TamilWeek Apr 23, 2006
Sirimavo Bandaranaike — A
portrait from memory

(A tribute on her Ninetieth Birthday)

By Leelananda De Silva

(Senior Asst. Secretary,Ministry of Planning
& Economic Affairs - 1970 to 1977)
There is a sadness that comes in thinking of the days that are no
more. That is the feeling I have when writing about Mrs.
Bandaranaike, under whom I worked for seven crowded years from
1970 to 1977. Mrs. Bandaranaike, apart from being Prime Minister
and Head of Government, was also the Minister of Planning and
Economic Affairs and the Minister of Defence & Foreign Affairs.
Senior officials from these two ministries saw the Prime Minister at
least once a week and sometimes more often. There were also the
travels abroad with her, which gave an opportunity to see her at work
and in her freer hours. A few of us at the Ministry of Planning also had
the occasion to see her in Cabinet from time to time.

The political culture of the 1970s was still that of the Soulbury
Constitution although it was superseded in 1972. Until 1977 it was still
prime ministerial, and not presidential government. Mrs.
Bandaranaike, coming from a patrician background, was not one to
flaunt her office, and was not too interested in the ceremonial side
which has now become a key feature of heads of governments who
are presidents. Those days in the 1970s, under a prime ministerial
system, the ceremonial side and representing the State were left to
the Governor General and later the President (until 1977). There was
a clear separation between the national and the partisan interest,
which since 1977 has become blurred and confused indeed, with the
merging of the roles of head of government and head of State. Mrs.
Bandaranaike, was a modest and gracious person, who won respect
regardless of the trappings of office.

This is not the place to discuss Mrs. Bandaranaike’s domestic politics
and policies. The arguments on those will linger for a long time. When
she came to office in 1970 for her second and last term as Prime
Minister and head of government, she had reached political maturity
after a difficult first spell in the 1960s. She was in command of her
government and had gained extensive political experience both in
government and in opposition. During the 1970s she had to confront
the JVP insurgency, the food and oil crises which had a traumatic
effect on Sri Lanka, and initiate land reform and estates
nationalization. She had to manage a coalition with articulate and
vociferous political parties. The Planning Ministry which she headed
was at least for some time the countervailing power to the Ministry of
Finance. There was much tension in the politics of that time specially
within the government itself. It is to her credit that she managed the
country in these critical times with courage and good humour.

Managing the Cabinet

Her cabinet consisted of men of stature. There were political
heavyweights from her own party and also from the coalition partners.
Her Cabinet from 1970 — 1975 was probably the most intellectually
gifted of all Sri Lankan cabinets (Many will remember the quip about
the ‘golden brains’). She was not overawed by their presence in
Cabinet, and charmed her way to obtain clear decisions which were
satisfactory from her point of view. Perhaps, her role as Minister of
Planning was the key to her managing cabinet affairs. The Ministry of
Planning & Economic Affairs, (along with the Ministry of Finance) had
access to all cabinet papers and was expected to make its
observations on those papers. Mrs. Bandaranaike was assiduous in
understanding the business before the Cabinet. The Planning
Ministry prepared for her a note of one to two pages, summarizing the
issues and her own views for each cabinet meeting. Somewhere in
the now extinct Ministry of Planning will be found a large file
containing these weekly notes to her. She made full use of these in
intervening in cabinet. Prior to the Cabinet, which usually met on a
Wednesday, there was the weekly meeting with the Ministry of
Planning, and she would go through the cabinet agenda. She was a
hard working Prime Minister, methodical, diligent and circumspect.

There were times when she insisted in Cabinet that the Ministry of
Planning & Economic Affairs should take the lead in one matter or
another. Two instances come to mind. When the sterling company
estates were taken over, she was anxious that agreement should be
reached with those 125 companies as a matter of urgency. She had
discussed the matter with Harold Wilson, the then British Prime
Minister on her visit to the U.K. The Prime Minister insisted in cabinet
that the compensation negotiations should be handled by the
Planning Ministry. (These compensation negotiations with the British
is another story) On another occasion she got the cabinet to agree
that the Ministry of Planning should be convener and secretariat of
the cabinet committee on the brain drain. As for the Ministry of
Defence & Foreign Affairs, rarely did an issue from that ministry come
up to Cabinet. Defence & Foreign Affairs was largely the prerogative
of the Prime Minister.

I am reminded of a conversation we had in Kingston, Jamaica, when
we were there for the Commonwealth Summit in 1975. Harold Wilson,
the British Prime Minister, had suggested that the theme for the
discussion among Commonwealth leaders during the weekend retreat
(it was a tradition for the leaders to be by themselves without any
officials during the retreat) should be on governance issues. Mrs.
Bandaranaike was thinking of raising the problems of Cabinet
government in developing countries on this occasion. During a
discussion with her prior to the retreat, it was apparent that she was
concerned with the trend in Sri Lanka to take up only relatively minor,
sectoral, issues in Cabinet, and neglect the larger issues and the
broader picture of government. There was obviously a gap in the
machinery of government in Sri Lanka at the highest levels to take up
key strategic issues of policy and politics, and she was conscious of it.

Relations with officials

Mrs. Bandaranaike had an excellent relationship with her officials. She
was rarely irritated, and was prepared to listen to contrary points of
view and make a decision after hearing both the pros and cons of an
issue. She did not make up her mind before meetings with officials,
and she was highly amenable to professional advice from public
servants. In her own mind she had a clear demarcation between
official and political. She did not expect her officials to go along with
the demands of politicians and in fact she preferred contrary views to
those emanating from political circles. That strengthened her hand
when negotiating with the party and the coalition. There was hardly
ever any intervention by her in public service appointments in her two
ministries. That was left to the permanent secretaries. She never
thought of politicising the public service and was not concerned with
the political affiliations of officials. There was one instance, when
someone informed her that a senior official of the Planning Ministry
was a close relation of one of the leaders of the 1962 coup. She was
not bothered at all.

Mrs. Bandaranaike was exceptionally well served by her three
Secretaries — M. D. D. Peiris, who was Secretary to the Prime
Minister; W. T. Jayasinghe, Secretary to the Ministry of Defence &
Foreign Affairs; and Prof. H. A. De S. Gunasekera, Secretary to the
Ministry of Planning & Economic Affairs. They were men of integrity
whom the Prime Minister trusted. They were loyal to her without being
subservient. They told her what they thought of on any issue. It was
her right to make the decisions. These were officials without agendas
of their own. Prof. Gunasekera, a distinguished academic economist,
came from outside the public service, and he was very particular not
to politicize the Ministry of Planning. I cannot forget the helpful role of
the genial Dr. Mackie Ratwatte, the Private Secretary to the Prime
Minister, especially in the grey areas between official, political and

Mrs. Bandaranaike had little time to concern herself with the issues
and problems of pubic administration. From time to time, however,
she expressed strong views on matters coming up before her. On one
occasion, she was meeting with the members of the L. B. De Silva
Salaries Commission (the other members were H. C. Gunawardena
and V. C. De Silva), a body which had been appointed by Mr. Dudley
Senanayake when he was Prime Minister. Those were the days when
there was continuity between administrations and the Salaries
Commission continued to work with the new government. Mrs.
Bandaranaike was in a light-hearted mood at the meeting, and told
the commissioners that she hoped they would sort out the problems
of salaries, without any great burdens on the budget. She was
particularly interested in the problem of attracting high quality
personnel into the public service. On another occasion, when the
District political authority system was being discussed, her concern
was to avoid politicisation of the district administration. She wondered
how political interference with officials can be avoided at the time of
elections, under the new system.

A Sense of Public Duty

Mrs. Bandaranaike was animated by her high sense of public duty.
She, as a practising Buddhist, was conscious that all things were
impermanent. She knew that she would not be Prime Minister all the
time, and the transient nature of politics was ingrained in her.
Although not one of the brilliant speakers in the House, she was a
great parliamentarian. She knew that she was accountable to
Parliament. I remember one instance which illustrates this clearly. She
was attending the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in
Kingston, Jamaica, in 1975. There were six members in her
delegation, of which I was one. When we got to Kingston, we found
that only four members of the delegation were entitled to free
accommodation at the Hotel Sheraton, where the meeting was being
held. The other two members had to pay. Mrs. Bandaranaike was
very conscious about keeping the costs to a minimum. She suggested
that the two of us (the other was N. Balasubramaniam of the Foreign
office) should share a hotel room, and in spite of our disinclination,
were compelled to do so. She said that there will be parliamentary
questions about the cost of her travels, and these costs need to be

As Prime Minister, she travelled economy class on many of her
foreign trips. When visiting the Philippines, the aircraft in which she
was travelling, drew up on the tarmac and a guard of honour was
waiting right in line with the doors of the first class cabin. The Prime
Minister was travelling economy class, and got out of the rear door
and on to the tarmac, and she had to walk some yards to be received
by the guard of honour. There were many Sri Lankans resident in
Manila, also on the tarmac and a few of them felt that this was not
acceptable. On the contrary, it was a profound lesson in responsible
and accountable governance, specially to a regime of the Marcos
kind, which had no idea of prudent use of public funds.

Mrs. Bandaranaike had an eye for detail, which could embarrass
many an official. In March 1974, she was to open the first ever
international conference to be held at the BMICH — the annual
sessions of ECAFE (now ESCAP). The BMICH had little facilities at the
time and everything for the conference had to be supplied from
outside. Early in the morning of the opening day of the conference,
she telephoned me at home. She had seen the picture of the
conference hall in the newspapers that morning, and she told me that
there was no lectern from which she could deliver her address. We
had overlooked this little matter and had to hurriedly get this from
somewhere else! She was meticulous in getting her speeches on
these occasions right. Just before she addressed the conference, she
noted one word in her address, the pronunciation of which she had a
doubt about. She called me to the podium to find out that her
pronunciation is the right one.

She had a great sense of what was right and proper and could rise
above partisan politics. I remember one instance in Tokyo, when we
prepared her speech to be delivered at the reception hosted by the
Japanese Prime Minister. The officials, except for one or two felt that
there should be a reference to the role of Sri Lanka (then Ceylon), at
the San Francisco Conference in 1950, where the Japanese Peace
Treaty was signed. At this conference, Mr. J. R. Jayewardene, who
was the Minister of Finance and the Leader of the Ceylon delegation,
had waived any claim by Ceylon for war reparations from Japan.
Japan has never forgotten this friendly gesture. At the time of Mrs.
Bandaranaike’s visit to Tokyo in 1977, Mr. Jayewardene was Leader
of the Opposition in Sri Lanka, and the general elections were
expected soon. The question therefore was whether to highlight Mr.
Jayewardene’s achievement. Mrs. Bandaranaike had no qualms at all
and was perfectly happy to mention Ceylon’s role in San Francisco.

Foreign Affairs

Of all the subjects she dealt with as Prime Minister and Minister of
Defence & Foreign Affairs and Planning & Economic Affairs, foreign
affairs was closest to her heart. She had an inborn talent for
diplomacy at the highest levels, and she attached to foreign affairs an
importance which no other head of government in Sri Lanka has
hitherto done. We now know the perils of neglecting foreign affairs
and policies, and it is a failure on this score which is at least partly the
cause of Sri Lanka’s current travails. Mrs. Bandaranaike saw in the
Non-Aligned Movement and in the Commonwealth a great potential
for ensuring peace and security. She attended the summits of these
organisations and made full use of them to pursue Sri Lanka’s own
interests and also the general multilateral interest.

She believed that warm personal relations with other heads of
government, specially in the region, could make an effective
contribution to sorting out thorny issues among countries. At least,
that would ease and facilitate close communications at the highest
levels. She was particularly anxious to maintain a very close
relationship with India, China and Pakistan. There were times when
policy decisions irritated some of these countries. When Sri Lanka
offered refuelling facilities to Pakistani aircraft during the Bangladesh
crisis in the early 1970s, there was more than irritation in India. Mrs.
Bandaranaike did not desist from taking a tough decision in this
matter. However, her close personal relations with Mrs. Gandhi
helped to overcome this setback in Sri Lanka-India relations. When
Mrs. Gandhi visited Sri Lanka for the Non-Aligned Summit in 1976,
Mrs. Bandaranaike made available the Prime Minister’s residence,
Temple Trees, for the visiting Indian leader who was her friend. That
is the kind of courtesy and generosity that warmed her to many

Leaders like Chou en Lai, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, and Pierre Trudeau,
held her in high regard and considered her as a personal friend.
When Mrs. Gandhi lost the election and ceased to be Prime Minister
in 1976, she was going through a difficult period in her life. The Non-
Aligned Foreign Ministers’- Meeting was being held in New Delhi, a
short while after her defeat, and the new Indian government had no
affinity towards Mrs. Gandhi. Mrs. Bandaranaike made it a point to
instruct the Sri Lankan delegation led by Mr. Felix Dias Bandaranaike,
to visit Mrs. Gandhi at her private residence and convey her best
wishes. This is the kind of gesture which was appreciated by friend
and foe alike. When she visited the then Burma, (now Myamar) in
1977, she made contact with Madam Aung Sang (mother of Aung
Sang Suu Kyi) who was an old friend and visited her for tea at her
home. The military government of Burma did not like it. But she told
them that she has to visit her for personal reasons and that was that.

Mrs. Bandaranaike made official visits abroad from time to time. Her
visits were planned far ahead, and there was extensive work in
preparation for these visits. She was anxious, that the economic
benefits that would accrue to Sri Lanka from these visits were fully
realized. She always saw to it that economic issues of immediate
importance to Sri Lanka were on the agenda. When she visited
Sadam Hussein in Baghdad in 1975, ostensibly to discuss non-
aligned issues, she was able to persuade the Iraqi leader to provide
desperately needed petroleum to Sri Lanka on highly concessional
terms. When, she met the Vice-President of Kenya, Arap Moi, during
a tea-interval at the Commonwealth Summit in Kingston, Jamaica in
1975, she urged him to cooperate with Sri Lanka and India in
international tea negotiations.

In multilateral forums, the proposals made by her always had an
immediacy and urgency, from the perspective of Sri Lanka’s own
concerns and interests. When she addressed the annual sessions of
ECAFE in Colombo in 1974, she called for the establishment of a
World Fertilizer Fund. Sri Lanka was facing a food crisis and a severe
shortage of foreign exchange to import fertilizers. The proposal was
followed up in the UN General Assembly in New York, and led to the
establishment of an international fertilizer supply scheme. At the
Commonwealth Summit in 1975 she proposed a series of actions to
stem the brain-drain from developing countries. This followed a report
on this subject by a Cabinet Committee in Sri Lanka. She was anxious
that the proposals of that report required to be followed up at a more
global level. Her foreign policy was pragmatic and practical and she
had no time for the more esoteric theories of international relations,
whether it be of the third world or of the developed countries.

The Non-Aligned Summit

One of her major foreign policy concerns, was for Sri Lanka to host
the Non-Aligned Summit, which was held in Colombo in 1976. Her
active involvement in the politics of non-alignment gave Sri Lanka a
prominence in international relations which was not there before, and
not seen since. She was anxious that the Colombo Summit should be
truly non-aligned and that the sterile politics of ganging up against the
West should not continue. This was no easy task, given the
predilections of some of the articulate members of the movement.
One strategy that she adopted was to attach a high importance to
economic issues of the third world. She wanted the Economic
Committee of the Summit to be given the same importance as the
Political Committee. This strategy was fruitful and the non-aligned
movement thereafter started to concern itself equally on economic, as
well as on political, issues.

I can record here one illustration of her interest in economic and
social issues within the non-aligned context. Prof. Senaka Bibile, an
eminent pharmacologist, had undertaken pioneering work in
developing cost-effective drugs policies, especially in relation to the
wider use of generic drugs in poor countries. Sri Lanka had adopted
some of these policies. This type of policy is now conventional
wisdom, but it was not so in the 1970s. Mrs. Bandaranaike suggested
to us that Prof. Bibile, whom she knew, should be attached to the Sri
Lanka delegation and work with me in the economic committee on this
subject. This led to the adoption by the summit of a key resolution on
pharmaceutical policies in the third world.

Attaching priority to non-aligned issues called for many foreign visits
by the Prime Minister. She attended the Non-Aligned Summit in
Algiers in 1973, which confirmed the decision to call the next summit
in Colombo in 1976. There were many other contenders to host the
summit. I still remember vividly Mrs. Bandaranaike at the Algiers
Airport, taking leave of President Boumedienne of Algeria. At the
airport at the same time was Emperor Haile Selassie, and there
should be a photograph somewhere of the three leaders. The visit to
Algiers was preceded by a visit to Rome, where Mrs. Bandaranaike
had an audience with the Pope at his summer residence in
Castelgondolfo. Immediately after the non-aligned summit in Colombo,
she undertook many visits to countries in South and East Asia, and as
chairman of the non-aligned movement, her reputation and Sri Lanka’
s were at their highest. To take just one instance. On the occasion of
her visit to Japan, she was treated as if she was a head of state. Her
entire delegation was entertained to a private luncheon by Emperor &
Empress Hirohito, with other members of the royal family present, at
the Imperial Palace. She also had a great reception in New York when
she addressed the United Nations. Undoubtedly, Mrs. Bandaranaike
was the best known internationally of all Sri Lanka’s leaders in recent

Good Bye to all that

When Mrs. Bandaranaike lost power in 1977, it was the end of the era
of parliamentary and prime ministerial government in Sri Lanka. Mrs.
Bandaranaike was Prime Minister again but was never the head of
government and had little power and influence. A few months after
she lost power, she was travelling to Yugoslavia for treatment of her
chronic knee problem. Marshal Tito, who was a personal friend, had
invited her. I was on the same flight from Colombo to Zurich, as part of
some official delegation to Rome. I had only a brief word with Mrs.
Bandaranaike before the flight and on board. She appeared rather
detached and aloof. I did not see her leave the flight in Zurich. About
an hour later after we landed in Zurich, I spotted Mrs. Bandaranaike,
seated in a remote corner of the lounge with her lady-attendant. I was
alone there without the other members of the delegation. I spoke with
her and she was once again the gracious and friendly lady I knew her
to be. She told me that she did not want to talk with me while I was
with other members of the delegation as that might have embarrassed
me. A few months later I left the Sri Lanka public service. Thereafter, I
saw her from time to time at Rosmead Place, and she was very happy
to talk politics with a person who was no longer a government official. I
shall always remember Mrs. Bandaranaike with affection and gratitude.

[Courtesy: Island]