Sirimavo Bandaranaike (1916-2000) was the world's first woman prime minister. After her husband S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike was assassinated in September 1959, she became the leader of Sri Lanka and with a landslide victory of her Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) in the 1960 general election, She continued with the socialist policies of her husband. She served as prime minister ruled from 1960 to 1965 and again from 1970 to 1977.

Sirimavo Bandaranaike was born into one of Ceylon’s wealthiest families and and originally had no plans to enter politics. In 1940, she married Soloman Dias Bandaranaike. She avoided politics but had the responsibility of her husband's party thrust upon,

According to the New York Times: “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. "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." [Source: New York Times, October 11, 2000]

“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.

Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s Life

Sirimavo Bandaranaike was born into one of Ceylon’s wealthiest families and was educated at a Catholic convent. According to the New York Times: “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. [Source: New York Times, October 11, 2000]

“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.

The BBC reported: Mrs Bandaranaike 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 inherited a country in a state of flux and her party's proposed programme of nationalisation brought her into conflict with foreign interests in commodities like tea, rubber and oil.”

Sirimavo Bandaranaike as Prime Minister

Sirimavo Bandaranaike ruled from 1960 to 1965 and again from 1970 to 1977. She survived an aborted military coup in 1963. During her two terms as prime minister. she ruled Sri Lanka like a dictator. She had a close personal relationship with India's Indira Gandhi. She ran Sri Lanka a lot like Gandhi ran India: employing a kind of authoritarian, democratic socialism.

Despite her wealth and the rightist leanings of her party, Bandaranaike formed a leftist government aligned with pro-Moscow Communist Party and the Trotskyite Lanka Sama Samaj party (LSSP). Bandaranaike formed strong ties with Communist China, kicked the Peace Corps out of the country and closed the Israeli embassy. In 1962, she seized the properties of European and American oil companies, The United States suspended economic aid.

According to the New York Times, Mrs. Bandaranaike — known simply as Mrs. B — 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.” [Source: New York Times, October 11, 2000]

In 1965 Bandaranaike was voted out of office by the UNP and Dudley Senanayake, who was more friendly to the West and agreed to compensate the companies nationalized by Bandaranaike but his efforts to reverse Bandaranaike’s policies made him unpopular and the UNP was defeated in 1970 elections.

Sirimavo Bandaranaike returned to power in 1970. In 1971, she ruthlessly crushed a Marxist insurgency. In 1972, she made Sri Lanka a republic. In her second term she also nationalized private companies and banned imports and maintained the free rice policy to the point of leaving little money for anything else. Her policies drove the economy into the ground. Shortages, long lines for breads and rationing of things like cloth were a fixture of daily life in her second term. In 1977, the SFLP under its new name the United Left Front, was defeated in general elections.

Political Fallout of Bandaranaike’s Assassination

When a Buddhist extremist assassinated S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike in September 1959, the nation faced a period of grave instability. The institution of parliamentary multiparty politics proved strong enough to endure, however, and orderly, constitutional actions resolved the leadership succession. The office of prime minister passed to the minister of education, Wijeyananda Dahanayake, who pledged to carry on the socialist policies of his predecessor. But policy differences and personality clashes within the ruling circle forced the new leader to dissolve Parliament in December 1959. The short-lived Dahanayake government, unable to hold Bandaranaike's coalition government together, was defeated by the UNP in the March 1960 general elections. The UNP won 33 percent of the seats in the lower house, giving the party a plurality but not a majority. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

The new prime minister, Dudley Senanayake, honored his election pledge to avoid compromise with the leftist parties and formed an all-UNP government with support from minor right-of- center parties. His overall parliamentary majority, however, was below the minimum seats required to defeat an opposition motion of no-confidence in the UNP cabinet. Less than a month after its formation, the UNP government fell. A new election was scheduled for July 1960.*

K. T. Rajasingham wrote: “Within six weeks of the premiership of Dahanayake, a political crisis developed over the plot that led to the assassination of Bandaranaike, resulted in the falling apart of Dahanayake's ministries. When a motion of no-confidence against the SLFP government led by Dahanayake was won by one solitary vote, the prime minister, without even consulting the cabinet, advised the Governor-General to dissolve the parliament. Accordingly, it was dissolved on December 5, 1959, and a general election was scheduled to be held on March 19, 1960. The general election was scheduled for 19 March and January 4, 1960 was declared as the nomination day. [Source: K T Rajasingham, Asia Times ]

“On December 8, the Prime Minister dismissed the following five ministers - T B Ilangaratne - the Minister of Home Affairs, Maitripala Senanayake - Minister of Transport and Power, M P De Zoysa - Minister of Labor, P B G Kalugalle - Minister of Cultural Affairs and Social Services, and Senator A P Jayasuriya - Minister of Health. C P De Silva - Minister of Agriculture and Lands resigned his portfolio in protest of the dismissal of the ministers.

Later, Dahanayake resigned from the SLFP to form his own political party - the Lanka Prajatantara Pakshaya (Lanka Democratic Party - LPP). The SLFP refused to accept his resignation and expelled him from the party, whereupon Dahanayake sacked another batch of five SLFP ministers from the cabinet, namely: Henry Abeywickrama - Minister of Works, C A S Marikar - Minister of Posts, Broadcasting and Information, R G Senanayake - Minister of Food, Commerce and Trade, J C W Munasingha - Minister of Industries and Fisheries, and M B W Mediwake - Minister of Local Government and Housing.

Srimavo Bandaranaike Steps in Take Over the SLEP

K. T. Rajasingham wrote: “During the general elections for the fourth parliament, the SLFP was led by C P De Silva, who was not a very charismatic leader, so the party roped in the widow of the slain leader -Sirimavo Bandaranaike - to appear on the election rallies on behalf of the SLFP candidates. She extolled the virtues of her slain husband and appealed to the voters to support the SLFP to continue with the policies of the departed leader. She became the principal attraction of the SLFP campaign. She repeatedly wept while speaking of her late husband. Influential Lake House press embarked on a policy of mocking and ridiculing Srimavo Bandaranaike. Lake House papers published cartoons and caricatures of her, both insulting and vulgar. [Source: K T Rajasingham, Asia Times ]

“Dr N M Perera, the leader of the LSSP, referred the SLFP as "a comic gang" and the UNP as "reactionaries" and referred to his party as that of "Golden Brains". Philip Gunawardene, the leader of the MEP, campaigned on the basis of the MEP being the only party capable of ushering in a true socialist society. The UNP was led by Dudley Senanayake, who declared that the foremost responsibility of the UNP was to restore law, order and stability in the country. In general, all the Sinhalese political parties declared the speedy implementation of the Sinhala Only law and of the Buddhist revival. Dahanayake promised the wholesale repatriation of the Indian Tamils if he came to power. The country was at the crossroads of power politics by the Sinhala leaders.

According to the New York Times: Sirimavo Bandaranaike “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. "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." [Source: New York Times, October 11, 2000]

Indecisive Elections in March 1960

Rajasingham wrote: For the general elections in March 1960 to the fourth parliament, the UNP fielded a total of 127 candidates, SLFP - 108; LSSP - 101; MEP - 89; LPP - 101; the Communist Party - 53; Samajavathi Mahajana Perumuna (SMP) - 40; Sri Lanka Jathika Peramuna (SLJP) -1; Bowshots Bandaranaike Peramuna (BBP) - 1; Jathika Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) - 2; All Ceylon Tamil Congress - 8; Ilankai Tamil Arasu Kadchi - 19 and Independents and minor parties - 167, thus a total 899 candidates were in the fray to win 151 elected seats to the House of Representatives. The total number of registered voters was 3,724,507. [Source: K T Rajasingham, Asia Times ]

After the delimitation, three new electorates, Udupiddy, Manipay, Kilinochchi and Nallur, were carved out in the Jaffna district. For the first time, G G Ponnampalam, the leader of the Tamil Congress, was defeated by Alfred Duriayappah, the Mayor of Jaffna, an independent candidate and a relatively unknown political novice. Similarly, in the Vavuniya electorate C Suntheralingham was defeated by another unknown novice, an independent candidate - T Sivasithamparam. The ITAK won 15 electorates, whereas the Tamil Congress won a solitary seat - Udupiddy - M Sivasithamparam.

The UNP won 50 seats, SLFP - 46; LSSP - 10; MEP - 10; LPP - 4, but its leader and the incumbent premier, Dahanayake was defeated; CP - 3; JVP - 2; SMP - 1; SLJP - 1; BBP - 1; and independents 7. It was a hung parliament. Governor-General Sir Oliver Goonetilake invited Dudley Senanayake, the leader of the majority party, to form a government. He accepted to form a minority government. On March 23, an eight-member UNP cabinet was sworn in, with Dudley Senanayake in the helm as Prime Minister and Minister of Defense and External Affairs; Bernard Herbert Aluwihare - Minister of Education and Cultural Affairs; M D Banda - Minister of Agriculture and Lands and Minister of Food, Commerce and Trade; Senator E J Coorey - Minister of Justice; J R Jayewardene - Minister of Finance and Minister of Local Government and Housing; Montague Jayewickrema - Minister of Nationalized Services, Shipping and Transport and Minister of Posts, Works and Power; Dr M C M Kaleel - Minister of Home Affairs and Rural Development and Senator Dr Mahapitiyage Velin Peter Peiris - Minister of Health and Social Services.

Failure of the UNP in 1960

The UNP fell because it lacked the support of any other major party in Parliament. The leftists tried to bring it down, and the Tamils withheld their support because the UNP had earlier hedged on the issue of the use of the Tamil language. Most important, the UNP had earned the reputation among Sinhalese voters of being a party inimical to Sinhalese nationalism. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

Meanwhile the SLFP had grown stronger because of its unwavering support for making Sinhala the only official language. The SLFP found in the former prime minister's widow, Sirimavo Ratwatte Dias (S.R.D.) Bandaranaike, a candidate who was more capable of arousing Sinhalese emotions than Dahanayake had been in the March elections.*

Rajasingham wrote: Before and after forming the minority government, Dudley Senanayake met the leaders of the Ilankai Tamil Arasu Kadchi, but his response to the demands of the ITAK leaders did not even touch the fringes of the Tamil issues. Chelvanayakam expressed his dismay over the political expediency of Senanayake, when he suggested that the ITAK could accept Ministerial portfolios and be a part of the Government. Chelvanayakam explained that the Party was pledged not to accept any ministerial portfolios until the rights of the Tamils are won. The meeting with Dudley Senanayake ended without any results. [Source: K T Rajasingham, Asia Times ]

“The Sri Lanka Freedom Party, in its quest to form a government, assigned Dr Badi-ud-din Mahmud, the Principal of Gampola Zahira College and an Islamic academic, who was also one of the founders of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party along with S W R D Bandaranaiake, to meet Chelvanayakam. SLFPers made headway with the Tamil leaders. Felix Dias Bandaranaike, A P Jaysuriya, Maitripala Senanayake and the leader of the party, C P De Silva, agreed with the ITAK that if the SLFP was called on to form the Government, the leaders assured to include in the Throne Speech, the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Agreement of 1957, as the policy statement of the government. Later, Chelvanayakam visited Srimavo Bandaranaike, who declared that she would stand by the undertakings of her party leaders.

SLEP Wins Elections in July 1960

In the July 1960 general election, Bandaranaike was profiled as a woman who had nobly agreed to carry on the mandate of her assassinated husband. She received the support of many of the same small parties on the right and left that had temporarily joined together to form the People's United Front coalition (which had brought her husband victory in 1956). She won the election with an absolute majority in Parliament and became Sri Lanka's seventh, and the world's first woman, prime minister. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s SLEP part won 75 out of 150 seats in parliament elections in July 1960. This was considered a landslide. After the March 1960 elections, Rajasingham wrote: The first indication of the test of strength of the UNP government was the election of the speaker. The UNP nominated Sir Albert F Peres, who had been speaker from 1950-56. The opposition group nominated T B Subasinghe, an independent MP from Katugampola electorate. Unfortunately, the opposition-sponsored candidate, T B Subasinghe, won with 93-60 votes. [Source: K T Rajasingham, Asia Times ]

The vote on the Throne Speech was taken up on March 22, 1960. At the debate, followed by the Throne Speech, Chelvanayakam made his Party's intention succinctly known. He charged that Dudley Senanayake and Jayewardene were the two leaders responsible for leading the march to Kandy against the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Agreement. He described how that march mislead the people and charged that the UNP surreptitiously arranged the protest of the Buddhist clergies in front of the Prime minister's house, resulting in the repudiation of the agreement, that ultimately led to the reneging of it and which led to the racial holocaust of 1958.

Finally, Ilankai Tamil Arasu Kadchi voted along with the SLFP on April 22, 1960 (61 votes in favor of the Throne Speech and 86 against) to defeat the Minority Government of the United National Party. After the defeat of the Government, Dudley Senanayake summoned an emergency cabinet meeting to call for general elections.

In the meantime, Ilankai Tamil Arasu Kadchi informed the Governor-General that, if he summon the leader of the SLFP to form a Government, then the ITAK was prepared to give unqualified support to the SLFP-led Government for its entire term. Unfortunately, the Governor-General found it impossible to digest a man like C P De Silva, who is from the Salagama cast - cinnamon peeler cast - to be summoned to form the Government. The Governor-General avoided giving an opportunity to the SLFP to form the Government, instead dissolving parliament on the recommendations of the lame-duck Prime Minister and called for a fresh election.

The SLFP leaders maintained in constant contact with the ITAK during the electioneering period of April to July 1960. The ITAK, through its party network, mustered the support of the Tamils living outside the Northern and Eastern Provinces to the SLFP, that led to victory for several SLFP candidates in the elections. The agreement and the understanding reached since the defeat of the minority UNP government remained binding up to the general elections of July 1960.

At the general elections held on July 20, 1960, the SLFP won convincingly with 75 seats and UNP obtained 30 seats. In the same elections Ilankai Tamil Arasu Kadchi won 16 seats in the North and Eastern Provinces. Srimavo Bandaranaike, the widow of the slain leader of the SLFP, was sworn in as the Prime Minister. She took her seat in the Senate and became the first women head of state in the world.

Srimavo Bandaranaike Takes Power

Srimavo Bandaranaike took office after the July 1960 election. Once the SLFP was ensconced in power, its members began to ignore the Tamils and Ilankai Tamil Arasu Kadchi. They not only went back from their earlier pledges to the Party, but also began to launch several anti-Tamil measures. The SLFP government announced that it would bring the Official Language Act into operation from January 1, 1961. In addition, the Minister of Justice, Sam P C Fernando, introduced legislation in Parliament to make Sinhala language as the language of the courts throughout the country.

The Government led by Srimavo Bandaranaike not only failed to honor the pledges to the ITAK, but initiated severe and drastic anti-Tamil legislation to spike the Tamils with vengeance. Chelvanayakam and her men took note of the betrayal by the opportunist Sinhalese leaderships for the second time in succession.

Felix Dias Bandaranaike, a senior Minister and the nephew of Srimavo Bandaranaike, was one of those high-ranking leaders of the SLFP who negotiated with the ITAK, "That promise was given completely under a different political situation. Today, it is a different situation and we must not give room for the UNP to incite the Sinhalese extremists."

The Sinhalese political leaders were only worried about pacifying the Sinhalese extremists in the country rather than honoring their pledges to the Tamils. For the second time, the Ilankai Tamil Arasu Kadchi, a moderate political organization of the Tamils, gave the opportunity to the Sinhalese leadership to work in amity with the Tamils to bring about harmony, unity and national integration in the country. It was a gesture to bring about "unity in diversity" and again the Sinhalese leadership by repudiating their pledges failed to steer the country in the right direction.

Srimavo Bandaranaike’s First Term as Prime Minister (1960-1965)

The new government of Srimavo Bandaranaike was in many ways the torchbearer for the ideas of her husband S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, but under his widow's direction, the SLFP carried out these ideas with such zeal and force that SinhaleseTamil relations sharply deteriorated. One of Sirimavo Bandaranaike's first official actions was to enforce the policy of Sinhala as the only officially recognized language of government. Her aggressive enforcement of this policy sparked immediate Tamil resistance, which resulted in civil disobedience in restive Northern and Eastern provinces. Bandaranaike reacted by declaring a state of emergency and curtailing Tamil political activity. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

Bandaranaike also antagonized other significant minority groups, particularly the Christians. In response to a recommendation by an unofficial Buddhist commission, her government took over the management of state-assisted denominational schools. The move deprived many Christian missionary schools of support. Roman Catholic activists spearheaded demonstrations, which forced the government to reconsider some of its measures. Still, relations between the prime minister and the Christian denominations remained unstable.*

Bandaranaike moved vigorously early in her administration to nationalize significant sectors of the economy, targeting industries that were under foreign control. The 1961 creation of the State Petroleum Corporation adversely affected the major petroleum companies — Shell, Esso, and Caltex. The new corporation was guaranteed 25 percent of the country's total petroleum business. Under Bandaranaike's instruction, state corporations began to import oil from new sources, effectively altering for the first time the pattern of trade that had been followed since British rule. Sri Lanka signed oil import agreements with the Soviet Union, Romania, Egypt, and other countries not traditionally involved in Sri Lankan trade. The government also put important sectors of the local economy, particularly the insurance industry, under state control. Most alarming to Bandaranaike's conservative opponents, however, were her repeated unsuccessful attempts to nationalize the largest newspaper syndicate and establish a press council to monitor the news media.*

In foreign relations, Bandaranaike was faithful to her late husband's policy of "dynamic neutralism," which aimed to steer a nonaligned diplomatic stance between the superpowers. Sri Lanka exercised its new foreign policy in 1962 by organizing a conference of neutralist nations to mediate an end to the SinoIndian border war of 1962. Although the conference failed to end the war, it highlighted Sri Lanka's new role as a peacebroker and enhanced its international status.*

The UNP opposition was apprehensive of Bandaranaike's leftward drift and was especially concerned about the SLFP alliance with the Trotskyite LSSP in 1964. The UNP approached the March 1965 election as a senior partner in a broad front of "democratic forces" dedicated to fight the "totalitarianism of the left." It enjoyed significant support from the Federal Party (representing Sri Lankan Tamils) and the Ceylon Workers' Congress (representing Indian Tamils).*

United National Party Regains Power, 1965-70

The UNP "national government" emerged victorious in the March 1965 elections, capturing more than 39 percent of parliamentary seats, compared to SLFP's 30.2 percent. One of the first actions of the new government, led by Senanayake, was to declare that the nation's economy was virtually bankrupt. Senanayake also announced his intention to improve relations with the United States. (In 1963 the United States had suspended aid to Sri Lanka because of Bandaranaike's nationalization of foreign oil concerns.) [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

The government tried to develop a mixed economy with an emphasis on the private sector. Between 1965 and 1970, private sector investment was double that of the public sector, thereby reversing the trend set in the previous administration. Despite the UNP's emphasis on the private sector, the economy generally failed to show a major improvement. This failure was partly caused by a nearly 50 percent increase in the cost of rice imports after a worldwide shortage in 1965 and a concurrent steep decline in the price of Sri Lanka's export commodities. In 1966 the UNP government was forced to declare a state of emergency to ward off food riots. Senanayake reduced the subsidized weekly rice ration by half. The reduction remained in effect throughout the remainder of the "national government" period and contributed greatly to UNP's defeat in the 1970 general elections.*

The UNP paid more attention to Buddhist sensitivities than it had in the past, and in an effort to widen the party's popularity, it replaced the Christian sabbath with the Buddhist poya full-moon holiday. This action satisfied Buddhist activists but alienated the small but powerful Roman Catholic lobby. The UNP also tried to earn favor with the Tamils by enacting the Tamil Regulations in 1966, which were designed to make Tamil a language officially "parallel" to Sinhala in Tamilspeaking regions. Sinhalese activists immediately expressed hostility toward the Tamil Regulations. Civil violence ensued, and the government was forced to proclaim a state of emergency that lasted for most of the year.*

1970 Election

In order to prepare for the 1970 general election, Sirimavo Bandaranaike formed a coalition in 1968 with the LSSP and CPSL to oppose the UNP. The new three-party United Front (Samagi Peramuna) announced that it would work toward a "people's government" under the leadership of Bandaranaike and that it would follow a so-called Common Programme, which promised radical structural changes, including land reform, increased rice subsidies, and nationalization of local and foreign banks. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

The United Front resurrected communal emotionalism as a timely and potent campaign weapon. It attacked the UNP for its alliance with the two main Tamil political groups, the Federal Party and the Ceylon Workers' Congress. At the same time, the United Front also announced that it would adopt a new constitution to make Sri Lanka a republic and that it would restore "Buddhism to its rightful place." The United Front won 118 of the 135 seats it contested, with the SLFP, the biggestsingle party, winning 90 seats, the LSSP 19, seats and the CPSL 6 seats. The UNP won a meager seventeen seats.*

Srimavo Bandaranaike’s Second Term as Prime Minister (1970-1977)

The United Front government moved quickly to implement key features of its Common Programme. The philosophy of the coalition government was seen most transparently from its foreign and economic policies. The United Front issued declarations that it followed a nonaligned path; opposed imperialism, colonialism, and racism; and supported national liberation movements. The government quickly extended diplomatic relations to the German Democratic Republic (East Germany), the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (then North Vietnam), the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea), and the Provisional Revolutionary Government of South Vietnam. It also pledged to suspend recognition of Israel. In economic matters, the United Front vowed to put private enterprise in a subsidiary role. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

Prime Minister Bandaranaike tolerated the radical left at first and then lost control of it. Sensing mounting unrest, the government declared a state of emergency in March 1971. In April, the People's Liberation Front (Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna — JVP), a Maoist and primarily rural Sinhalese youth movement claiming a membership of more than 10,000, began a "blitzkrieg" operation to take over the government "within 24 hours." The JVP followed a program — known as the Five Lectures — that included an agenda to deal with "Indian expansionism," the island's unstable economic situation, and the inability of the traditionalist leftist leadership to assert power or attract widespread support (an allusion to the LSSP and the CPSL). The JVP threatened to take power by extraparliamentary means. Fierce fighting erupted in the north-central, south-central, and southern rural districts of the island, causing an official estimate of 1,200 dead. Unofficial tallies of the number of dead were much higher. The JVP came perilously close to overthrowing the government but the military finally suppressed the movement and imprisoned JVP's top leadership and about 16,000 suspected insurgents.*

Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna: Leftist Group

The government and police waged war against the Janatha Vimukthis Peramuna (JVP, the People’s Liberation Army), an extreme Sinhalese nationalist- Marxist group, which launched unsuccessful armed revolts in 1971 and 1987. It is estimated at between 20,000 and 60,000 people died or disappeared as a result of torture, assassinations and fighting connected with this conflict. Tens of thousands of people suspected as being insurgents were rounded up and tortured. Many were never seen again.

The JVP drew worldwide attention when it launched an insurrection against the Bandaranaike government in April 1971. Although the insurgents were young, poorly armed, and inadequately trained, they succeeded in seizing and holding major areas in Southern and Central provinces before they were defeated by the security forces. Their attempt to seize power created a major crisis for the government and forced a fundamental reassessment of the nation's security needs. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

The first rebellion occurred when the Sinhalese Marxist leader Rohana Wijeweera, a drop out of Moscow’s Lumumba University, tried insight peasant in southern Sri Lanka to rebel. The rebels movements was poorly organized. Even so the JVP came very close to toppling the government, which said more about the poor state of the government than the strength of the JVP. The JVP was able to draw recruits from disenfranchised youth who had grown restless as the economy stagnated and unemployment rose in the 1960s and 70s. There were accusations that they were aided by North Korea.

The Nixon administration, fearing the domino effect and a Vietnam in South Asia, supplied arms and military equipment to the Sri Lankan government. This helped the government ruthlessly put down the rebellion and round up is leaders in the 1970s. When the leaders were released from prison in the 1980s they fomented another rebellion

History of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna

The movement that became the JVP was started in the late 1960s by Rohana Wijeweera, the son of a businessman from the seaport of Tangalla, Hambantota District. An excellent student, Wijeweera had been forced to give up his studies for financial reasons. Through friends of his father, a member of the Ceylon Communist Party, Wijeweera successfully applied for a scholarship in the Soviet Union, and in 1960 at the age of seventeen, he went to Moscow to study medicine at Patrice Lumumba University. While in Moscow, he studied Marxist ideology but, because of his openly expressed sympathies for Maoist revolutionary theory, he was denied a visa to return to the Soviet Union after a brief trip home in 1964. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

Over the next several years, he participated in the pro-Beijing branch of the Ceylon Communist Party, but he was increasingly at odds with party leaders and impatient with its lack of revolutionary purpose. His success in working with youth groups and his popularity as a public speaker led him to organize his own movement in 1967. Initially identified simply as the New Left, this group drew on students and unemployed youths from rural areas, most of them in the sixteen-to-twenty-five-age- group. Many of these new recruits were members of lower castes (Karava and Durava) who felt that their economic interests had been neglected by the nation's leftist coalitions. The standard program of indoctrination, the so-called Five Lectures, included discussions of Indian imperialism, the growing economic crisis, the failure of the island's communist and socialist parties, and the need for a sudden, violent seizure of power.*

Between 1967 and 1970, the group expanded rapidly, gaining control of the student socialist movement at a number of major university campuses and winning recruits and sympathizers within the armed forces. Some of these latter supporters actually provided sketches of police stations, airports, and military facilities that were important to the initial success of the revolt. In order to draw the newer members more tightly into the organization and to prepare them for a coming confrontation, Wijeweera opened "education camps" in several remote areas along the south and southwestern coasts. These camps provided training in Marxism-Leninism and in basic military skills.*

While developing secret cells and regional commands, Wijeweera's group also began to take a more public role during the elections of 1970. His cadres campaigned openly for the United Front of Sirimavo R. D. Bandaranaike, but at the same time they distributed posters and pamphlets promising violent rebellion if Bandaranaike did not address the interests of the proletariat. In a manifesto issued during this period, the group used the name Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna for the first time. Because of the subversive tone of these publications, the United National Party government had Wijeweera detained during the elections, but the victorious Bandaranaike ordered his release in July 1970. In the politically tolerant atmosphere of the next few months, as the new government attempted to win over a wide variety of unorthodox leftist groups, the JVP intensified both the public campaign and the private preparations for a revolt. Although their group was relatively small, the members hoped to immobilize the government by selective kidnapping and sudden, simultaneous strikes against the security forces throughout the island. Some of the necessary weapons had been bought with funds supplied by the members. For the most part, however, they relied on raids against police stations and army camps to secure weapons, and they manufactured their own bombs.*

Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna Insurrection in the 1970s

The discovery of several JVP bomb factories gave the government its first evidence that the group's public threats were to be taken seriously. In March 1971, after an accidental explosion in one of these factories, the police found fifty-eight bombs in a hut in Nelundeniya, Kegalla District. Shortly afterward, Wijeweera was arrested and sent to Jaffna Prison, where he remained throughout the revolt. In response to his arrest and the growing pressure of police investigations, other JVP leaders decided to act immediately, and they agreed to begin the uprising at 11:00 P.M. on April 5. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

The planning for the countrywide insurrection was hasty and poorly coordinated; some of the district leaders were not informed until the morning of the uprising. After one premature attack, security forces throughout the island were put on alert and a number of JVP leaders went into hiding without bothering to inform their subordinates of the changed circumstances. In spite of this confusion, rebel groups armed with shotguns, bombs, and Molotov cocktails launched simultaneous attacks against seventy- four police stations around the island and cut power to major urban areas. The attacks were most successful in the south. By April 10, the rebels had taken control of Matara District and the city of Ambalangoda in Galle District and came close to capturing the remaining areas of Southern Province.*

The new government was ill prepared for the crisis that confronted it. Although there had been some warning that an attack was imminent, Bandaranaike was caught off guard by the scale of the uprising and was forced to call on India to provide basic security functions. Indian frigates patrolled the coast and Indian troops guarded Bandaranaike International Airport at Katunayaka while Indian Air Force helicopters assisted the counteroffensive. Sri Lanka's all-volunteer army had no combat experience since World War II and no training in counterinsurgency warfare. Although the police were able to defend some areas unassisted, in many places the government deployed personnel from all three services in a ground force capacity. Royal Ceylon Air Force helicopters delivered relief supplies to beleaguered police stations while combined service patrols drove the insurgents out of urban areas and into the countryside.*

After two weeks of fighting, the government regained control of all but a few remote areas. In both human and political terms, the cost of the victory was high: an estimated 10,000 insurgents- -many of them in their teens — died in the conflict, and the army was widely perceived to have used excessive force. In order to win over an alienated population and to prevent a prolonged conflict, Bandaranaike offered amnesties in May and June 1971, and only the top leaders were actually imprisoned. Wijeweera, who was already in detention at the time of the uprising, was given a twenty-year sentence and the JVP was proscribed.*

New Constitution Anger Minorities

In May 1972, the United Front followed through on its 1970 campaign promise to promulgate a new constitution to make Sri Lanka a republic. Under the new constitution, the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government were vested in the National State Assembly. Many important and vocal sectors of society opposed this concentration of power. The 1972 constitution disturbed the UNP, which feared an authoritarian government might emerge because of the new document. The UNP was especially alarmed that a Trotskyite, Dr. Colvin de Silva (Bandaranaike's minister of constitutional affairs), had drafted the constitution.*

The distinct lack of protection for the rights of minorities in the new constitution dismayed many sectors of the population. The Tamils were especially disturbed because the 1972 constitution contained no elements of federalism. Instead, a newly conferred status for Buddhism replaced the provisions for minorities provided by Article 29 in the 1948 constitution. The constitution also sanctioned measures that discriminated against Tamil youth in university admissions. Tamil youth were particularly irked by the "standardization" policy that Bandaranaike's government introduced in 1973. The policy made university admissions criteria lower for Sinhalese than for Tamils. The Tamil community — the Federal Party, the Tamil Congress, and other Tamil organizations — reacted collectively against the new atmosphere the new constitution produced, and in May 1972, they founded the Tamil United Front (which became the Tamil United Liberation Front — TULF — in 1976).*

By the mid-1970s, the antagonism between the right and left was destroying the United Front coalition. The growing political influence of the right wing led by Sirimavo Bandaranaike's son, Anura, precipitated the expulsion of the LSSP from the United Front in September 1975. The withdrawal of the CPSL in 1977 further weakened the coalition.*

Srimavo Bandaranaike After Serving as Prime Minister

Srimavo Bandaranaike Chandrika’s daughter Bandaranaike Kumaratunga served as the fifth President of Sri Lanka, from 1994 to 2005. She has been the country's only female president to date. In 1994, Srimavo Bandaranaike was named prime minister by Kumaratunga At the age of 78 Bandaranaike said she had ambitions of returning to power as her country's president in 1995. Bandaranaike stepped down as prime minister at the age of 84 in August 2000 to allow her daughter, Kumaratunga, to reorganize the cabinet. Bandaranaike died shortly after casting her vote in elections in October 2000.

According to the New York Times: “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. [Source: New York Times, October 11, 2000]

“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.

In October 2000, Sirimavo Bandaranaike died. “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. 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 was buried alongside her husband in a state funeral at the family's ancestral home in Horagulla. Two days of mourning was declared. All liquor shops, bars, cinemas and slaughterhouses were 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.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Sri Lanka Tourism (, Government of Sri Lanka (, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Wikipedia and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated February 2022

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