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The World's First Female Elected Leader: Sirimavo Bandaranaike (Sri Lankan Prime Minister)

The politics unfolding in Sri Lanka today are constantly in the headlines. I knew very little about Sri Lankan politics and while I still can’t call myself an expert or even an amateur on Sri Lankan politics what I have come to realise through some recent reading is that Sri Lanka is a country with a long history of political instability.


Sirimavo Bandaranaike is sworn in as the world's first female Prime Minister, 1960

Whilst reading about women of politics I came across the story of Sirimavo Bandaranaike, a former Sri Lankan Prime Minister and the first female PM in the world. This is a substantial feat, so I thought it interesting that I knew so little about her (or had actually never heard her name before which seems odd considering she was the first female PM in the world).


Through reading about her and unravelling her story I have come to realise that many of the issues facing Sri Lankan politics today were prevalent back when she was PM and throughout her political career. Ethnic divisions, the hangover from colonial days and a struggling economy have constantly shaped Sri Lankan politics.


This isn’t intended to be a piece on Sri Lankan politics though. This is a brief look at the world’s first female Prime Minister – Sirimavo Bandaranaike.


Note: on 22 May 1972 the country was re-named Sri Lanka from Ceylon and established as an independent nation. For ease of reading, I have referred to the nation as Sri Lanka throughout this blog.


The marriage of Sirimavo and Ratwatte, 3 October 1940 (sirimavobandaranaike.org)

Born on 17 April 1916 into an aristocratic family, though she was a Buddhist, she was educated at English and Catholic schools. In 1940 she entered into an arranged marriage with Ratwatte Bandaranaike who had been educated at Oxford and had transitioned from being a lawyer into politics. For the next two decades she was a dutiful wife to her ambitious husband and raised their children. Though her husband was said to dismiss her input into his career he came to respect her opinions, and she became one of his unofficial policy advisors, especially when he became Prime Minister in 1956.


Three years later he was tragically assassinated in his home by a Buddhist Monk who believed his policies did not support traditional medicine. Given his many other policies that arguably had a wider impact it is interesting that this is what got him killed.


What followed in the country was increased political instability and votes of no confidence in the sitting parliament so when elections were called for a second time in one year, 1960, Mrs. Bandaranaike was asked to stand for election. Reluctantly she agreed.


On 21 July 1960, her party, the Freedom Party won in a landslide election making her the world’s first female Prime Minister. What is unique about the situation is that she wasn’t actually an elected member of parliament, despite being the head of the party, so an elected official had to stand down so she could have his seat.


Some of her earliest policy changes saw the influence of the Catholic elite minimized and she had Sinhala made the official language which caused great concern to the Tamil-speaking minority who were already disenfranchised by the 1948 Citizenship Act which had made them stateless (the Tamils being of Indian origin and having been brought to Sri Lanka largely by the English).


She maintained a neutral foreign policy but notably cut ties with Israel and nurtured Sri Lanka’s relationship with China (remember this was during the cold war era so this was an interesting move given the country’s English past). To top this off she also recognised East Germany but she came to be well respected internationally by both sides and established Sri Lanka as a non-aligned nation.

Sirimavo Bandaranaike on a state visit to China, June-July 1972 (sirimavobandaranaike.org)

Many of her policies were considered communist with main industries nationalised as a way to stem industrial action and to control production. This was considered necessary by her party given the failing economic situation.


In December 1964 her nationalisation program went a step too far in attempting to nationalise the media which ultimately resulted in a vote of no confidence and an election being held in 1965 which her party lost, thus ending her term as Prime Minister and making her the first female to hold the position of Leader of the Opposition in the world.


Five years later, in 1970, her party formed a coalition with the Communist Party and Lanka Sama Samaja Party to create the United Front Coalition which won the election by a landslide. As Prime Minister once again she set about installing more policies to remove the old colonial influences on Sri Lanka with a new constitution and new rules in place for members of parliament that effectively limited many of the old (British-influenced) order from holding seats.


Her reign as Prime Minister this time was plagued by instability as a result of a failing economy (sound familiar?) In 1971 her government was almost overthrown by a youth insurrection as the small Sri Lankan army was not able to combat the militants. Thanks to her neutral foreign policies she received support from both sides of foreign politics and her party were able to hang onto power for the next six years and see the transition of the nation from British Ceylon to an independent Sri Lanka in 1972 (though they remained a member of the Commonwealth of Nations).


Sirimavo Bandaranaike addresses the Non-Alignment Conference in Colombo, 1976

Despite being a popular figure in international politics at home, in the 1977 election her coalition was soundly defeated. Though she maintained her seat, three years later, in 1980, she was expelled from the parliament following a corruption conviction. This meant that even though she remained the head of her party she was unable to have a role in politics for a number of years, so the role was handed to her son, Anura.


Under her son the party moved further to the right which led her daughter, Chandrika to form the new Sri Lanka People’s Party which was focused on harmonising relations with the Tamil population. In recent years these relations had become increasingly strained with great degrees of violence being perpetrated by Tamil separatists and equally by retaliating nationalists with the Government seeming to be doing nothing. At the same time general discontent for the government increased with the privatisation of many industries. Instead of aiding the economy this simply exacerbated the difference between rich and poor.


By 1987 the country had descended into full Civil War. The year before, 1986, Bandaranaike’s political ban had been lifted and though she didn’t immediately re-enter politics given the deteriorating situation of the country she decided to run in the 1988 Presidential elections. She was defeated but went on to take part in the 1989 parliamentary elections where she survived an assassination attempt, though one of her aids was seriously injured.


Though her party did not win the election she once again took up the position of Leader of the Opposition where she led the impeachment campaign against President Premadasa for human rights abuses. In 1990, after the Tamil’s broke a ceasefire instead of attempting negotiations the President had endorsed a military response, this was supported by her son Anura. Ultimately the campaign failed and the President simply adjourned parliament.

The Bandaranaike Family prior to Ratwatte's assasination (Daily Mail)

At this time, her daughter Chandrika returned to Sri Lanka after having fled the country following her husband’s assassination in the late 1980s. She became a supporter of her mother who suffered a stroke in 1991.


Suffering failing health but still very much of sound mind she ran in the 1994 parliamentary elections where her party won and her daughter became Prime Minister and she was granted a special role in the Cabinet as Minister without portfolio, by this time she was in her late 70s. Later in the year, Chandrika ran for President and was successful. She then appointed her mother as Prime Minister, thus Bandaranaike entered her third term as PM which she held until she stood down in August 2000 sighting health concerns.


Just two months later on 10 October 2000 Bandaranaike suffered a heart attack and died. This occurred during the parliamentary election and two days of national mourning was declared.


The World's First Elected Female Leader, Sirimavo Bandaranaike

When I began reading the story of Bandaranaike my first thought was, is she a hero or villain? I went in thinking I’d learn about a great female leader who broke the glass ceiling but instead I found myself conflicted over many of her decisions and policies. Given she was involved in Sri Lankan politics for so long though I found my opinion changing across her career as I began to understand why she implemented many of her policies. While I may not agree with some of her decisions, I can accept why she made certain decisions in the interest of the nation.


Sirimavo Bandaranaike is indeed a very important person within the history of both Sri Lanka and women in politics. I hope that her story is shared by many more.


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