27 June, 2022


A Century To Mrs B, The Woman Who Took Sri Lanka To The World!

By Sulakshi Thelikorala 

Dr. Sulakshi Thelikorala

Dr. Sulakshi Thelikorala

The 100th birthday of Mrs Sirimavo Bandaranaike falls on the 17th of April 2016. Mrs Bandaranaike has been the most charismatic and influential female leader in Sri Lankan politics. Known as Mrs B, Sirima, Sirimavo or methini, Mrs Sirimavo Bandaranaike holds the title of first female Prime Minister of the world.

Late 20th century saw a few remarkable Asian ladies revolutionising the global political arena, pioneering the entry of women into world politics. Mrs B was one of them, succeeding after her husband and coming to power in an era where women were not eminent in world politics, later followed by leaders like Indira Gandhi from India who was world’s longest serving woman Prime Minister.

Mrs B was the successor to Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) after the assassination of her husband, starting a family lineage of well-known Bandaranaike’s in Sri Lankan politics. Her terms in office led to a golden era of Sri Lanka’s foreign relations. She has left unremarkable memories of Sri Lanka in world history with her mediocre foreign policy. She was highly recognised in politics despite being a woman, a leader with very good diplomatic skills, charisma and charm.

Sirima BandaranaikeDigging a bit into the history, Sirima Ratwatte was born to Barnes Ratwatte and Rosalind Mahawelatenne Kumarihamy on 17th April 1916, a century ago! She was the eldest daughter of the family of six, with four brothers and one sister. The ancestral family, Ratwattes belonged to an aristocratic background the Radala’s who stand high in the local cast hierarchy. The family had hailed from Matale and was well connected to local politics as one of the ancestor was known to be the signatory on behalf of the Sinhalese to the Kandyan Convention of 1815. Her father Barnes Ratwatte, has been a Disawa (local leader) in Sabaragamuwa and her mother coming from a respected lineage of the Mahawelatenne Walauwa in Balangoda.

Sirima has been educated at one of Colombo’s most elite private girl’s schools; St Bridget’s Convent and was not a political figure until the demise of her husband. In 1940, at the age of 24, Sirima had married politically affluent Solomon West Ridgeway Dias Bandaranaike. He was hailing from a political family and was then a member of the State council. He was also the founder of SLFP and later the fourth Prime Minister of Ceylon. Sirima and SWRD had three children Sunethra, Chandrika and Anura who are also well known in the Sri Lankan political arena.

Sirima’s entry to politics is quite sudden following the demise of her husband, Mr SRWD Bandaranaike. SWRD was shot on the 26th of September 1959 by a man dressed in a yellow robe when he was serving as the countries fourth Prime Minister.

Several key political issues within SLFP led Sirima to make her way as the legitimate successor of SLFP. One such reason was the leadership vacuum created in SLFP after a sequence of events, especially the 1960 March Election defeat under the leadership of Wijeyananda Dahanayake. Within months of SLFP leadership, Sirima led the party to a landslide victory when SLFP won 1960 July General Election taking 75 out of 150 seats and Dudley Senananayake led UNP being defeated. Thus, she became the first woman Prime Minister in the world.

It is believed that her pledge to the nation – she would follow the footsteps of her husband and his socialist policies supported the victory. Moreover, it is believed that promising to bring forth the Sinhala Only Act and carry out repatriation of the estate Tamils to India too played a helping role in securing votes. Known as the “weeping widow” for frequently bursting into tears during the election campaign, was also contributory to her fame during this period.

Taking a look at the Sri Lankan foreign policy, the post independent era foreign policy has followed much of a pro west approach under the rule of the UNP regime until 1956. ( D.S. Senanayake – 1948 to 1952 , Dudley Senanayake – 1952 to 1953 and Sir John Kotelawala – 1953 to 1956). Nevertheless, in 1956 the Sri Lankan foreign policy underwent a significant drift with Mr. S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike winning a landslide election, ending the UNP regime of eight years. Unlike the UNP regime, Bandaranaike regime is supported by the communist and other socialist groups of Sri Lanka, thus it deviates from the pro west to a more socialist approach, yet neutral in the international arena.

Bandaranaikes were known as socialists, who described themselves as leaders representing the “little man”, thus they were largely supported by socialists groups in the country. Mrs B was no different than her husband. Coming to power Mrs B followed the footsteps of Mr SWRD Bandaranaike and was principally supported by a strong team of Communists in Sri Lanka. She started her journey with the principal of nationalisation of many sectors of the Sri Lankan economy. She nationalised schools, banks, insurance and petroleum. She changed the countries official language from English to Sinhala and conducted all government business in Sinhala.

The policy of nationalism led to the deterioration of relationship with the West. The relationship with USA deteriorated due to nationalisation of oil importation and distribution in Sri Lanka. The oil monopoly of Sri Lanka after independence was mainly held by the west accounting to 80% of Sri Lanka’s oil requirement. The importation and distribution of oil in Ceylon was handled by two American companies- Caltex and Standard Vacuum American and Shell, a British company. As a result the prices of oil were subjected to sky rocketed monopolistic prices. In reducing the import cost of oil to Sri Lanka whilst saving foreign exchange, the Sirimavo government established the Ceylon Petroleum Cooperation in 1961. By the 1st of January 1964 Ceylon Petroleum Cooperation came into effect in as the sole and exclusive right to import, export and distribute specified petroleum products in Sri Lanka breaking down the monopoly of western oil companies and partially taking them over facing repercussions as suspended of foreign aid by USA in return.

Thus, the pro west nature of Sri Lankan politics in the previous UNP regime changed even though Bandaranaike’s were not considered anti west. As a result, Mrs Bandaranaike moved closer to China and the Soviet Union. Mrs B during her tenures made several visit to China where China had a unique stay in her relations.

Mrs.B’s mediation in the China India border dispute was a remarkable milestone in world history that illustrated her close companionship with both countries as well as her good diplomatic skills. Hence, she played a neutral role as an arbitrator to end the China and India border dispute in 1962. It became an easy task to take both parties to negotiable table due to the cordial relationship she maintained with these two countries and the high regard she had from both these countries.

The foreign policy started by SWRD Bandaranaike, later followed by Mrs Bandaranaike is known as neutral. Mr SWRD Bandaranaike believed in “friends of all and enemies of none”, not aligned to any power bloc in the dawn of a cold war. The Bandaranaike regime was able to make Sri Lanka stand out in world politics as an influential independent nation with neutralism coming close with nonaligned policy.

The Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) came to play in the light of cold war. NAM is a group of states which are not formally aligned with or against any of these major power blocs. It was founded in Belgrade in 1961, and was largely conceived by India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru; Indonesian president, Sukarno; Egyptian President, Nasser; Ghana’s president Kwame; and Yugoslavia’s president Tito. Mrs. Bandaranayke’s role in NAM was highly respected and accepted by the world leaders. She was chosen as the Chairman of the Non-Aligned Movement and hosted the fifth summit in Sri Lanka from 16th to 19th August 1976 with the participation of numerous heads of state. To this day it is believed to be the largest event hosted in Sri Lanka, attended by most of the world leaders.

She was gathering popularity as a world leader and enjoyed continued success in foreign affairs unlike any other Sri Lankan leader in the past. Her diplomatic ties extended worldwide, where Sri Lanka commenced diplomatic relations with Egypt, Nepal, Soviet Union, China and Poland. Sri Lankan benefited from her close liaison with several countries by receiving “gifts” of new industrial plants to Sri Lanka such as Kelani Tyre factory, Textile factory and the Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall (BMICH).

Mrs Bandaranaike’s relations with India was special. India being the super power of South Asia, she maintained close links with India as well as the governing Nehru family. Harnessing her close ties with India she took steps to deport estate workers migrated to Sri Lanka to work in plantations during the British rule. After negotiation with Indian Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri, she signed the Sirima- Shasthri Pact in 1964 to grant Ceylonese citizenship to 300,000 of the Indian population in Sri Lanka, while 525,000 would be repatriated to India which later in time did not have complete success. The Kachchathivu agreement was another significant pact signed during Mrs.B’s regime. Ownership of the Kachchathivu island was a controversy until 1974 when the island was administered by both countries. Nevertheless after negotiations, Mrs B signed an agreement known as the Sirima – Indira pact recognising the ownership of Kachchathivu to Sri Lanka despite the opposition from South India.

Mrs. B has her contributions to world politics in her own way. She declared the Indian Ocean a Peace Zone at the Non Aligned Movement Conference held in Lusaka, the reason being Diego Garcia, an atoll located south of the equator in the central Indian Ocean used by the USA as a Navy Base in the late sixties. This was a potential threat to shipping routes from Asia to Europe Middle East and Africa. Therefore, with the approval NAM, Sri Lanka initiated the Declaration of the Indian Ocean as a Zone of Peace to the agenda of 26th UN General Assembly in 1971.

Leaving the international fames aside, Mrs. B faced great challenges and difficulties as a political leader on home soil compared to many other local leaders. The initial challenges came her way at the beginning of her political career with a significant coup against the government. Next was in 1971, an year into her second term in office when youth movements came forth with arms. Yet, it is believed that Mrs B had faced those challenges much better than a mature politician. The final challenge came her way, giving her long pause from politics when her civil rights were taken away in 1977 by the rule of JR Jayewardene, keeping her out of politics for many years. She was not given any opportunity to return to politics until her daughter led a collation to victory in 1994. However, Mrs B is remembered even today as the first female Prime Minister in the World and the leader who gave Sri Lanka the due recognition in the international political arena.

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Latest comments

  • 13

    Great woman and politician. Needs to be remembered for at least another 500 years and the person who submitted this stupid, idiotic, article needs to be remembered for at least 250 years.
    Just shows how some people want to be in the limelight with regard to their know how.
    With articles like this sri lankans have nothing to be proud of other than the super brained doctor who submitted it trying to show off her education.
    Mrs B, what a joker she was, a joker she is and a joker always will be.
    The people who submit articles like this are bigger jokers.
    Let SDB be forgotten forever inside her concrete and marble tomb like the meglomaniacs she adored in other parts of the world and let peace and harmony envelope the land. Peace to all.

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  • 9

    Mrs Bandaranaike by her Kandyan Feudal policies made Sri Lanka one of the poorest nations in Asia by the end of her reign. Her huge nationalised ventures became hotbeds of corruption and nepotism.

    Hence, while she took Sri Lanka to become a significant member of the mismanaged non-aligned nations, she also sowed the roots of the ethnic conflict and the JVP insurrection, by her Sinhala only policy.

  • 11

    Hello Dr.,
    Nice article that brings back very bitter memories of my youth. I too, dear Dr like you, am well educated. Wanted to do better but unfortunately for the lovely lady you glorify i could not proceed because of her socialist / marxist / self centered policies at that time. Had to get up at 4am to stand in the bread queue at 5am. Came home with the loaf of bread at 6.30am. Had b’fast and left home for college at 7.00am. Spent the whole of saturday / sunday from 9am to 3pm standing in the queue for the weekly rations. Rice, sugar, flour, chillies, onions, maldive fish, dhall, tinned milk, etc etc.
    Came home about 4pm for lunch.
    Had to use much influence to buy a trouser length for christmas, luckily my school friends came from high families so that was not that bad, but what about those who did not have influence.
    Always wanted to wear a imported pair of shoes but had to settle for Bata for that was all available. Anyway Bata shoes were good and comfortable.
    Wanted Wilkinson Sword razor blades for shaving as the local razor blades were so blunt that a suicide attempt would have been a utter flop. Luckily two or three classmates were from the diplomatic community so that was obtainable, thank God.
    Aftershave lotion was only a dream so used mum’s Ponds vanishing creme to massage the face.
    Text books were so difficult to find that at one time wanted to quit school but willpower prevented me from doing so.
    Clothes ! yes clothes, shirts and trousers were treasured that they were washed once a week. Hentley shirts, a good brand was a icon but the best was exported for foreign exchange and factory rejects for the local market.
    Parakum condensed milk was the only brand available but only at the co-op. Most days we drank plain tea with rationed sugar.
    Toy shops were only a dream and in catalogues sent by friends from the US and UK.
    Radios, for entertainment was a few local brands and not that affordable. My first radio a SONY CF-580 was purchased when i left the lovely land with a heavy heart in 1977 only to come back 12 years later on holiday.
    Yes !!!!!! Sulakhshini that was what we underwent under the rule of the woman you are trying to glorify. More can be said but what is said proves a point.
    Oh ! i forgot the 1971 insurrection and the months of curfew that followed. Better to stop there as it creates anger.

    As a devout Christian ( Roman Catholic ) i am prevented from cursing the dead lady, but i very firmly believe in Almighty God’s Judgement and Justice. She must be paying for all what she did in the name of Socialism and so will all those who plunder and rob.

    Her rule has made me a humble person and not to seek extravagance but to live with what is available. This is a great Blessing from God and thank God once more i am never in need. God can take the worst situation and extract immense good from it and the Mill of God grinds slowly but surely. All that is needed is patience as the antidote.

    You give thanks that life for you has been a doddle. !!!!!!!!!!

  • 3


    ” Had to get up at 4am to stand in the bread queue at 5am. Came home with the loaf of bread at 6.30am. Had b’fast and left home for college at 7.00am. Spent the whole of saturday / sunday from 9am to 3pm standing in the queue for the weekly rations. Rice, sugar, flour, chillies, onions, maldive fish, dhall, tinned milk, etc etc. Came home about 4pm for lunch. “

    Think about it.

    The whole country was on a diet, except a selected few.

    You hardly saw any fat men, women, boys and girls, and obesity and diabetes was not a problem, but nutrition was.

    Eating Manioc and Batala, did change the nutrition problem , and did not make the populace fat wither. The populace certainly did get plenty of exercise.

  • 5

    Dear Sulakshi,

    Not quite the response you expected was it?

    Perhaps now you can go ahead and write an article glorifying Wijeweera and Prabha.

  • 2

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