Sirimavo Bandaranaike was born in April 17, 1916 as the eldest child of Mr. Barnes Ratwatte, the Disawe of Sabaragamuwa and Mrs Mahawalathenna Kumarihamy, a traditional Kandyan elitist family that enjoyed a profound social command in the area. She had four brothers and two sisters and was educated at St. Bridget’s Convent in Colombo. In 1940, Sirimavo Bandaranaike married S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, a prominent minister under the Donoughmore Constitution and the scion of a family that was at the pinnacle of social hierarchy throughout the British colonial rule. During 1940 -1960as the life-partner of a Minister, the leader of a new party, the Leader of the Opposition and the Prime Minister, she played an important role in achieving the political ideals and goals of her husband. After the tragic death of Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike in 1959 Sirimavo Bandaranaike reluctantly entered into active politics by successfully leading the Sri Lanka Freedom Party at the 1960 July General Elections. After the elections Sirimavo Bandaranaike made history by becoming the first female Prime Minister in the World. Her active political life spans over 50 years, during this period she was Prime Minister for three times (1960-65, 1970-77 and 1994-2000), the leader of Opposition for two times (1965-70, 1989-1994) and the leader of the SLFP.
The significance of Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s political career must be understood in the light of her trail blazing role in attending to the twin historical tasks of decolonization and post colonial state-building processes in Sri Lanka. The process of decolonization, i.e. restructuring the institutions evolved under the colonial rule, reached a new phase after the victory of the political coalition (MEP) led by S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike in 1956. The new regime used the state and state power as a tool to carry forward decolonization in the political, economic and socio-cultural spheres. The assassination of SWRD Bandaranaike in 1959 created a leadership vacuum. At this crucial political juncture Sirimavo Bandaranaike came forward to take over the reins to give leadership to the unfinished task and to preserve the political legacy of her late husband. During her first phase as Prime Minister (1960-65) the nationalization process continued unabated. A series of initiatives were taken to strengthen the role of the state in the economic affairs of the country, curtail the power of ‘external’ forces in the economy and ensure redistributive justice.In the second phase as the Prime Minister (1970-77), the emphasis was more on attending the three key elements of post-colonial state building process, namely assigning a foundation ideology for the state, building institutional apparatus and developingphysical and human base in line with above two. In this endeavor, the priority was on anti-colonialism and redistributive justice perhaps at the expense of national integration.The First Republican Constitution of 1972 which severed the constitutional umbilical cord with the colonial master was an outcome of the post-colonial institution building process launched under her leadership. The land reform package, implemented in the period 1972-75, set a ceiling for ownership of land and took over plantations owned by Sterling companies and a host of state institutions were established for the management of the land acquired by the state.The expansion of the role of the state in day-to-day economic affairs gave sharp rise to public corporations. These steps epitomized the political process set in motion in 1956.
Another area where her mark was firmly imprinted was foreign policy. Based on the policy framework set out by her late husband, she developed and elevated Sri Lanka’s non-aligned foreign policy to new heights earning international fame. While remaining non-aligned vis-à-vis global Cold War power blocs, Sri Lanka identified with fellow developing countries to push forward their shared interests in global forums under her leadership. In the backdrop of burgeoning superpower naval competition in the Indian Ocean, Sirimavo Bandaranaike spearheaded the Indian Ocean Peace Zone Proposal at the UN. Furthermore, she pursued effective South Asian policy to further the national interests of Sri Lanka. While maintaining strong and amicable relations with India she developed equally strong links with other Asian powers, especially China and the Arab world so that Sri Lanka had a wider area of manoeuverability.
Her leadership qualities became even more apparent when she was out of power. Her role as the leader of the opposition and the leader of the SLFP was exemplary. After 1977 election defeat she faced many challenges. Amid many political cyclones, she upheld SLFP as the alternative political pole resisting being subdued. Throughout her political carrier she was a staunch democrat. It was reflected by how she handled the two challenges Sri Lankan political order faced during her tenure as the Prime Minister – first, the 1962 coup of the top-ranking military officers and second, the 1971 April youth uprising. Even under very repressive political conditions she didn’t lose faith in the people and the democratic political process. As a practical political leader, she exhibited her capacity to win over other political parties to form political coalitions through compromise and accommodation. Fittingly her last act, just few hours before her death, was to vote in parliamentary election in 2000.
In her long political life, she played a key role in the center politics in many capacities. Above all, most admiring quality of Madam Bandaranaike was her humanity. In the later stage she played a role of elderly stateswomen and many irrespective of political color came to her for advice and solace.
She was mother to two daughters and one son. The elder daughter, Sunethra marked her name as a social worker working with, inter alia, differently able children. The second daughter, Chandrika became the fourth Executive President of the country and served for two terms, and her son, Anura was a Cabinet Minister and the Leader of Opposition and the Speaker.