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1960: Ceylon elects world's first woman PM
@ BBC 19601

1960: Ceylon elects world's first woman PM

Mrs Sirimavo Bandaranaike, widow of Ceylon's assassinated prime minister Solomon Bandaranaike, has been elected the world's first woman prime minister.
Her Sri Lanka Freedom Party won a resounding victory in the general election taking 75 out of 150 seats.

Mrs Bandaranaike only entered politics after her husband was shot by an extremist Buddhist on 26 September 1959.

She has become known as the "weeping widow" for frequently bursting into tears during the election campaign and vowing to continue her late husband's socialist policies.

This week's election was called after Dudley Senanavake's United National Party failed to produce a working majority after winning elections in March.

Aristocratic by birth

Mrs Bandaranaike was born into the Ceylon aristocracy and her husband was a landowner. She was educated by Roman Catholic nuns at St Bridget's school in the capital, Colombo, and is a practising Buddhist.

She married in 1940 aged 24 and has three children - and until her husband's death seemed content in her role as mother and retiring wife.

Her SLFP aims to represent the "little man" although its policies during the campaign were not clear.

Mr Bandaranaike attributed her success to the "people's love and respect" for her late husband and urged her supporters to practise "simple living, decorum and dignity".

Her husband came to power in 1955, eight years after independence, and declared himself a Buddhist which appealed to nationalists. But his government was wracked by infighting among Sinhalese and Tamils and lacked direction.

Mrs Bandaranaike inherits a country in a state of flux and her party's proposed programme of nationalisation may bring her into conflict with foreign interests in commodities like tea, rubber and oil.

Sirimavo Bandaranaike, Former Sri Lankan Premier, Dies at 84

The New York Times 
October 11, 2000

Sirimavo Bandaranaike of Sri Lanka, the first woman in the world to serve as a prime minister, died yesterday shortly after voting in Sri Lanka's elections. She was 84.

Mrs. Bandaranaike's final act was to vote in a parliamentary election she hoped would return the family's party to power leading a governing coalition known as the People's Alliance. Her death from a heart attack on Election Day seemed poetically timed for a woman whose family business is politics and whose political career spanned four decades.

Mrs. Bandaranaike rose to power in 1960 as a bereaved wife and mother of three, just a year after her husband, Solomon, then prime minister, was assassinated by a Buddhist monk. She quickly established herself as the undisputed leader of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party founded by her husband and a formidable politician in her own right.

She also became the matriarch of a political dynasty. In the final years of her life, her daughter, Chandrika Kumaratunga, succeeded her as the standard bearer of the family party and has served as president of the country since 1994. The father, mother and daughter have led Sri Lanka for 21 of the 52 years since it gained its independence from the British.

"Mrs. Bandaranaike's legacy is this: After her husband died, there was so much confusion and the party was almost collapsing," said K. M. de Silva, a Sri Lankan historian. "She was an untried leader. But she not only survived, she sustained the party and the family in politics."

Her body was taken to her stately home on Rosemead Place in the Cinnamon Gardens section of Colombo, the capital. State radio canceled regular programs to play elegiac music and state television looked back on her life.

She will be buried alongside her husband on Saturday in a state funeral at the family's ancestral home in Horagulla. Friday and Saturday have been declared days of national mourning. All liquor shops, bars, cinemas and slaughterhouses have been ordered to close.

"She was a heroic mother of the nation," the Sri Lanka Freedom Party said in a statement.

But the Sri Lanka Freedom Party has come to stand for very different policies and values than it had in her day.

Mrs. Kumaratunga firmly repudiated her mother's brand of Sinhalese nationalism, which had inflamed ethnic tensions between the mostly Buddhist Sinhalese majority and the predominantly Hindu Tamil minority. The daughter's years in office have been dominated by her as-yet-fruitless efforts to end a 17-year-old war with separatist Tamil rebels. Mrs. Kumaratunga also steered the party toward a more open, market-oriented economy and away from the centralized, state-dominated socialism that had been her mother's trademark.

Mrs. Bandaranaike was born Sirimavo Ratwatte on April 17, 1916, into one of the island nation's wealthy feudal families, one that was at the pinnacle of Sri Lanka's social hierarchy. In 1940 60 years ago today she married S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike, the scion of an elite, feudal clan that had thrived for generations with the patronage of the British Empire.

Mr. Bandaranaike made the transition from his Anglicized, upper- class background to become a populist and a nationalist. And his wife carried forward his passions with even greater decisiveness and vigor, historians say. She was a shrewd political leader with a wide base in the Sinhalese majority.

In a recent interview, Anura, the Bandaranaike's youngest child and only son, said their father had been the affectionate, demonstrative parent while their mother was aloof.

Mrs. Bandaranaike known simply as Mrs. B served twice as head of state, from 1960 to 1965 and again from 1970 to 1977. She nationalized many foreign and local enterprises and left Sri Lanka's economy into one that was heavily state dominated.

She also zealously pursued efforts to make Sinhalese the sole national language, a stance that deeply alienated the country's Tamil speakers. And she changed the university admissions policy to benefit the Sinhalese, disadvantaging the Tamils.

During five years of her daughter's presidency, Mrs. Bandaranaike served as prime minister, which had become a largely ceremonial role under the Constitution adopted in 1978. Increasingly feeble and unable to speak clearly, she resigned as prime minister in August, though she retained her seat in Parliament.

She lived on Rosemead Place with her elder daughter, Sunethra, a philanthropist who is 57 and never got involved in politics.

But the political family she had nurtured splintered in her later years. Her son, Anura, 51, who lives next to his mother's home in the family compound, went over to the family's despised rival, the United National Party, after his sister, now 55, won the right to succeed their mother. But both the son, as a leader of the opposition, and the daughter, as president, have carried on the family's political tradition.

Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company


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