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Born to lead a country

A tribute to the late Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike whose 100th birth anniversary fell last week:

One hundred years ago, Sirima Ratwatte was born (April 17, 1916), in Ratnapura, Ceylon in Balangoda, Ratnapura District, Sabaragamuwa Province to Barnes Ratwatte Dissawe and Rosalind Mahawalethenne Kumarihamy, a reputed Ayurveda physician.

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A well-known astrologer predicted that the baby girl will one day be the 'Queen' of this country. The leadership qualities and the ability to excel in whatever she undertakes 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.

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. 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 asked Barnes Ratwatte for his daughter Sirima's hand in marriage. She was 24 years of age. The couple belonged to elite families of landowners respectively, and their horoscopes were found to match. 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.

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 battlelines in the country for the rest of the century.

First campaign

General elections the following year brought Sirima what has been described as her first baptism of political fire. At the next elections, in 1956, Bandaranaike won by a landslide after a nationalistic movement in which he gathered the support of the Sinhalese Buddhist who were considered underprivileged. 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 ending the dominance of the English-speaking elite, but, in fact, sowed the seeds of a bitter conflict.

September 26, 1959, was the day on which Sirima Ratwatte Bandaranaike's fate was to change forever. When she heard a commotion inside, she rushed in to find her husband collapsing, gravely wounded, with a Bhikkhu 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.

Education Minister Wijayananda Dahanayake became Acting Prime Minister, but 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.

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.

Politics by invitation

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.

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 was offset by her charisma, and she drew large crowds everywhere she spoke.

The results were announced on July 20, 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. As Maureen Seneviratne, her biographer wrote: "If Mr Bandaranaike's stature as a politician and leader was built over decades of campaigning, Sirima later to be known 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."

World's first Prime Minister

And thus the moment had arrived for Bandaranaike. Sirimavo Bandaranaike was sworn in as the world's first woman Prime Minister at just 44 years. 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.

A month after the election Governor-General Sir Oliver Goonetilleke appointed her to one of 15 reserved seats in the Upper House.

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 pm 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 by right-wing reserve and retired military and police officers intent on bringing the UNP back to power.

The coup plan code-named 'Operation Holdfast' was to arrest the Prime Minister, Ministers, key Government Defence officials, top brass of the armed forces, to be held in the Army headquarters. Other service commanders were to be restrained and prevented from leaving their houses that night. Once the coup was complete the leaders were to meet at the Queen's House where they were to get the Governor General Sir Oliver Goonetilleke to dissolve Parliament and take direct control of the State.

News of the coup naturally shocked the PM, which was to take place within an hour of her being informed, but she swung into immediate action. She immediately called an emergency meeting at Temple Trees with the top service commanders.

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 of 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.

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 several 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 had successfully crushed the Military coup.

A Third Court sat for 324 days from June 3, 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 ten years in jail and confiscation of property. However, the condemned sought redress from the Privy Council.

In December 1965 it held that the Special Act of 1962 was ultra vires of the Ceylon Constitution and had denied fair trial and acquitted all eleven, 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

In 1964, the Sirima-Shastri Pact was hailed as a diplomatic breakthrough which saw India taking in 525,000 people, and Sri Lanka 300,000, leaving a balance of 150,000. Then both countries absorbed 75,000 each of the balance in the 1974 Second Accord she had signed 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 US and UK over compensation for seized assets.

The island was thrust full-tilt into the emerging non-aligned movement; and all government businesses were transferred to the State-owned Bank of Ceylon and the new People's Bank.

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, UNP's Dudley Senanayake was Prime Minister while she was Leader of the Opposition.

Elected Prime Minister

In 1970, the United Left Front, led by the SLFP 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 swiftly crushed, though at the cost of an estimated 1,000 young lives. More than 10,000 were jailed, although most were later released.

Deeply shaken in the aftermath of the insurrection, the government pressed on hurriedly with land reform and nationalisation of tea estates. Mrs. B driven by her husband's socialist 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.

Mrs Bandaranaike also imposed rigid state control over the economy. 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, made it a Republic, and changed its name to Sri Lanka. 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 she 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 and the UF was routed, winning only eight seats.

The UNP, led by JR Jayewardene, secured a 75% majority, which he used ruthlessly. 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 Jayawardene'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.

With her popular film-star husband Vijaya Kumaratunga, she formed their own left-wing party - one of its main aims was to seek a rapprochement with the Tamil community. But with civic rights restored in 1986, Mrs Bandaranaike recovered her place as the unchallenged leader and the SLFP's fortunes rose again.

In 1989, the JVP, by now more chauvinist than 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.

After her second daughter, Chandrika's actor husband, Vijaya'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.

In 1989 I sought an interview of the sitting Opposition Leader, for International Women's Day.

Her wit thrown in between was amazing, her grasp of politics was exceptional and playing the perfect hostess, all the while, all in one. Mrs. Bandarenaike's role was not from kitchen to cabinet as how others would love to speak of her rise.

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. She decided to hand over the reign just before the parliamentary elections in August 1994, impressed by Chandrika's brilliant campaigning.

With the daughter elected as the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, a unique achievement, it was a moment of triumph for Sirimavo.

The daughter of two Prime Ministers, Chandrika won the Presidential elections three months later, and appointed her mother as Prime Minister - a symbolic act intended to extirpate Jayewardene's injustice.

The new President went down on her knees and worshiped her mother, Premier Sirimavo, after the latter took her oaths.

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 18 years as Prime Minister remains the most ever served by one individual in Sri Lanka.

"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 himself. Stateswoman extraordinaire, Sirimavo died in Colombo on October 10, 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 woman indeed.


Produced by Lake House Copyright 2006 - 2016 The Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Ltd.

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