24 September, 2019

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Sirima: Beyond 99 Years

By Uditha Devapriya

Uditha Devapriya

Uditha Devapriya

Some people are vilified. They are in the majority. Others have their lives commemorated every year. They are rare. It is because of this perhaps that we remember them. No one is perfect, of course, which means that no one can really claim an “icon” status without adjusting for his/her frailties. Occasionally, however, they manage to transcend those frailties and become legends. With politicians and statesmen, it must be added here hence, this is more the rule than the exception. Happily.

Sirimavo Bandaranaike would have turned 99 today. She would have turned 100 next year. She was not the most perfect leader we had. She was not the most imperfect leader we had either. Achievements come with a pinch of salt, and there usually are things every person is remembered for. That pinch of salt, nonetheless, ensures that whatever achievement we commemorate is “amply” compensated by a person’s faults. Bandaranaike, like every other leader I suppose, is celebrated with this in mind.

A country’s history goes beyond a century or two. Sometimes, however, time doesn’t matter: statesmen come, go, and leave their mark within just two or three hundred years. Not so with Sri Lanka. We’ve had kings, pretenders, rebels (both real and would-be), and turncoats. We’ve also had statesmen, but going by geopolitical realities they’ve come only once in a while. Sadly.

Sirima

Sirima

Sirimavo Bandaranaike was not a stateswoman. But she was one of us. An “Iron Lady”. Commendable, given that politics wasn’t her preserve. Unlike the other two female leaders during her time – Indira Gandhi and Golda Meir – she had to take to it afresh. That she was born to an aristocratic Radala family and brushed with politics as time went by is peripheral. The truth is that at the time of the 1960 elections, just 10 months after her husband’s assassination, she seemed unchallenged. She almost was. Which is where her journey really began.

It wasn’t easy, of course. There were pitfalls. Undeterred by them, she continued her husband’s movement. She took over our schools and removed the colonial “mark” that had, even after independence, remained in them. She nationalised key sectors in the country and challenged the privileged minority that had controlled them. Her first real pothole, which was the 1962 coup attempt, was inevitable owing to this.

On the political and ideological front too, there was much to achieve. For the first time, a Marxist coalition entered into an alliance with her party. That this move preceded her first attempt at nationalising Lake House is significant: she needed the Left, in particular those who were being rubbished by a virulently political Press that seemed to oppose her to the last drop. It was this first attempt, however, that led to her defeat, when in 1965 a series of defections from the SLFP ruined her credibility.

Were there other achievements? Yes. But there were lesser things too. Her second term, which began in 1970, was a roller-coaster ride from the start. Barely one year had passed when an insurrection, the biggest for its time here, unfolded. As commentators have pointed out, this act proved that the state could be challenged and that armed uprisings could happen.

The JVP (which had engineered the insurrection) challenged not just the state, however. It challenged the United Front coalition and its “socialist” tag. Taken away by the need to validate themselves, therefore, the government began a spate of reforms. And if there ever was one reform that spoke for the rest, it was the transition from Dominion to Republic that was essential for our country’s true “independence”, signified by our very first Republican Constitution in 1972.

That transition was short-lived, however. We now know why.

When the second Republican Constitution was drawn up in 1977, few had misgivings about it. Few predicted that it would be worse than the 1972 Constitution. Things turned out differently, and this document eventually began to confer dictatorial powers to whoever was in power.

Not even Bandaranaike was spared. Stripped of her civic rights for nearly a decade, she paled away almost overnight. By the time she returned to the Prime Minister’s office courtesy 17 years later, hence, that flame and lustre that had characterised her before was lost. It was never regained. Sadly.

Sirimavo Bandaranaike was probably not the visionary leader her husband once had been. But she was a visionary on her own right. When the West alienated us during her time, she set up links with other countries (in particular the Non-Aligned bloc) which continue to this day.

Economically we were in dire straits back then, but this had more to do with a section of her coalition that pursued reforms with unlicensed zeal than with her. Those reforms, moreover, have stayed with us. Even today.

Her coalition was an uneasy one from the start, though. As it struggled to regain itself, and as the inevitable cracks appeared, the opposition took on her. With glee. They won in the end, and those sections in the United Front that had alienated her never really regained themselves.

The 1970s are remembered today for this perhaps. It was rough back then in the political arena. The Old Left’s fortunes were beginning to decline. Their refusal to hang onto Bandaranaike’s coalition proved their undoing, when in later years the New Left (the JVP) built up an effective challenge against them. Abandoned by both major parties, the Old Left couldn’t strike on their own. They didn’t.

The rest, as they say, is history. A breakaway section of the SLFP allied itself with the Old Left and formed the United Socialist Alliance (USA). Vijaya Kumaratunga became its candidate. When Kumaratunga was killed, Bandaranaike led the opposition. She lost on her own and would have lost even if that breakaway faction, the Sri Lanka Mahajana Party (SLMP), had allied with her. It didn’t. By the time Vijaya’s wife returned to the SLFP, hence, her mother had fought her last battle. Which is why, 20 years after the 1994 elections, we mainly remember her earlier political phase. The rest is absented, for reasons that are all too obvious.

But that’s another story.

Like I wrote before, she was not a stateswoman. She stuck to self-imposed flaws which proved her undoing in the end. She remains an icon however, and while this will never marginalise those lesser things she will unfortunately be remembered for, her life will be celebrated. As a leader and a human being. That’s enough, I suppose.

*Uditha Devapriya is a freelance writer who can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com. His articles can be accessed at fragmenteyes.blogspot.com.

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Latest comments

  • 4
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    Another incompetent politician among the very many politically despicable characters who keep on ruling Sri Lanka successively including the present lot. Her biggest achievement was to betray and destroy the politicians of honour and competence.

    • 3
      1

      Settlement of Indian Tamil issue with Sirima-Shashtri Pact.
      Getting Kachchateevu Back
      Helping India negotiate peace with China in 1962.
      Sacrificing thousands of acres of land because the JVP terrorists in 1971 prompted land reform.
      Balancing excellent relations with India and Pakistan and China.
      JR was the brutal Royalist scum which gave us the cursed constitution Not Mrs B

  • 1
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    She cannot even think of come near the people in the caliber of Dr N M Perera but for sheer craving for power not only she changed the destiny of the mother Lanka but abandoned the true sons who sacrificed everything for the well-being of the fellow citizens.

  • 2
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    She led the way for ruin in Sri Lanka. First she scrapped the warships that we had and stopped recruitment to the navy for 5 years. Imagine an island exposed without warships. She then wanted to muzzle the press with Lake House She succeeded in 1973, banned the Dawasa group, nationalized lands, companies, tried to nationalize all foreign banks in 1977 through the 1976 budget. Rationed our food. We had to beg for dhal, plums and clothes from relations out of Sri Lanka. We had go like beggers to the GPO to collect parcels of food and clothing, there was no sugar, flour, condensed milk, chillies, clothing was rationed for school uniforms and she put all her relations in top positions. She did away with the independent civil service, she was first person thinker with the constitution. So she led the way for destruction.

    • 4
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      She requested and GOT a warship FREE gifted by Soviet Union on her state visit there in 1974 and it was in SL by 1976 and she also increased Patrols on the maritime border with India to stop illegal TAMIL KAllathonis..She did NOT scrap ships you fool. Get your goddamned facts straight. RCyHMs Vijaya got destroyed in the Cyclone in 1962. Our warships were 2. They were obsolete WWII crap from Britain. She at the request of Basil Gunasekera and other Navy Commanders requested a Ship and got it for FREE from USSR. Get your damned facts straight. I will no contest other foolish things like nationalizing Dawasa group.

    • 0
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      Tea Cut all that is true.Dawasa story is also true. But the Dawasa was closed by JRJ.The reason why JRJ forced the Dawasa to be closed, ordinary Sinhalese will find it difficult to believe.Let us leave it at that.

  • 2
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    At least she brought ‘rice from the moon’ and allowed us to eat a piece of jaggery with our tea (there was no sugar). And what about that Poya and pre-Poya holiday fiasco? Ships arriving in the harbor and nobody to unload them. And that 50 acre land ownership limit that she evaded herself by distributing property among her relatives. The country hasn’t had a decent leader since Dudley.

    • 3
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      Poya Pre Poya fiasco for you dumb ignorant adivasis was done by UNP by IMR Iriyagolla in 1966 under UNP. Do not be willfully ignorant. THE SLFP regime of 1970 stopped that and they went for a Western Christian Calendar. So get your facts right chief.

  • 4
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    Sirima invented the “chit system” of recruitment to public service. Each MP was allowed to recruit new entrants to police, banks, clerical services etc.
    “Job Application Forms” were on sale for Rs 1,000 each – big money in those days.
    She abolished competitive examinations – to the general/postal/hospital/railway clerical services, and for recruitment for nursing, apothecary, electrical/irrigation/public works technicians services etc.
    She abolished the London University A & O Level examinations held periodically by the Department of Examinations in Colombo to prevent talented Lankan students entering commonwealth and American universities and/or for employment abroad.
    She took over “assisted schools” compelling them to close slowly, and all other schools too – all were brought down to the same level as Central Schools – thus ruining the education of all children.
    She compelled schools to teach in Sinhala & Tamil only.
    But, she sent her own children abroad to study and graduate in foreign universities.
    She also invented the Exit Permit system whereby all members of the public & public servants, who wished to travel abroad had to obtain a “permit” from the prime minister’s office at Flower Road.
    Members of the public had to obtain “pre-paid air tickets” purchased by someone abroad, for travel.
    Even public servants selected and funded by WHO, Colombo Plan, UNO and other agencies to obtain higher qualifications, had to obtain Exit Permits.
    She appointed a few MPs as “district political authorities” who functioned like present day “district political organisers” and had supervisory powers over public servants – only “SLFP” persons were “favoured” in matters of promotions and transfers.

    Her transformation from JSC qualified Horagolla housewife to prime minister was meteoric – the members of her late husband’s party did not trust each other and compromised by choosing her.
    When she (representing Sri Lanka) was elected Chairman of the Non Aligned Conference – she was praised as “leader of two-thirds of the world”.
    In reality, Felix Dias Bandaranaike ran the country like his own private fiefdom.

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      justice

      Worst of all she used men toilet in the parliament.

      I was told under her rule NM Perera who fought for labour rights in his previous incarnation broke strike organised by Bank Employee’s Union.

      Large denomination of rupee notes were made illegal. The idea was to bring out cash stashed under the pillow and iron safe into circulation. It didn’t work because those who had large amounts of surplus liquid cash also had people in higher places from where they received tips in good time.

      The economy shrunk as a result unemployment rocketed through the roof.

      Racism, nepotism, corruption, mismanagement, … political violence, and impunity were institutionalized for the first time in this country.

      She allowed Pakistani war planes to refuel here at Katunayake during Bangladesh war of independence, sort of re-balancing foreign policy.

      She committed the first war crime on 5th April 1971.

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        Native,

        She did away with the Senate House after she came in to parliament using same. It was like kicking the ladder out that helped her to climb up. Such an ungrateful women. Thanks to such idiotic Kitchen Brains we are in this plight today. She also helped her house boy JPI Piyadasa to secure some valuable property in Colombo through Bank funding. Today the building where the SLFP headquarters are is in one of JPI Piyadasa’s. He has a number of such properties that he acquired under this woman when she was in power.

        • 2
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          gamini

          Thanks

          She facilitated MR to study law under a special scheme meant to train MPs in law who hadn’t passed the basic academic grades to qualify entry into law college.

          All state institutions were highly politicised to the extend that without the political patronage no files could be moved. The head of the department were prevented to take bureaucratic decisions and censor their unruly politically appointed subordinates.

          Demoralised members of staff found it much easier to tick time, get monthly salary, and retire with full pension rather than challenging the political head of each institution.

          There were millions of incident one can quote.

          SLFP found it profitable to bring all those diverse cooperatives into one multipurpose large institution, controlled by local politicians where their patronage was required to get jobs, solving unemployment problem for their party supporters to the detriment of Coop movement at at a huge cost to the consumer. Shortages meant ordinary people were forced to rely on highly politicised cooperatives. NM Perera and his merry men under Sri Mao not only ruined the life of ordinary people, wasting their valuable time queuing for essential goods but also killed the spirit of cooperative movement. Resources of the Multipurpose Coop were used as their own assets. In the South a profitable cinema was taken over by the state to store dry fish without being paid compensation. The cinema was owned by a UNP supporter whom the local SLFP MP had some grudge.

          My Elders have witnessed many atrocities were being committed by SLFP during the reign of Queen Sri Mao.

          She came to power on sympathy votes of the people and ruined their lives without any remorse.

    • 1
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      All that is true except that even today Govt Servants travelling abroad has to get approval from the prime Minister / Minister.Remember what happened to the Highly Talented Director of the TRI, who had contributed heavily to the industry.Theapproval for him to travel abroad for a conference on Tea was delayed. Since the conference could not be delayed until the Minister decided to approve he went on his own. Subsequently he was dismissed for that act of his, where the MInister should have been dismissed.This happened long after Mrs B left.

      I had to travel abroad.One year befiore that incident I had antognised the SLFP union people over Mr B’s death anniversary celebrations.When my application was sent up by the organisation I worked the unions moved to prevent me from traveling.She approved my exit permit.

      JSC qualified housewife- true, but how many in the present Parliament holds even that qualification and what had been their responsibilities?

  • 2
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    By far the worst leader this country has seen who singlehandedly destroyed any resemblance of decency left between 70-77.

  • 4
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    Reading the comments, I feel sorry that she is so badly vilified.I never voted with her. I hated her arrogance, but after seeing how the economy had been robbed and the economy had become the plaything of a few, I now realize what a far thinking person she was.She is called a KUSSIAMMA, she better brains and ethics than some of the Profs in politics today.

    It was Dudley S who spear headed the fertilizer manufacturing facility. On her assuming office she cold shouldered the project, but realized soon, that she done something that was wrong and moved to get the funds and established a fertilizer factory, which JRJ’s govt scrapped. JRJ came into power in 1977, when I visited the factory in 1980/81, the factory had been stripped to the ground, not even the building materials were visible.As a result today, import of fertilizer had become our third highest import next to oil and sugar.The fetrilizer factory and other subsidiaries of the Pet Corp kept the Pet Corp in profit.JRJ’s govt got rid of the others too – fishing net factory was sold to the people who held IOUs from JRJ.The Sugar Industry kept 100s of thousand in employment. JRJ’s govt killed that industry. Overnight the 100,000s were without a job.She spear headed the move to develop biofuels. It got stuck due to lack of technology _ there were no computers and http://www.JRJ killed that attempt.JRJ couls have sought the help of US and Brazil, who were the kleaders even at that time to keep this movement going. She wanted to make Coconut,Palmyrah and Kitul arracks export products, for which purpose she set up a Tapper’s training school. JRJ closed that institution. Today the tappers in the industry are mostly from South India.

    Her politics was to some extent pro Sinhala Buddhists, but she never allowed the minorities to be harrassed.Contrary to what the writer says, during the 71 JVP uprising the West helped her.

    One more thing about the POLLING YUGAYA. It happened.The cause was more complex that what the writer says.We were enjoying the benefits of the US law PL 480. The surplus wheat and corn in the US was bought by the US Govt and given to the Govts like ours free at the US end. The recipient country had to provide transport and when the flour was sold in the local market at least a part or the whole of the sales proceeds was to be deposited with the US Govt’s accounts in the recipient’s country. This system came to halt when there was the USSR’s wheat harvest failed and the material under the PL480 was sent to USSR. ( There is copious number of publications on this subject ).This happened at about the time Mrs B came into power.

    Her failure was in handling the distribution of essential goods, which went through the Coops.This resulted in the Managers of the Co-oP becoming petty kings and became rich over night.

    She was very scrupulous about the involvement of the public servants during her time.One Head of an institution was sacked by cable, because he went on a world tour with a female employee of that institution.Another head was sacked when she came to know that the Public Official’s son was being provided with women by a firm heavily involved in Govt contracts.

    She definitely was not a witch as some people try to make out.Her successors were the people who skinned this country and the people dry.They were the rogues.

    • 4
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      Her 72 constitution set the foundation for the ethnic conflict.

      That itself is enough to vote her as the worst we have had.

      Yes, she may have not plundered like the later ones but she started it.

      • 2
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        Robert, if you trace it back the ethnic conflict started well before the 1972 constitution. The then leaders of the Sinhalese community took Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam to Matara to attack the Karawa community.Sir Marcus Fernando was contesting that election This community forms a major part of the Southern Electorate.Even today, without knowing the reasons, the Karawa Community hate the Tamils.

        The language issue was raised by JRJ in 1942 long before SWRD was induced to back the Sinhala only act by the Buddhist Priests.

    • 2
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      Upali S.Wickramasinghe

      “but she never allowed the minorities to be harrassed.”

      Under her rule she willfully disrupted an International Tamil Research conference in 1974, 12 Tamils were killed following Police shooting on innocent participants.

      The Tamils who lived in the north tell me how youth were harassed, tortured, remanded in custody with out being charged for many months, and police intolerance brutality with impunity towards general public, …

      She enforced Sinhala only language policy as much as possible. For the first time Buddhism was accorded prominent place in the 1972 constitution.

      She was a despot in Saree and had hand bags to whack her yes men .

  • 2
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    Her economy was based on distributing the production facilities around the country.The people employed in all the industries established by her and those before her were from the area. She did not open up BOI projects which resulted in high degree of prostitution, destruction of our culture.

    Being employed near one’s home the employees did not have to pay for housing. The BOI projects resulted girls living in shanties for which they charged unreasonable prices and these girls to exist had to resort to prostitution to exist. They were deprived of the right to bargain for fairer salaries by the BOI legislation.

  • 2
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    This analysis is as incompetent as its subject. It completely avoids any mention of the reasons why Mrs B had become so unpopular by 1977. By then she had totally alienated the Tamils, and separatism was being monopolised by terrorism. She had excellent support from the opposition to control the JVP insurrection but used the very same powers given to her to suppress the democratic opposition. JR received that unprecedented majority, which he then abused, mainly because Sri Lanka was unfortunate to have an incompetent leader in Mrs B.

    A word of advice to Devapriya: Please be objective in your analyses if you want to be a decent journalist.

  • 3
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    This is like an “A” Level essay of a mediocre student. We need more mature and learned articles if social media is to be meaningful. Obviously this young writer has no idea of the feudal nonsense that Mrs Bandarnayake represented. If we had a better leader between 1960-64 and then 1970-77 Sri Lanka would have been a different place. By 1977 we were a very poor and very suppressed society.By the way I think MR copied many aspects of the Bandarnayke feudalism.He used to hero worship the Bandarnaykes then.

  • 0
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    Harry, it is true that she had the feudal habits.But she was cultured.No body had ever accused her of using filth.Immediately after the non aligned conference, she personally wrote to those that helped thanking them.This included the officers from the State Sector as well as the Private sector. Did any leader after Mrs B ever thank the ordinary foot soldier for what they did to help.

    Some others behaved as the village thugs or more like thugs in a slum.

    That nature of hers, which I called arrogance was one reason she lost, the other being the Constitution and the third being the way the JVP uprising was suppressed.

    The country was not used to such terrible practises.What was done to the suspected JVPers cannot be excused, but we got to accept the fact that the Police and the forces were not trained for such a situation. Where she and the Left Leaders in her coalition failed was in not making a deep study of what happened and develop a series of guide lines to handle such a situation.Then we would not have had to face Geneva.Men like Dayan Jayatilake PhD had no inkling of how to handle the situation and led us into a deep morass.

    We have a problem at Geneva because the expatriate Tamils are organised vocal and committed. The fact that Geneva did not move in after JVP was suppressed was not because there was no mayhem but because the expatriate Sinhalese were not organised, vocal or committed._ Is it another instance of SINHALAYA MODAYA< KEVUN KANNA YODAYA or what Prabakaran said – The Sinhalese forget after two weeks or our in built selfishness

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      A comment was made about the economy.I am not justifying the way she handled the economy.NM Perera brought in all the marxist concepts.The economy was destroyed by JRJ during 1965-70.When the UNP handed over the economy was in difficulties.JRJ to get over the problem introduced the dual exchange system – remember the FEECs.

      I believe that JRJ sabotaged the economy during Dudley S’s period.Prof.M.V.P.Peiris who was the Minister of Trade would not have had any idea about the economy. (MVPP was the former Prof of Surjery) He introduced some measures which were absurd and made the average man hate the Govt. The Textile quota system came in because of him. I will take a bet that JRJ gave that de-rope to MVPP.The owner of Daswanis at Kandy told me that they had never been harassed as during MVPP’s time.I was with the UNP group at the Peradeniya University and conveyed that remark to Prof Kalpage. He was not bothered, later when Prof Kalpage took over the UGC Chair under JRJ I developed my suspicion that JRJ had manipulated.

      In the 1970 election at least one of JRJ’s favourites in the UNP contested through the SLFP. When the election was declared, the Treasurer of the UNP went on a world tour and Mr.Dudley Senanayake was left with a party that could not access funds to fight the election. He came down to 8 seats.

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