The Weeping Widow

Written by S.G. Jilanee  •  Special Features  •  May 2013 PDF Print E-mail

Sri Lanka’s Sirimavo Bandaranaike, the world’s first female head of government, was a perfect blend of ambition and perseverance.

Born on April 17, 1916, Sirimavo Bandaranaike became famous as the modern world’s first female head of government. She was the widow of Sri Lanka’s fourth prime minister, Solomon Bandaranaike and the mother of Sri Lanka’s fourth Executive President, Chandrika Kumaratunga.

Bandaranaike received her education at St Bridget’s Convent in Colombo. In 1940, she married Solomon Bandaranaike, founder of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). After a Buddhist monk assassinated Solomon on 26 September 1959, Sirimavo took up the reins of the party as the legitimate successor to her husband. She formally entered politics in 1960 as a Senate member from the SLFP.

Bandaranaike led her party to win the July 1960 elections and became the first female prime minister in the world, pledging to continue her slain husband’s policies. Known to her fellow Sri Lankans as “Mrs. B,” Sirimavo could cleverly maneuver popular emotion to boost her support, often bursting into tears, akin to Prime Minister Mosaddegh of Iran. Her opponents therefore called her the “Weeping Widow.”

Bandaranaike was a socialist. In 1961, she nationalized key sectors of the economy such as banking and insurance, as well as all schools owned by the Roman Catholic Church at the time. She dropped English as the official language and ordered the government to conduct business in Sinhala, the language of the majority Sinhalese. The Tamils considered this a discriminatory act as well as the attempt to deny them access to all official jobs and the law. This led to an increase in Tamil militancy that escalated under succeeding administrations.

The state takeover of foreign businesses, petroleum companies in particular, roiled the United States and Britain as they halted aid to Sri Lanka. Consequently, Bandaranaike championed a policy of nonalignment by cultivating relations with China and the Soviet Union. At home, she also crushed an attempted military coup by Christian officers in 1962. Her first term as Prime Minister ended when the SLFP coalition was defeated in the 1965 elections.

Sirimavo regained power after the United Front coalition won the 1970 elections with a large majority. In 1971, she faced the JVP Insurrection of left-wing youths. It would have toppled her government but military assistance from India and Pakistan saved her regime.

During her second term, a new constitution was introduced in 1972. Ceylon was renamed Sri Lanka and became a republic. The 1973 oil crisis had a traumatic effect on the Sri Lankan economy as the government had no access to Western aid and Bandaranaike’s socialist policies stifled economic activity, leading to rationing of essential goods. Meanwhile she became increasingly intolerant of criticism and ordered a forced shutdown of the Independent newspaper group, whose publications were her fiercest critics. Earlier she had nationalized the country’s largest newspaper, Lake House, which has remained the government’s official mouthpiece.

Bandaranaike enjoyed continued success in foreign affairs. Chosen to serve as the chairman of the Non-Aligned Movement in 1976, she hosted the Movement’s conference, attended by numerous world leaders. Despite her high international standing, she was losing Sri Lankan support amid allegations of corruption and a declining economy. Elections were due in 1975 under the old constitution and to stem the tide of unpopularity, she used a provision from the new constitution to postpone the elections for two years.

Bandaranaike held her own seat in the 1977 elections, but in 1980, she was charged with abuse of power for delaying the elections in 1975–77. This resulted in her expulsion from parliament and she was banned from holding public office for seven years. The 1980s were dark years when she became a political outcast and was rejected by the people who had once worshipped her. Bandaranaike spent the next seventeen years in the opposition, warding off challenges to her leadership of the SLFP, even from her own children. She therefore played her daughter Chandrika and son Anura against one another, holding on to party control despite losing every subsequent general election.

In 1994, the SLFP-led coalition won the general elections. Chandrika successfully outmaneuvered her mother, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, becoming President in 1994. In the same year, Bandaranaike became prime minister but the constitution had changed since her last tenure. As prime minister, she was subordinate to her daughter and commanded little real power. Sirimavo Bandaranaike remained in office for a few months before her death on Election Day, 10 October 2000, after casting her vote for the very last time. 

S. G. Jilanee is a senior political analyst and the former editor of Southasia Magazine.
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