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93rd birth anniversary today:

Sirimavo led SLFP and country at crucial times

The 93rd birth anniversary of the late Premier and SLFP leader Sirimavo Bandaranaike falls today. She was born as a daughter of the Kandyan chieftain Barnes Ratwatte and was brought up in the best traditions of such families that were staunch Buddhists. Though she was educated in a Westernized school in Colombo her traditional background and her own upbringing made her embrace the indigenous culture more than the Western one. Even her name Sirima with the added suffix ‘vo’to denote respect was from her Buddhist background.

When she was married to S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike in the previous century it was a very special wedding of one of the most eminent low country elite families marrying into an equally eminent Kandyan chieftain’s family. In fact it was called the ‘wedding of the century’.


Sirimavo Bandaranaike - world’s first woman Prime Minister. ANCL library file photo

Yet neither her parents nor her husband or kinsfolk would have ever imagined she would rule the country as one of its strongest leaders and achieve prominence as a leader of the Non-aligned movement with a distinct foreign policy forging close ties with India, newly emerging nations of Asia and Africa.

Her diplomacy when war was about to break between India and China in the 1960s - she asked New Delhi whether Colombo could intercede between the two contentious giants of Asia.

On that occasion she flew with her officials to Beijing, met China’s Premier Chou En Lai as an emissary of peace and next visited New Delhi with the assurance that war could be prevented.

Of course her personal friendship with the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty of India was a strong factor in bringing peace but she carved out a niche for herself in the political history of Asia as a head of government whose foreign policy of non-alignment was acceptable to even a major power like China that was not a member of the Non-Aligned Movement. Yet before that as the dutiful wife of a Prime Minister she confined herself to looking after her children but her active role in the Lanka Mahila Samithi the women’s organization took her to all the villages of her husband’s hometown and electorate Attanagalla where she helped to form women’s cooperative societies manufacturing handloom textiles.

In 1951 when S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike then Minister of Health, Local Government and the Leader of the House in D.S.Senanayake Government experience serious differences of opinion over the official language and other issues. Sirimavo was one of the influences that helped him to resign from the government and cross over to the opposition.

After he crossed over and formed the Sri Lanka Freedom Party Sirimavo worked hard to make him win Attanagalla next election in 1953.

Though the SLFP won only 9 seats in that election S.W.R.D. won the Attanagalla with the highest majority of votes in that election.

When she came to politics to lead the SLFP after 8 months of her husband’s assassination it was really not of her own choice. Leading SLFP figures implored on her to take the stewardship of the SLFP that was like a ship without a captain. It was finally the Ven. Henpitagedara Gnanaseeha Nayake Thera with a few other senior supporters of the party who convinced her that she should lead the party.

However till she won the July 1960 election with a clear majority most people thought she could not lead the party and the government.

But within the first one year she demonstrated her ability to lead the country and was responsible for bringing in a number of reforms like the schools take over among others. In those two years the vanquished anti-national forces were at work and the first coup’de etat by a group of disgruntled elites was hatched but failed.

She was the victim of another coup when she presented a controversial press bill in Parliament in 1964 and some of her colleagues including Minister Mahanama Samaraweera voted against the bill defeating the government.

Her second term of office as premier was in 1970 with a two third majority in Parliament - the United Front Government - and she was able to introduce a number of people-friendly policies like the land reform. Again she faced a youth insurgency in the South in 1971 barely one year after her government came to power.

She faced the situation and took steps to rehabilitate thousands of youth who had surrendered. Though the leaders of the insurgency Rohana Wijeweera and other JVP stalwarts were arrested and imprisoned some of the JVP members later joined the SLFP.

The courage, fortitude and integrity of Sirimavo Bandaranaike stood out among most political leaders and in victory she was noble and in defeat she was not overwhelmed.

She was always the mother figure in the SLFP and the country and worked sincerely to uplift the indigenous population in all sectors, agriculture, industry or any other as she believed in her own people.

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