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Sirimavo Ratwatte Dias Bandaranaike ( April 17, 1916 - October 10, 2000) was a politician from Sri Lanka. She was prime minister of Sri Lanka three times, 1960- 1965, 1970- 1977 and 1994- 2000, and was the world's first female prime minister. She was a leader of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party. She was the wife of a previous Sri Lankan Prime Minister, Solomon Bandaranaike and the mother of Sri Lanka's third President Chandrika Kumaratunga, under whom she served her third term as Prime Minister.

Political background - Contents

On her husband's assassination, Bandaranaike took over the leadership of his Sri Lanka Freedom Party, which he had formed and led to election victory in 1956, and kept it for 40 years until her death. She became prime minister on July 21, 1960 and ruled her country on and off throughout the 1960s and 1970s until she was crushingly defeated in a general election in 1977. In 1980, she was expelled from parliament for abuse of power, and banned from public office for seven years.A staunch socialist, Bandaranaike continued her husband's policies of nationalizing key sectors of the economy, such as banking and insurance. Unfortunately, she was on a roller-coaster ride from the moment she took office and within a year of her 1960 election victory she declared a state of emergency. This followed a civil disobedience campaign by extreme elements within the country's minority Tamil population who were outraged by her decision to drop English as an official language and her order to conduct all government business in Sinhala, the language of the majority Sinhalese. This they considered a highly discriminatory act and an attempt to deny Tamils access to all official posts and the law. This lead to an increase in Tamil militancy which escalated under succeeding administrations.Further problems arose with the President's state takeover of foreign businesses, particularly the petroleum companies, which upset the Americans and the British, who imposed an aid embargo on Sri Lanka. As a result, Bandaranaike moved her country closer to China and the Soviet Union and championed a policy of nonalignment. At home, she crushed an attempted military coup in 1962. In 1964, she entered into a historic coalition with the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP). At the end of that year, she was defeated on a confidence vote, losing the general election that followed. Six years later she bounced back, her United Front winning a substantial majority in the 1970 elections.Her second term saw a new Constitution introduced, which ended the country's status as a Commonwealth realm. Ceylon was renamed Sri Lanka and declared a republic. But after just 16 months in power, a left-wing youth uprising almost toppled her government: Sri Lanka's small ceremonial army could not deal with the insurgency. She was saved by her skillful foreign policy when the country's non-aligned friends rushed to her help. In a rare move, both India and Pakistan sent troops to Colombo to aid Bandaranaike in crushing the insurgency. In those tough political years, she turned herself into a formidable leader. "She was the only man in her cabinet", one of her officials commented during the height of the insurgency.The 1973 oil crisis had a traumatic effect on the Sri Lankan economy; the government had no access to Western aid and her socialist policies stifled economic activity. Rationing had to be imposed. Bandaranaike became more and more intolerant of criticism and forced the 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.

Style of functioning - Contents

Known to her fellow Sri Lankans as "Mrs. B," she could skillfully use popular emotion to boost her support, frequently bursting into tears as she pledged to continue her dead husband's policies. He, Prime Minister Solomon Bandaranaike, was shot dead by a Buddhist monk in 1959. Her opponents and critics called her the "weeping widow" .

Decline - Contents

By 1976, Bandaranaike was more respected abroad than at home. Her great triumph that year was to become chairman of the Non-Aligned Movement and host the largest heads of state conference the country had ever seen. Despite her high standing internationally, she was losing Sri Lankan support rapidly amid allegations of corruption and against the background of a rapidly declining economy . Nothing, it seemed, could save her. She suffered a crushing election defeat in 1977 and was stripped of her civic rights. The 1980s were her dark days - she became a political outcast rejected by the people who had once worshipped her. Banadaranaike spent the next 17 years in opposition warding off challenges to her leadership of the Freedom Party, even from her own children. Always the politician, she played her ambitious daughter, Chandrika, and son, Anura, against one another, holding on to control despite losing every subsequent general election. She finally met her match in Chandrika who outmaneuvered her mother to become Prime Minister of Sri Lanka in 1994, when a Freedom Party-led coalition won power in the general elections, and President the following year.Bandaranaike became Prime Minister again, but the constitution had changed since her last tenure; she, as the Prime Minister was subordinate to her daughter, the President. She remained in office until her death, but had little real power. She died on election day, having cast her vote for the last time.
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