The statesmanlike speech delivered extempore by President Maithripala Sirisena at the commemoration of former Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s 100th birth anniversary on April 7 brought out at least five areas of transformation that the country continues to go through. The president who was the chief guest at the ceremony began his speech with an appreciation of Madam Bandaranaike’s late husband SWRD Bandaranaike who preceded her as the country’s prime minister. The president noted that Prime Minister SWRD Bandaranaike had given political expression to the social forces that existed in the country at that time but which did not yet have their due representation in the polity. They became known as the Pancha Maha Balavegaya – the five great forces of the Buddhist clergy, the workers, the traditional ayurvedic physicians, the teachers, and the farmers — who were in the vanguard of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party’s historic victory back in 1956.
President Sirisena’s extraordinary value to the government and to political stability at the present time is his ability to moderate these social forces that his predecessor former President Mahinda Rajapaksa harnessed to the cause of Sinhala nationalism. The backsliding that has been taking place in regard to some of the commitments made by the new government, such as in the case of the Geneva resolution, may cause frustration to sections of the liberal Sri Lankan polity, and to the international community. However, when the president seemingly contradicts his own government’s commitments on the matter of international participation of judges, prosecutors and investigators in the envisaged investigations into war crimes committed by the Sri Lankan military, it is likely that he is being conscious of the present political realities and their volcanic potentials that led to the assassination of Prime Minister SWRD Bandaranaike in 1958.
Madam Sirimavo Bandaranaike
The president’s second observation was that in a similar manner to her husband’s recognition of the social forces within the country, Madam Bandaranaike gave expression to the aspirations of large numbers of countries that were seeking to emerge from the thrall of colonialism that had oppressed and confined them ideologically and economically. The pinnacle of her achievement came in 1976 when the 5th Summit of Nonaligned Countries was held in Colombo. Prime Minister Sirmavo Bandaranaike chaired the Summit which was attended by 86 countries and was widely considered as a diplomatic triumph of Sri Lanka. The Colombo Summit was significant in that it paved the way for the emergence of a new economic order which had became a focal point of the Nonaligned Movement and helped advance the de-colonization process around the world.
It was significant that the commemoration event for Madam Bandaranaike was held in the Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall (BMICH), which was built between 1970 and 1973 as a gift from China in memory of SWRD Bandaranaike. It was also significant that even while the commemoration event was taking place, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was in China to restore the relationship that had deteriorated due to questionable economic and financial contracts signed by the previous government with which China cultivated a special relationship at the cost of Sri Lanka’s other international commitments, most notably to India. It would be no exaggeration to say that the hopes of Sri Lanka’s people are today pinned on the restoration of that relationship and the prospects of Chinese investments in the economy. The biggest source of discontent with the government has been its inability to turn the economy around and to give hope that such a turnaround will take place in the near future.
The problem that successive governments have faced since the time of Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike has been to obtain economic resources for development that could meet the aspirations of the people, while continuing to prevail at regular elections. The compromise of most Sri Lankan governments has been to engage in welfare-oriented populist economics, which has not been attractive to economic investors. With its relatively small population at the bottom of the Asian continent, Sri Lanka has also not been an attractive venue for foreign investors from a purely economic perspective, as compared to more centrally located and populous countries with bigger markets, such as Myanmar and Vietnam. However, Sri Lanka’s value to the big powers of the world lies in its strategic location on the sea routes of the international trading countries. The challenge for the government today is to utilize Sri Lanka’s strategic location for its own economic benefit, and those of the countries concerned, without threatening their security.
The third observation made by President Sirisena was with regard to the public spirited orientation of Madam Bandaranaike and her husband SWRD Bandaranaike. The record would show that they both entered into politics with an intention to serve the national interest, and not to become financially enriched. SWRD Bandaranaike took a loan to fight his first election as leader of the SLFP, and even took a mortgage on his house. Madam Bandaranaike wrote in her memoirs the following: “As he did not live long – only 3 1/2 years as Prime Minister, when he met with his untimely death, it fell upon my shoulders to pay back this loan. I kept on paying it in installments as stipulated in the Loan Agreement. Though he had vast acreages of land left for him by his late father, they did not bring him the income it should have, due to neglect and robbing. Whatever he got, he used for his politics. And in addition, after his death, we were called upon to pay heavy death duties for which we had to sell some properties. So I paid back the loan with whatever I got including my allowance as Prime Minister.”
It is unfortunate but a reality that the nature of politics today has changed, and the ideal of service to the people is compromised. Most politicians also do not come from wealthy backgrounds and given the expenses of engaging in politics, it may be appropriate to follow the example of countries such as Singapore that pay their politicians very well, but which also have a zero tolerance for corruption. The price of corruption in Sri Lanka is extraordinarily high. An international report that has recently come out by Global Financial Integrity has reported that USD 20 billion has been moved out of Sri Lanka by corrupt practices in the ten years between 2004 and 2013. The crisis with China also came about due to corruption with massive loans being taken in a non-transparent manner for non-transparent contracts by the previous government. This type of venality must never be permitted to occur again and the full strengthening of the independent institutions needs to become the national priority, including the Bribery Commission, the police and the judiciary.
The fourth observation by President Sirisena was with regard to the aspect of Madam Bandaranaike for which she is best known internationally. She was the first woman prime minister in the world when she took office in 1960. Even today the name of Sirimavo Bandaranaike is taught at educational institutions worldwide for this reason. She provided a role model for many women to follow, and an illustrious list of women world leaders followed her example such as Indira Gandhi of India, Golda Meir of Israel, Margaret Thatcher of the UK, Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh, Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan to mention just a few, and she also had the happiness of seeing her daughter Chandrika elected as President and appointing her as Prime Minister for a final third term. All of these, including her daughter, were strong women leaders even as she was. In her memoirs she wrote, “I was the only woman in the Cabinet. I was often asked the question how I functioned with an all male Cabinet. I must say that I had no problems. They all co-operated and gave me all the support necessary. “
In this context, of Sri Lankan being a world leader more than half a century ago, the very limited representation of women in politics today is a source of concern. Less than 5 percent of parliamentarians are women. The Constitutional Assembly that was recently appointed by the government has only one woman amongst its 28 members. Not one of its 21 members of the steering committee which is responsible for coming up with the draft constitution is a woman. The exclusion of women from decision making at the highest levels does not bode well for a transformation of the polity or its governance.
While there is a recognition in Sri Lanka today that a peaceful and just society requires multi ethnic and multi religious representation in decision making, there is still no recognition that men cannot, and should not, seek to represent the interests of the entirety of society, when half of it are women. The politically advanced societies with the highest quality of life, such as found in Northern Europe, have close to 50 percent representation of women in political decision making. The previous Norwegian ambassador to Sri Lanka, Grete Lochen, once said that when more women got into positions of power in Norway the decisions and priorities of the Norwegian government began to change. Women have different priorities to men, and men and women together comprise society.
On the other hand, the government has shown greater sensitivity to the issue of bringing in women into politics by passing an amendment to the local government authorities law. The government has ensured a 25 percent quota for women in local government through a reserved list for women who will be elected outside of the open list of candidates. It will entail a 25 percent increase in the number of local government members. However, the government has also stated that no similar quota will be provided at the parliamentary level and that the expectation is that increased women’s representation in parliament will take place through the upward mobility of women from the local level. It is important that the legacy of Sirimavo Bandaranaike is built upon. It is necessary that public pressure ensures that higher levels of governance also see the adequate representation of women, reaching to 50 percent, including the Constitutional Assembly and the sub committees it sets up.
The fifth observation by President Sirisena was the agreement Madam Bandaranaike negotiated with Indian Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri which resulted in India accepting responsibility for the citizenship of more than one half of the Tamils of recent Indian origin who had been rendered stateless by the Citizenship Acts of 1947 and 1948. However, this was not a solution that the population whose fate was being decided wanted, nor were they consulted about it. The failure of the two governments that Madam Bandaranaike headed to consult with the ethnic minority communities to address their reasonable grievances was perhaps the weakest aspect of her governance. During the constitutional reform process of 1972, her government and its constitutional framers refused to accept the proposals of the ethnic minorities, most notably of the Tamil parties, which led them to boycott the constitutional reform process.
In his memoirs “Exorcising the Past and Holding the Vision” published in 2014 the civil servant Neville Jayaweera recounts how government leaders in the 1960s considered those of the Tamil ethnicity to be potential enemies of the state. When he was sent as a young man to head the administrative service in Jaffna as the Government Agent, the orders he received from his superiors were that, he “should be unrelenting towards Tamil demands, and wherever possible, force confrontations with them and establish the government’s undisputed ascendancy.” Neville Jayaweera records in his memoirs that he did not wish to carry out such orders, and appealed to Prime Minister Bandaranaike in private, and she gave him her support. This suggest that Madam Bandaranaike was not inherently anti-minority, and this is borne out by the liberal and non-racist ethos demonstrated by her three children, most visibly her daughter Chandrika who faced the full fury of the ethnic war when she became president and became commander in chief of the country’s military, but nevertheless gave leadership to the political campaign for a just political solution to Tamil grievances.
It is the blessing of Madam Sirimavo Bandaranaike to posterity that her two surviving children, Sunethra and Chandrika, stand today at the forefront of Sri Lanka’s efforts to heal the wounds of the past through their contributions in culture and arts and political reform.
By Dr. Jehan Perera