Sirimavo Bandaranaike Biography

Sirimavo Bandaranaike, also known as Sirima Ratwatte Dias Bandaranaike, was a trailblazing Sri Lankan politician and stateswoman. As the world’s first female Prime Minister, she made history when her party emerged victorious in the Ceylon general election of 1960. Leading the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, she served as Prime Minister for three terms, from 1960 to 1965, 1970 to 1977, and 1994 to 2000. Her political career was born out of tragedy, as she entered the political arena following the assassination of her husband, Solomon Bandaranaike, who had previously held the position of Prime Minister. With a family deeply rooted in Sri Lankan politics, Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s legacy extends beyond her own achievements, as her daughter and son also held prominent positions in the country’s government. The name Sirimavo itself carries the meaning of respect, a fitting tribute to a woman who shattered glass ceilings and paved the way for future generations of female leaders.

Quick Facts

  • Also Known As: Sirimavo Ratwatte Dias Bandaranaike
  • Died At Age: 84
  • Family:
    • Spouse/Ex-: S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike
    • Father: Barnes Ratwatte
    • Mother: Rosalind Mahawelatenne Kumarihamy
    • Children: Anura Bandaranaike, Chandrika Kumaratunga, Sunethra Bandaranaike
  • Prime Ministers
  • Political Leaders
  • Died on: October 10, 2000
  • Place of Death: Kadawatha, Sri Lanka
  • Notable Alumni: St. Bridget’s Convent, Colombo
  • Cause of Death: Heart Attack
  • Education: St. Bridget’s Convent, Colombo

Childhood & Early Life

Sirima Ratwatte was born on April 17, 1916, in an affluent and notable family to Barnes Ratwatte and Rosalind Mahawelatenne Kumarihamy. She was the eldest child among two daughters and four sons. Her father, Barnes Ratwatte, was a member of the Senate and the State Council of Ceylon, so she grew up in a political environment. She came from the eminent Radala family, and one of her ancestors, Ratwatte Dissawa, was a signatory to the ‘Kandyan Convention’. Sirima attended St Bridget’s Convent, a Roman Catholic convent in Colombo. Her siblings were also well-established personalities in politics and other spheres of Sri Lanka. Despite being born into a Buddhist family, she practiced Buddhism.

Career

Sirima entered politics suddenly in 1960 after her husband, Solomon Bandaranaike, the Prime Minister of Ceylon, was assassinated. Solomon was a founding member of the Union National Party (UNP) but later formed the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and became its leader. After his assassination, Sirimavo was chosen as the legitimate successor of Solomon as the leader of the SLFP. In the July 1960 elections, she led her party to achieve a parliamentary majority and became the Prime Minister of Ceylon on July 21, 1960. She made history as the first woman to hold such a position in the world. She held office until March 25, 1965.

During her time as Prime Minister, Sirimavo advanced her husband’s socio-economic policies, including nationalization of key sectors of the economy and maintaining neutral international relations. She also advocated for Buddhism and the national Sinhalese language and culture. However, her enforcement of Sinhala as the official language and discrimination against the Tamil population led to a surge in Tamil militancy.

Sirimavo played an instrumental role in nationalizing British and American oil companies in Ceylon, which had adverse effects on the country’s relationship with Britain and America. She brought her nation closer to the Soviet Union and China and actively participated in non-alignment conferences. She also mediated the India-China border conflict in 1962 and foiled a military coup attempt in the same year.

In the 1970 elections, Sirimavo made a comeback as the Prime Minister for her second term. However, her government faced challenges, including the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna Insurrection in 1971 and economic crises. In the July 1977 elections, her party suffered a major defeat.

Although she lost subsequent general elections, Sirimavo allegedly pitted her son Anura and daughter Chandrika against each other to ultimately hold power in the party. Her daughter Chandrika became the Prime Minister and later the President of Sri Lanka. Sirimavo served as Prime Minister for the third time from November 14, 1994, to August 10, 2000, but her position was subordinate to that of her daughter.

Personal Life & Legacy

Sirimavo married Solomon Bandaranaike in 1940, and they had three children: Anura, Chandrika, and Sunethra. Anura and Chandrika both became prominent figures in Sri Lankan politics, while Sunethra is a philanthropist. Sirimavo passed away from a heart attack shortly after casting her vote on October 10, 2000, in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

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