Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga served as the fifth President of Sri Lanka, from 1994 to 2005. The daughter of two former prime ministers, she was country's first and only female (her mother was the world’s first female prime minister), she was the leader of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) until the end of 2005. In 2015 she was appointed as the chairperson of office for national unity and reconciliation.

Kumaratunga was born in 1945. Her father, Soloman Dias Bandaranaike was elected prime minister in 1956 and shot to death on September 26, 1959. His widow and Kumaratunga’s mother, Sirimavo Bandaranaike served three terms as prime minister: 1960–1965, 1970–1977 and 1994–2000.

Kumaratunga is a tall, earthy woman with an outgoing, charismatic personality and a winning smile and a tough, combative character. Even though has been accused of being autocratic and showing up hours late for meetings with ministers she won widespread support for promises to stamp out corruption, reduce the powers of the presidency and take Sri Lanka out of the "dark tunnel" of ethnic violence that has torn the country for more than a decade.

Kumaratunga was 14 in class at a convent school in 1959 when he father was assassinated. She stood at the door step of her home with her mother and brother and watched her father gunned down by a political rival. Kumaratunga’s views were often out her at odds with those of her mother.

Kumaratunga and Her Political Family

Kumaratunga wrested power away from her mother — Sirimavo Bandaranaike, the world's first elected woman prime minister — after her brother, who had inherited the leadership role, seemed unwilling to challenge his mother. At the age of 78 Kumaratunga’s mother had ambitions of returning to power as her country's president.

Kumaratunga, named her mother as prime minister, making international history by establishing the first mother-daughter team as prime minister and president. For a while Kumaratunga served as president while her brother Anura Bandaranaike was speaker of the of parliament. In 2001 the brother and sister were at center of a political dispute that matched the power of the president against that of the parliament. There was some talk that he might launch the process to impeach his sister. The crisis was resolved before it came to that.

Anura Bandaranaike had been active in politics longer than Kumaratunga. He served as opposition leader in parliament in 1983 when the government took away his mother’s civic rights, expelling her from the legislature. Bandaranaike was expected to be th heir to the Bandaranaike dynasty. He felt that Kumaratunga stole his birthright, the leadership of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFD) when she became involved in politics in 1992. When her star started to rise he quit the SLFP and joined the ruling United National Party and served in the cabinet as Minister of Higher Education.

Kumaratunga's brother, older sister Sunethra, and mother have reportedly plotted against her. Kumaratunga and her brother reportedly reunited when their mother died in 2000. She was reportedly heartbroken that he children were members of opposing parties. The Sri Lankan political world is a small one. Ranil Wickremesinghe, her main political rival, was a childhood friend.

Kumaratunga’s Election Victories in the 1990s

In the 1980s the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam initiated a full-scale guerrilla war against the army in the north and east. In 1993, President Ramasinghe Premadasa, who was elected in 1988, was assassinated in a suicide bombing; he was succeeded as president by prime minister and UNP leader Dingiri Banda Wijetunga. A year later, the opposition People's Alliance party (PA) came to power, and Chandrika Kumaratunga, became prime minister and then president.

In November 1994, Kumaratunga was voted in as Sri Lanka's first woman president with a landslide victory of 62 percent. Kumaratunga won with the help of Muslim and Tamil voters. She ran against Srima Dissanayake, the candidate of the opposition United National Party. Dissanayake's husband's, Gamani Dissanayake, was killed a month before the election.

In the August 1994 election Kumaratung's People's Alliance won 105 of the Sri Lanka's 225-seat assembly. The United National Party, which had run the government for previous 17 years, won 94 seats. The People's Alliance was composed of the SLFP and Several smaller parties.

Kumaratunga won again in elections in December, 1999 with a wafer thin 51 percent of the vote, a few days after she was injured during an assassination attempt. Her closest rival Ranul Wickremesinghe won 43 percent. The election was a disappointment for Kumaratunga who hoped to win by a larger margin and win support for her peace initiative with the LTTE. At least four people were killed during the election. Three men, believed to be Kumaratunga supporters, were killed when hand grenades were thrown at them.

Human Rights groups reported many voting irregularities and said the victory was tainted. There were widespread reports of ballot stuffing and voter impersonations. The groups said that the results in Tamil areas in northeast should be nullified and voting should be held again. The assassination attempt on Kumaratunga and threats by Tamil rebels to disrupt the election appeared to have little impact on the voting. Kumaratunga has said that she underwent a second, private swearing in ceremony in 2000 that entitled her to stay in office until 2006.

Kumaratunga's Policies

After being elected Kumaratunga announced an anti-corruption campaign which intended to shut down the system of kickbacks and nepotism in government jobs. She also ordered police to raid the homes of former government officials to investigate the disappearance of as may as 60,000 people who were the victims of government-sponsored death squads. Kumaratunga promised to scrap the executive presidency by July 1995 and restore parliament's supremacy.

Kumaratunga was ineffective in improving the economy. Some accused here of lacking knowledge about basic finance. A period of aggressive economic reform under the UNP-led government that ruled from 2002 to 2004 was followed by a more statist approach under former President Chandrika Kumaratunga and current President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Despite a brutal civil war since 1983, economic growth has averaged around 4.5 percent. In 2001, however, GDP growth was negative 1.4 percent — the only contraction since independence. Growth recovered to 4.0 percent in 2002. Following the 2002 ceasefire and subsequent economic reforms, the economy grew more rapidly, recording growth rates of 6.0 percent in 2003 and 5.4 percent in 2004.

Kumaratunga and Human Rights

The human rights violations that occurred under Kumaratunga were considerably lower than those of her predecessors and here successor but still high according to human rights groups. Several hundred disappearances occurred under her watch.

The Public Security Act was adopted. It allowed the government the power to seize aircraft, ships and other property without needing a reason; to ban newspapers or other publications that were deemed harmful to national security; and to prohibit demonstrations and strikes.

Under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), people who are suspected of anti-government activities can be detained indefinitely. Tamils were the primary subjects of these laws.

Assassination Attempts on Kumaratunga

Kumaratunga narrowly escaped several assassination attempts. Two teenage suicide bombers detonated their body packs less than a mile from Kumaratunga heavily guarded mansion. Twenty people were killed. All that was left of the bombers were a few pieces of the their torsos.

At one time an estimated 20 Black Tigers individually stalked Kumaratunga. Ten of them were caught. During an interrogation, one teenage commando said that he observed a weakness in the president's security and said that he planned to leap from a bridge on the president’s vehicle as her motorcade passed underneath.

The United States Secret Service reportedly sent agents to Colombo to offer advise on Kumaratunga personal security. Among the advise she was given was to have several cars leading her motorcade to discourage a car bombing and surround herself with body guards on both sides and in front and back of her for protection from a sniper attack.

On December 21, 1999 a bomb exploded at rally attended by Kumaratunga. Twenty three people were killed, dozens were injured and Kumaratunga lost sight in an eye injured in the blast. The assassination was carried about a suicide bomber with explosives strapped to her body. The bomber was believed to be a Black Tiger. A few days later, she narrowly won reelection. Kumaratunga took a more hardline position after the assassination attempt.

Kumaratunga once said that Sri Lanka was dominated by a "culture of assassination." She had lost her father and husband to assassins. Kumaratunga's husband, Vijaya Kumaratunga, an actor-turned politician who had supported concessions to the Tigers, was assassinated in 1989 in the driveway of their home by right wing extremists. Before he was shot dead he managed to push his two young children out of the line of fire. In 1995 Kumaratunga's two children were 12 and 14. After witnessing their father's death, they were "terrified", adding "they beg me all the time to give up politics.”

Kumaratunga and the Tamil Tigers

In the late 1990s, Kumaratunga pursued an aggressive policy against the Tamil Tigers. The effort mostly backfired, resulting in bloody battles, huge loss of life, humiliating defeats and massive desertions from the army.

Kumaratunga’s government negotiated a cease-fire with the Tamil Tigers, but it collapsed after three months as violence resumed. In late 1995 the government, in a large-scale offensive, captured the Tamil stronghold of Jaffna; heavy casualties were reported there, while terrorist bombs caused civilian deaths in Colombo. The war continued throughout the 1990s, as government troops attacked rebel bases and terrorists carried out political assassinations (including those of several moderate Tamil politicians) and suicide bombings.

Kumaratunga’s attempts to negotiate a new constitution that would grant Tamils some autonomy proved unsuccessful. A truce and mediated negotiations with the Tamil guerrillas led to a formal cease-fire, brokered by Norway and signed in February, 2002. Intermittent peace talks began the following September.

In March 2004, a split developed in the Tamil guerrillas, when the smaller eastern force broke away, but the following month the main northern force reasserted control in the east. The rebels accused the government of supporting the renegade faction and refused to restart the peace talks.

Elections in 2000 and 2001

General elections were held in September 2000, resulted in a hung parliament. Kumaratunga’s People’s Alliance took 47 percent of the vote and won 107 seats but was six seats shy of forming tacking a majority in the 225-seat parliament. Wickremesinghe’s United National Party didn’t win a majority either (it took 40 percent of the vote and 89 seats)

Attempts to form a various coalitions resulted in failure. A coalition of the People’s Alliance and the Muslim Congress Party fell apart after a few months. At one point Kumaratunga suggested the possibility of her People’s Alliance Party sharing power with Wickremesinghe’s United National Party. Finally she formed another shaky coalition with the Marxist People’s Liberation Front (JVP). It too lasted only a few months.

General elections were held in December 2001. It was the second time general elections were held in 14 months. Kumaratunga had dissolved parliament and called elections when her People’s Alliance coalition lost its parliamentary majority when the 13 members of the Marxist Party defected to the opposition. Key issues were peace efforts with the Tamil Tigers and the sinking economy. Kumaratunga argued for continuing the fight against the Tigers.

The parliamentary elections in December 2001 were the most violent in 53 years. More 60 people were killed and a 700 were injured in the campaign before the election. In Kandy riots broke out and Muslims set fire to homes and gas stations after 10 Muslim party workers were killed as they accompanied a convoy taking ballot boxes to a counting station. Thirteen people were injured during the voting when a grenade was thrown into a polling station. The army prevented tens of thousands of Tamil voters from traveling out of rebel-controlled areas to vote. it was a victory for the opposition United National Party (UNP) and its candidate Ranil Wickremasinghe, defeating President Kumaratunga’s People’s Alliance. Muslim and Tamil parties backed the UNP.

Wickremesinghe became prime minister. His United National took 109 seats and 45.6 percent of the total vote. He cobbled together a two seat majority by forming a coalition with the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, which had five seats. through a coalition. Kumaratunga’s People’s Alliance took 77 seats and 37.3 percent of the total vote. More than 5,000 candidates from 29 parties vied for the 250 seats. The voter turn out was 75 percent. The election was monitored by a 48-member team of European observers.

Feud Between Wickremesinghe and Kumaratunga

In August 2000, Kumaratunga’s mother Mrs. Bandaranaike resigned as Prime Minister for health reasons and died soon afterwards, and Ratnasiri Wickra-manayaka was appointed to take her place. Kumaratunga had a long-running feud with opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe that often turned bitterly personal. Kumaratunga fought bitterly with Ranil Wickremesinghe after he became prime minister in 2001. They squabbled over cabinet positions. Wickremesinghe initially tried make peace by asking Kumaratunga’s party to join his coalition, Kumaratunga refused.

Wickremesinghe headed parliament and ran the day to day affairs of the government but as president Kumaratunga headed the cabinet and had the power fire ministers. Wickremesinghe was regarded as a pro-business technocrat. The nephew of a former president, he pushed pro-globalization, free-market policies. His United National Party did well in local elections in May 2002.

When Wickremesinghe took over negotiating with the Tamil Tigers, he quickly won a cease-fire. Kumaratunga criticized him for giving the Tigers too many concessions. She also seemed upset that Wickremesinghe had negotiated the 2002 cease fire and set up the peace talks largely without her.

Kumaratunga’s Power Grab in 2003

In November 2003, Kumaratunga sacked the defense, information and interior (police) ministers and assumed the positions herself. She also suspended parliament, declared a state of emergency and deployed troops in Colombo while Wickremesinghe was in Washington D.C. to meet with U.S. President George Bush. Kumaratunga said she was forced to act because Wickremesinghe had made too many concessions to the Tamil Tigers and he security of the country was threatened.

Kumaratunga’s power grab was followed by demonstrations in the streets protesting the move, and by demonstrations that gave her tacit support by protesting the proposal for more autonomy by the Tamil Tigers. Wickremesinghe didn’t rush home. He met with Bush the day after Kumaratunga’s move. Kumaratunga canceled the state of emergency two days after she called it.

The move disrupted the peace talks. he defense and interior ministers were major participants in the peace negotiations with the Tigers. The feud resulted in a stalemate. in January 2004, Kumaratunga claimed she was entitled to an additional year in office because of a secret swearing-in ceremony a year after she was elected to her second term. (Sri Lanka's supreme court ruled against her claim to an additional year in 2005.) In February 2004, Kumaratunga sacked Wickremesinghe and called early elections, which were held in April.

Elections in 2004

In April 2004, Kumaratunga’s party won parliamentary elections, but didn’t win a majority. Kumaratunga’s political alliance — the United People’s Freedom Alliance — took 105 seats (47.6 percent of the vote), eight short of the 113 needed to for a majority in the 225-seat parliament. Wickremesinghe’s United National Party took only 82 seats (37.3 percent of the vote), down from the 114 it held before.

Minority parties died well. The Tamil National Alliance, which had been endorsed by the Tamil Tigers, took 22 seats and six percent of the vote. The Ceylon Worker’s Party (CWC), another Tamil party, took eight seats. An all-clergy party of Buddhist monks also took about six percent of the vote.

Kumaratunga had called snap general elections in 2004, three years ahead of schedule. It was the third election in four years. The move was prompted by feuding between her and Wickremesinghe and the negative impact of this feud on peace negotiations.

On the eve of the 2004 elections the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and People’s Liberation Front joined forced t create the United People Freedom Alliance (UPFA) and adopted a platform that appealed to Buddhist revivalists. The United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) was a union of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), People’s Liberation Front (JVP) and the Sinhalese nationalist party.

The election was more peaceful than ones in the past. Still, there was some election violence. A Tamil politician was killed. A member of the United National Party was shot and injured. An election commissioner was shot in the jaw and neck but survived. The voter turn was high, around 75 percent, and large numbers of voters turned out in the Tamil-dominated areas. There were 6,000 candidates vying for the 225 seats. Some saw the election not so much as an endorsement of the “peace process’ with the Tamil Tigers but as an endorsement or rejection of Wickremesinghe’s pro-globalization, free market policies.

Kumaratunga After Elections in 2004

After the 2004 election, Kumaratunga kept the defense minister position that had taken the previous November and took the finance ministry job too. Mahina Rajapakse became the prime minister. Rajapakse served as the leader of the United People’s Freedom Alliance. He was first elected as the youngest member of parliament in 1970. His wife had represented Sri Lanka in beauty contests.

Kumaratunga’s party did well in local council elections in July 2004, widely seen as evidence the populace supported her government.

In July 2004. Kumaratunga’s government secured a working majority when eight members of the Ceylon Worker’s Party (CWC) said they were would support the government. but not join the Alliance.

In December 2004, Sri Lanka's coastal areas, especially in the south and east, were devastated by the Indian Ocean tsunami caused by an earthquake off NW Sumatra. More than 34,000 people died, and more than 800,000 displaced. Only Sumatra itself suffered greater loss of life.

In March 2005, the ruling United People’s Freedom Alliance lost its majority in parliament after the Ceylon Workers Congress withdrew its eight seats and joined the opposition. The party had a disagreement with the ruling party. The party did not collapse but teetered dangerously close. If the Marxist People’s Party withdrew its 39 seats the Alliance would be in real trouble.

An agreement between the government and the rebels to share the distribution of the tsunami disaster aid seriously weakened the governing coalition when the JVP quit the government in protest. The JVP challenged the agreement in court, and although it was upheld in principle, the court's objection to aspects of it led to suspension (July, 2005) of its implementation. At the same time, there escalating Tamil attacks, and in August the foreign minister was assassinated. The government invoked emergency rule, and subsequently called for a renegotiation of the cease-fire agreement with the Tamil rebels to establish stronger sanctions for cease-fire violations.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Sri Lanka Tourism (srilanka.travel), Government of Sri Lanka (www.gov.lk), 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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