Memories of Sirimavo Bandaranaike on the Centenary of her Birth


Mrs. Bandaranaike photographed in Baghdad in 1975 with the writer (center) and Ambassador Faisal Junaid.

by Leelananda De Silva

I was in the main hall of the Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall (BMICH) last week to commemorate the 100th birth anniversary of Mrs. Bandaranaike and memories of 40 years ago came flooding back. In March 1974, the Annual Sessions of the Economic Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ECAFE), now called ESCAP, was held at the BMICH, and the Ministry of Planning and Economic Affairs was responsible for its organization. It was then the largest international conference to be held in Sri Lanka, and the first conference of any kind to be held at the BMICH. Mrs. Bandaranaike saw this conference as a trial run for the Non Aligned Summit. She was our Minister, and not only the Prime Minister.

Ten days before the conference there were many problems at the BMICH (security, water supply, electricity, lack of furniture). So we suggested that Mrs. Bandaranaike should convene a meeting at the BMICH to sort out all these issues. Among about 10 officials who were present, I remember D.B.I.P.S. Siriwardhana, Secretary of the Ministry which was in charge, I think of local government, B.A. Jayasinghe, Municipal Commissioner and *Stanley Senanayake, the IGP. Then in the early morning of the day the Conference was to start, Mrs. Bandaranaike rang me at home and asked me where the lectern was from where she was to address the Conference. She had seen the pictures of the conference hall in the morning newspapers, and there was no lectern. We had forgotten about it, and we had to rush one to the BMICH. If not for Mrs. Bandaranaike, we would have been ashamed of a major lapse.

Sirimavo Bandaranaike was Prime Minister and Head of Government in a more gentle era of parliamentary politics. She would be a stranger to the kind of politics in the country today. She treated friends and foes with courtesy. She had a great respect for the institutions of this country. Her desire was to strengthen them, whether they be Parliament, the Judiciary, or the Public Service, and not corrupt them. Officials who worked for her were treated with respect and good humour. They were not afraid to have an argument with her. She expected them to tell her what they really believed. She might disagree with them, and she would say so. Most of the time, she agreed with the official point of view. She never had any grudge with any official with whom she disagreed. Whenever she did not accept the official view, she would subsequently explain why. It may be due to political considerations – that was her prerogative. She told officials many times that she had to take political decisions which were not agreeable to them. That is the nature of politics. Senior officials of the Planning Ministry had a weekly meeting with her and they looked forward to those meetings. To have worked with Mrs. Bandaranaike was a delightful and memorable experience.

In addition to being Prime Minister, Mrs. Bandaranaike was the Minister of Defence and External Affairs, and Minister of Planning and Economic Affairs. Of these two portfolios, Mrs. Bandaranaike was most at ease with Foreign Affairs. She was the best Foreign Minister this country has ever had. Foreign Affairs came naturally to her. Unlike all other Heads of Government of this country, Mrs. Bandaranaike wanted Sri Lanka to play an active role in international affairs and at the United Nations. She believed that by punching above her weight, she could best serve Sri Lanka’s interests. Such a role would enhance Sri Lanka’s national security. Armed forces alone cannot do that. She wanted Sri Lanka to play a key role in the Non Aligned Movement and was anxious that Sri Lanka hosts the Fifth Non Aligned Summit in Colombo in 1976. She believed that Sri Lanka should be truly non-aligned and not be partial to either the West or the Socialist bloc. One of her strategies to ensure such an outcome was to attach equal weight to economic issues of significance to non aligned countries and to political issues which have so far been dominant in non aligned agendas. Political issues created divisions within the non aligned movement and made them take up positions which were either pro- West or East. Mrs. Bandaranaike had another concern in attaching prominence to economic affairs. She could relate non aligned activities and programmes more closely with the economic and social concerns of her own people.

While Mrs. Bandaranaike concerned herself with the great geopolitical issues (East-West relations, problems of the Middle East, nuclear proliferation, Sino-Indian disputes), she was much engaged in low profile issues of more immediate concern to the lives of Sri Lankan people and she wanted those issues to be reflected in our foreign policy priorities. As she told me, she wanted these subjects to be reflected in the non aligned agenda for Colombo. When she proposed the establishment of a World Fertilizer Fund at the Annual Sessions of ECAFE (ESCAP) in 1974, this was her object, and we took that proposal to the World Food Conference in Rome later that year and it went further. Mrs. Bandaranaike was prepared to take up issues relating to agriculture and irrigation and put them on non aligned and North South agendas. Mrs. Bandaranaike’s commitment to these issues led to the award of the prestigious Ceres medal to her by FAO, Rome. When she addressed the Non Aligned Summit as its Chairman, she argued for the establishment of a Third World Commercial and Merchant Bank, which was a practical proposal of immediate concern to countries like Sri Lanka. This Bank was to offer support to smaller developing countries to import goods on favourable terms, through bulk purchasing. By this kind of proposal, she was bringing the Non Aligned Movement from the political stratosphere to more earthly and mundane concerns. She was a practical woman, and knew the practice of economics and not the theory.

To relate another incident in connection with the Non Aligned Summit in 1976, Mrs. Bandaranaike told me to bring in Senaka Bibile, Professor of Pharmacology, as a member of the Sri Lankan delegation. Prof. Bibile had been the architect of a national policy for drugs which ensured access to high quality drugs at reasonable prices. Senaka Bibile was well known to the Prime Minister and she had been convinced of the relevance of his work not only to Sri Lanka, but to the extended world of the developing countries. This was an imaginative suggestion of Mrs. Bandaranaike. Senaka worked with us closely and we crafted a resolution which was acceptable to the whole non aligned community regarding the development of national policies for drugs at reasonable prices. After the Non Aligned Summit, her intention was for Sri Lanka to play a leading role in implementing whatever was decided at Colombo. She was keen that Dr. Gamani Corea would continue in UNCTAD as its Secretary General, as UNCTAD was a key actor in North South issues which were a dominant feature in international relations. She spoke to UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim personally at the UN in New York to ensure Gamani’s continued service in UNCTAD.

Mrs. Bandaranaike had a genuine feel for Commonwealth relations. She enjoyed those Heads of Government meetings. Heads of Governments, specially from smaller developing countries do not have the opportunity to discuss critical international and domestic issues with their peers and exchange experiences. Mrs. Bandaranaike saw Commonwealth meetings in this light. Here was an opportunity for her to interact with other heads of government at a personal and informal level. Here in Sri Lanka, we had prepared a report on the Brain Drain, which was an important issue at the time. She was concerned with this report here in Sri Lanka, and got its recommendations approved by the Cabinet. We discussed this with her further and she agreed to take this matter up at the level of the Commonwealth and we presented a paper with practical recommendations to the Kingston Summit in 1975. This is another instance of how Mrs. Bandaranaike related policies of national concern to a wider international strategy.

Mrs. Bandaranaike, when she travelled abroad for UN and other meetings or on bilateral visits, always aimed at making these visits of practical benefit for the country. I saw this on numerous occasions, when she wanted to be briefed on any feasible opportunities. When we went to Manila, she met President Marcos and she wished to discuss issues of practical interest to Sri Lanka. One of the common concerns of Philippines and Sri Lanka was to obtain a better price for their desiccated coconut, as they were the two leading exporters of this commodity. Mrs. Bandaranaike wanted this item to be discussed with President Marcos although it was not of major significance to either of the two countries.

At the Commonwealth Summit in Kingston, I suggested to Mrs. Bandaranaike that she could speak to Kenyan Vice President Arap Moi, who was there, about a proposal made by Sri Lanka to establish an Organization of Tea Exporting Countries. Mrs. Bandaranaike discussed this with Moi at a tea break at the Summit. When she went to Iraq, she met Saddam Hussein, and this was the time of the oil crisis. She asked for and obtained 200,000 tons of crude at highly concessional prices. She was always pleased when she had achieved something practical.

Her frugality with public money is legendary. Unlike today, she was very careful with public money. She told her delegation that expenses have to be kept low. She was always concerned about her accountability to Parliament on her expenses. Once at the Commonwealth Summit in Kingston, we found that only four members of the six member delegation were guests, so that their expenses were met by the Jamaican government. N. Balasubramaniam of the Foreign Office and I were not entitled and had to pay for our hotel. Mrs. Bandaranaike suggested that we share a room so that the expenses can be kept down. I was very unhappy with this arrangement, although I saw Mrs. Bandaranaike’s concern. On her state visit to Manila, she travelled economy class on a Philippine Airways flight. When the flight reached Manila airport, the guard of honour was waiting outside the first class exit. Mrs. Bandaranaike came out of the economy class exit and had to walk to the other end of the aircraft to be greeted. The hosts were surprised and so were the Sri Lankans living in Manila. It was a lesson in the practice of austerity.

Mrs. Bandaranaike was fair to her opponents. This was not reciprocated by others as could be seen by the totally unjust deprivation of her civic rights after she left office. There are two incidents I remember. Once in Tokyo on her visit there in late 1976, her officials had to prepare a speech for her to be given at the banquet by the Japanese Prime Minister. The officials included a reference to the generous gesture of J.R. Jayewardene (now the Leader of the Opposition in Sri Lanka) at the San Francisco meeting in 1950, which negotiated the peace treaty with Japan. Some officials of the delegation thought that Mrs. Bandaranaike might not be inclined to mention it. She had no hesitation in including the reference to JRJ in her speech. Once again, when the 25th Anniversary of the Colombo Plan was commemorated in Colombo in 1975, in the Supplement in the newspapers, which was organized by the Planning Ministry, there was a long message from JRJ, as he was one of the founding fathers of the Colombo Plan. Mrs. Bandaranaike’s message was also there. She had no complaint about it.

Mrs. Bandaranaike believed that personal relations between heads of government and closer relations even at other levels could make an important difference to foreign affairs. She was personally friendly, although they met rarely, with Mrs. Indira Gandhi, the Prime Minister of India, and Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, the Prime Minister of Pakistan. When they met, others could see the bonds of affection which bound them. She was friendly with Pierre Trudeau, the Canadian Prime Minister. When the Canadian Prime Minister visited Sri Lanka, he had expressed an interest in Sri Lankan astrology. Mrs. Bandaranaike saw to it that he met with one, and Trudeau, who was a bachelor, aged 49 was told that he would marry within the year. A couple of years later, Mrs. Bandaranaike met Trudeau at the Commonwealth Summit in Kingston, Jamaica in 1975. Trudeau, having married in the interim was there with his charming wife and son (I think it is Justin, the present Canadian Prime Minister). Trudeau introduced his wife and little son to Mrs. Bandaranaike and mentioned the astrologer’s prediction.

During the break up of Pakistan in the early 1970s, Mrs. Bandaranaike gave landing facilities to Pakistani military aircraft in Colombo. This angered both India and the new state of Bangladesh. Mrs. Gandhi was irritated. When Mrs. Gandhi visited Sri Lanka for the Non Aligned Summit, Mrs. Bandaranaike offered Temple Trees for Mrs. Gandhi to stay. This was a lovely gesture, much appreciated by Mrs. Gandhi.

Mrs. Bandaranaike was a great Prime Minister and Head of Government. She had no desire to hang on to power at any cost. She never used the machinery of government to promote her own or her party’s interests. She was deeply conscious of the impermanence of power and high office. She was a practicing democrat and a sincere Buddhist. We cannot judge the decisions of Mrs. Bandaranaike from the vantage point of a globalized and a post-Cold War world. Mrs. Bandaranaike is now a historical figure. Her memory will fade with the passing of the generations which knew her. Of the senior officials who worked for her when she was Head of Government, only a few remain. And for them, and for me, to paraphrase Andrew Marvell’s haunting lines “behind our backs we can hear, time’s winged chariot hurrying near.”

(Leelananda De Silva was Senior Assistant Secretary and Director, Economic Affairs of the Ministry of Planning and Economic Affairs. He was the Secretary of the Economic Committee of the Non Aligned Summit in Colombo 1976)

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