Childhood & Early Life
She was born Sirima Ratwatte on April 17, 1916, in an affluent and notable family to Barnes Ratwatte and Rosalind Mahawelatenne Kumarihamy, as their eldest child among two daughters and four sons.
Political environment prevailed in her house since her childhood as her father Barnes Ratwatte was a member of the Senate and also the State Council of Ceylon.
She was a descendant of the eminent Radala family, one of whose descendants the Dissawa of Matale, Ratwatte Dissawa was a signatory to the ‘Kandyan Convention’.
She attended a Roman Catholic convent, ‘St Bridget's Convent’ in Colombo.
Her siblings were all well established personalities in political and other spheres of Sri Lanka.
She was a practicing Buddhist.
Continue Reading Below
She had a sudden entry in politics in 1960 after her husband Solomon Bandaranaike, also referred as S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, the then Prime Minister of Ceylon, was assassinated by a Buddhist monk on September 26, 1959.
Solomon, a charismatic leader, was a founding member of ‘Union National Party’ (‘UNP’) who later parted ways from the party to form ‘Sri Lanka Freedom Party’ (‘SLFP’) and remained its leader until death.
In 1956 Solomon became Prime Minister, but before he could complete his term he was assassinated. The assassination created a sudden power crisis leading to a brief political turmoil. The subsequent March 1960 elections saw ‘SLFP’ being defeated by ‘UNP’. This is when Sirimavo was chosen as the legitimate successor of Solomon as the party leader by ‘SLFP’.
Although the March 1960 elections saw formation of a minority government of ‘UNP’, its inability to retain power led to July 1960 elections. During July elections, Sirimavo led her party from the front that resulted in ‘SLFP’ achieving a parliamentary majority.
On July 21, 1960 she became the Prime Minister of Ceylon, making history as the first woman to hold such position in the world. She held office till March 25, 1965.
She was often criticised as the ‘weeping widow’ by her critics and rivals who accused her of capitalising her husband’s death to rise to power by emotionally charging up people for garnering support.
Sirimavo, a socialist, advanced her husband’s socio-economic policies including nationalization of principal sectors of economy, encompassing banking and insurance; maintaining neutral international relations that is following nonalignment policy with neither West nor East; actively advocating for Buddhism and the national Sinhalese language and culture.
She made efforts in 1961 to nationalize the Roman Catholic Church schools.
She faced profound indignation from the minority Tamil population of the country. They considered her act of enforcing Sinhala as the official language in place of English in all government businesses as highly discriminatory and a move to block Tamils from all official positions and law. It led to a surge in Tamil militancy that gained momentum in future.
Continue Reading Below
Sirimavo played an instrumental role in nationalising British and American oil companies functioning in Ceylon, which had an adverse effect as both Britain and America did away with their aid to Sri Lanka. She, on the other hand, brought her nation close to Soviet Union and China and actively took part in non-alignment conferences.
She also came forward to mediate the India-China border conflict in 1962. The same year she foiled a military coup attempt pursued by Christian officers and inducted William Gopallawa, her uncle as Governor-General of Ceylon.
On October 30, 1964 she signed the ‘Sirimavo-Shastri Pact’ or the ‘Agreement on Persons of Indian Origin in Ceylon’ along with Prime Minister of India, Lal Bahadur Shastri. It was a significant agreement that determined the position and future of people of Indian origin present in Ceylon.
An intense economic crisis and coalition of her party ‘SLFP’ with the ‘Marxist Lanka Sama Samaja Party’ (‘LSSP’) saw a gradual decline of support for her government and in the 1965 general elections, her party lost the elections.
The 1970 elections saw her making a comeback as the Prime Minister for her second term with ‘United Front’ coalition including ‘SLFP’, Communists and ‘LSSP’ acquiring a large majority. She held the second premiership from May 29, 1970 to July 23, 1977.
However the ‘Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna Insurrection’ in 1971 from April 5, 1971 to June 1971 almost ousted the government. The rebels captured and held many towns and villages for weeks, while the country's army was caught unaware. The government finally recaptured the places with aid of Indian and Pakistani armed forces.
In 1972, the Soulbury constitution was replaced by a new constitution that established an executive presidency and Ceylon became a republic called Sri Lanka.
The oil crisis of 1973, economic stagnation and turmoil added with her government’s failure to tackle ethnic rivalries had a strong effect in the July 1977 elections, which her partly lost badly.
In 1980 she faced charges for abuse of power as she applied a clause of the 1972 constitution to delay election till 1977 that otherwise would have been held in 1975 according to the Soulbury constitution. She was removed from the parliament and prohibited from holding any public office for 7 years.
Though she lost all subsequent general elections, it was alleged that she pitted her son Anura and daughter Chandrika against each other to ultimately hold power in the party.
The coalition led by ‘SLFP’ won general elections in 1994 and Chandrika was elected as Prime Minister. However, after Chandrika won the presidential election in November that year, she inducted her mother Sirimavo as the Prime Minister.
Sirimavo’s third premiership that commenced on November 14, 1994 saw her position subordinate to that of her daughter with hardly much power. She held office till August 10, 2000.