MP, was not known. Nevertheless he wrote to the Government that he would not require the 50 acres. Hundreds of planters fell victim to nationalisation of estates, most had heart attacks and my planter father although traumatised by the ordeal, a southerner made of sterner stuff, left the country with the entire family, from India driving himself overland all the way and crossing the English Channel via hovercraft to England.

The life of the writer just 12 years of age, was to change, like for hundreds of others who belonged to families as a group or individually-owned estates by the implementation of this Act. Mrs. Bandaranaike also imposed rigid State control over the economy, which had the now familiar consequences. Under the impact of soaring oil prices, living standards collapsed in a welter of rationing, bureaucracy and corruption. 


New Constitution

She altered the face of Ceylon, in many ways controversially, made it a Republic, and changed its name to Sri Lanka. The new Republican Constitution, giving the foremost place to Buddhism, perhaps dismayed mainly Hindu Tamils. 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, within which time yet again, Bandaranaike failed to effectively deal with ethnic rivalries and economic distress.

With her excellence in international relations as the finest diplomat Sri Lanka produced, she stormed the world stage with the Non-Aligned summit in Colombo in 1976 and won the world, but was losing the battle at home. The UNP obtained a landslide victory in the 1977 elections, the United Front was routed, winning only eight seats. Besides the far-reaching changes to the country’s policies, JR created two new ministries to deal with the plantations. Two planters, Ranjan Wijeratna and my father Reginald Samerenayake Munasinghe, who lost the estates were ironically appointed as Chairman and Vice Chairman respectively of the Land Reform Commission. 


Civic rights stripped 

The UNP, led by Junius Richard Jayewardene, secured a 75% majority, which he used ruthlessly to tighten the authoritarian regime his predecessor had imposed in her second term. Jayewardene revised the 1972 Constitution and had himself elected Executive President, setting up an oppressive State with the mere trappings of democracy. In 1980, he vindictively stripped Sirima’s civic rights for seven years for abuse of power and expelled her from Parliament. 

With Mrs. Bandaranaike unable to play any public role, the SLFP was riven by discord. In the difficult years ahead, her main task was to hold the party together and, with very few cards to play, to counter Jayewardene’s tricky but masterly manoeuvres.

Succession to the party leadership became a bone of contention between her son Anura, who was moving to the right, and her daughter Chandrika, who eventually broke away. Chandrika, with her popular film-star husband Vijaya Kumaranatunga, formed their own left-wing party – one of whose main aims was to seek a rapprochement with the Tamils. But with her civic rights restored in 1986, Mrs. Bandaranaike recovered her place as unchallenged leader and the SLFP’s fortunes rose again. 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. 


Loses presidential elections

These were years of mounting violence in Sri Lanka, more often than not initiated by the Government or the ruling UNP. The nationwide pogrom against Tamils in 1983 saw armed resistance with such effect that in 1987 India sent in troops to impose a peace settlement. It failed, but Mrs. Bandaranaike, once India’s greatest ally on the island, close family friend of the Gandhi family, hotly opposed the intervention, in the name of the Sinhalese nationalism she had long since embraced. 

Without influence either in Delhi or among the Tamils, she was powerless to sway events. Nor could she prevent rising violence in the south. In 1989, the JVP, by now more chauvinist than the Marxist, was crushed by the UNP Government – with vastly greater brutality than in 1971. Estimates of the number slaughtered vary from 30,000 to 70,000; no prisoners were taken and no trials held – reported as a sharp contrast with Mrs. Bandaranaike’s treatment of the JVP. 

Her last bid for power came in the presidential elections of 1988, and the Parliamentary polls of the following year. With the cards stacked so heavily against her by Jayewardene and his successor, Ranasinghe Premadasa, she could hardly win, though despite all the violence and electoral manipulation he was being alleged to have used, Premadasa secured only 50.1% of the votes. However, the UNP lost its two-thirds majority in Parliament, its chief weapon in manipulating the Constitution. 


The chosen one

After her second daughter, Chandrika’s actor husband, Vijeya Kumaranatunga’s tragic death, she saw the daughter eventually re-join the SLFP and, proving herself a consummate politician. She secured the party leadership in 1994 at the expense of Anura, who had angrily crossed over to the UNP.

The eldest daughter Sunethra relates in the film screened to mark the 100 years of Mrs. B’s birth that in the eyes of her father S.W.R.D, the son was favoured. “There’s no doubt about that,” she emphasises, adding that her mother however had not favoured any gender in particular. 

However, it is no secret that Mrs. B knew which one of the two of her politically-inclined offspring had the traits to lead and chose in this regard the second daughter over her son. But, said Mrs. Bandaranaike consolingly, “He’s my son and I love him.”


Interviewing the world’s first Prime Minister

In 1989, the writer as the Women’s Editor and World News Editor of The Daily Island newspaper of which her elder brother Seevali Ratwatte was the Chairman, sought an interview of the sitting Opposition Leader, for International Women’s Day. The appointment was deliberately sabotaged by a Private Secretary (not a relative of Mrs. B). Unwilling to relent upon such injustice at secretary level, determined to interview the world’s first Prime Minister, I contacted uncle Clifford, Mrs. B’s brother who was my first visitor at birth and twice a neighbour. I got the interview the very next morning.

Although my uncle P.C. Imbulana in Government then as Labour Minister was her colleague, in Parliament, she preferred to acknowledge me through the connections of my father to the SLFP and was quick to ask uncle Clifford the minute she saw me, her questions in quick succession looking me straight in the eye: “Ah! This is Reggie’s youngest daughter? How is your father?”

Yes it was her smile that captures your attention first, likewise it does with her political daughter who inherited that as well. In this column I will share a couple of statements made to me on that day of the interview that eventually lasted one-and-a-half hours. Her responses were clear, brief, firm and strong. No hesitations in sight. Mrs. Bandaranaike first spoke on how the SLFP faced the first election.

“In 1956 when Parliament was prematurely dissolved by Sir John, S.W.R.D. did not have the ready cash to spend for the SLFP Party at the elections. Almost all his candidates were not people of means. They were mainly rural-based persons.

“Whatever he had of his own money and those of his friends and well-wishers wasn’t sufficient. With no capitalists to give him funds unlike for the UNP, S.W.R.D. was forced to take a loan from the bank for which he had to mortgage the only property he had in Colombo which was the house we lived in, in Rosmead Place. After the deeds were examined by bank lawyers and no flaw found after the usual procedure followed, the loan was approved, but it was blocked at the 11th hour and wasn’t given.

“A lawyer friend came to the rescue like a ‘Messiah’ and offered to give the needed as a loan even without interest to be returned after the elections. The late Mr. A. P. Jayasuriya and I had to sign the pro-note for the purpose.

“With the election over, and after S.W.R.D. became Prime Minister, the Bank Chairman who treated him shabbily with delaying tactics, and even keeping him waiting long outside his room earlier, became very polite and courteous and offered to release the loan which before the election which was deliberately sabotaged.

“S.W.R.D. took the loan because he had to pay it back to the lender who was good enough to give it to him even without interest. When my husband met with his untimely death, it fell upon my shoulders to pay back this loan. I kept on paying it in instalments as stipulated in the Loan Agreement.

“Although there were vast acreages of land left for him by his late father, due to neglect and robbing, the income was insufficient. After his death, we were called upon to pay heavy death duties for which we had to sell some properties. I paid back the loan with whatever I got including my allowance as Prime Minister.”

Wasn’t compensation offered by the Govt.?

“Premier Dahanayake offered to get the State to pay me compensation. He said certain countries had paid the widows of assassinated leaders, for example in Burma. But I categorically refused to accept a cent as compensation for the blood of my late husband.”

Being the only woman in the cabinet how was it like to work with the rest being all male?

“I was often asked the question how I functioned with an all-male Cabinet. I must say that I had no problems. They all co-operated and gave me all the support necessary. Well, I appointed my Cabinet of Ministers,” she quipped, visibly amused.

Her wit thrown in between was amazing, her grasp of politics was exceptional and playing the perfect hostess, all the while, all in one. What a personality and what charisma. Mrs. Bandaranaike’s role was not from kitchen to Cabinet as how others would love to speak of her rise. What most need to be reminded is she was the other half of the team that saw her husband rise from being a Minister to Leader of the Opposition and to being Prime Minister within a span of their 20 years of marriage. 

My father, mother, uncle and I gathered at the latter’s official residence, at what I had dubbed our usual nightly “political dinners” in the ’80s at Longden Place that night. Intrigued at me being mesmerised by this lady, I was for once left speechless for a moment when my father asked: “How did the interview go?” “She is one phenomenal lady!” said I, marvelling her. They all nodded in unison, my uncle included. Such was the admiration of her courage even from a sitting Government Minister of a rival party, sitting opposite to each other in Parliament for three decades. Based on such broad views and magnanimity was the political background in which we then grew up, as opposed to what it is today.


Passing the baton

What finally broke the UNP Government of 16 years and counting was Premadasa’s assassination in 1993. By then age was telling on Mrs. Bandaranaike, but yet, was unwilling to step down. She decided to hand over the reign just before the Parliamentary elections in August 1994, impressed by Chandrika’s brilliant campaigning which the writer was witness to and was in the thick of, having been appointed that time as the Press Secretary to the Opposition office in Parliament on an invitation by the General Secretary of the UNP party, thus directly involved in the presidential election campaign in charge of the foreign correspondents. I was amazed by her energy and her talent.

The daughter being elected as the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, a unique achievement, being a moment of triumph for Sirimavo, is an understatement. The daughter of two Prime Ministers of the country, Chandrika won the presidential elections three months later, and appointed her mother as the Prime Minister – a symbolic act intended to extirpate Jayewardene’s injustice over her civic rights. Some would call it natural justice. The new President went down on her knees and worshiped her mother, Premier Sirimavo, after the latter took her oaths. Real power, however, remained in her daughter’s hands.

By this time my Uncle Imbulana was Governor Central Province on an appointment made by the UNP Government. The appointment to that position is made by the President in office at his or her will. However President Chandrika retained my uncle for the remainder of his tenure befitting the real meaning of Governor – that of being a position above party politics – and individuals who have honourably served in the country in relatively high office for a considerable amount of time irrespective of earlier party affiliations. Other Governors of her choosing at that time were of similar status and standing.

Sirimavo retired as Prime Minister in August 2010. At the 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 resigned to allow her daughter to appoint a hardliner, Ratnasiri Wickremanayaka, in an attempt to boost the Government’s fight against Tamil separatists ahead of the elections. 

Criticisms can mount of her governing on socialist-oriented economic policies and populist measures, some of which had disastrous results and plunged the country into ruin over the years. But that cannot change the remaining fact that she is the catalyst, her ascendancy would have emboldened women of her era to come to the limelight, hold power and storm male bastions. My colleague in The Island D.B.S. Jeyaraj rightly pens, “There is no denying that Sirima Bandaranaike was an incorruptible figure. Her financial integrity has been beyond reproach.”

Added to her caps are her offspring: her eldest being a leading philanthropist and her son during his lifetime held positions of Minister, Leader of the Opposition and Speaker and the second daughter the country’s fifth President and first woman 69-year-old President  Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga who served from 1994 to 2005, ironically since last March chairs a special Presidential Task Force on Reconciliation (PTFR) to identify urgent reconciliation needs of the minority Tamil community. Thus she is an active powerful figure in Sri Lankan politics today with an eye on the safeguarding of the party her father founded and mother sustained

“Whatever her faults, Bandaranaike – affectionately known throughout Sri Lanka as ‘Mrs B’ – was someone who believed passionately in democracy. So strong was her belief in the ballot box that she was prepared to risk her life in 1962 when there was a military coup in her country and took swift action to quell it. Her determination to preserve democracy perhaps explains why Sri Lanka did not go the way of several of its neighbours in the last few decades and become a military dictatorship” – The Independent.

This is a tribute and a worthy epitaph to a political leader who made her husband’s name more of a legend than her husband. A dominant matriarchal figure on the island’s political landscape for more than 40 years. Stateswoman extraordinaire, Sirimavo died in Colombo on 10 October 2000. She made her exit from this world characteristically after her last political act – casting her vote, one of the most precious of political rights – even disregarding her infirmity. 

That is testimony to her commitment, making her presence felt unto her last breath.

One phenomenal lady indeed, of Ceylon and of Sri Lanka.


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