Women in Power

The Revolutionary Lives and Careers of Siva,Doreen,Vivi and Srima

By Kusum Wijetilleke (kusumw@gmail.com) and
Rienzie Wijetilleke (rienzietwij@gmail.com)

(Continued from yesterday)

US President John F. Kennedy modified a policy on the release of US rubber stockpiles after Ms. Bandaranaike wrote to him explaining the consequences of the policy on Sri Lanka’s rubber export earnings. She exchanged further letters with JFK on the most critical issue of the period, nuclear proliferation, expressing her dismay at nuclear tests undertaken by the US. Citing her speech at the 1961 Non-Aligned conference, JFK wrote back stating “…although there may be some differences between us as to what constitutes ‘effective’ inspection and control, I am heartened that we seem not to differ over the need for it.”

The 1962 Sino-Indian War led to some 6,000 deaths and Ms. Bandaranaike, realizing how devastating war between the super powers would be for Ceylon’s economic aspirations, travelled between China and India seeking compromises. Her efforts were some time before the term “shuttle diplomacy” entered the lexicon of international relations. A team of six non-aligned nations led by Ms. Bandaranaike and Sri Lanka led to a dramatic de-escalation in hostilities and earned her further recognition on the international stage. Her close relationship with Indira Gandhi led to a negotiation between PM J.R. Jayawardena and Indian Diplomat J.N. Dixit, on the restoration of her civil rights and parliamentary membership, after she had been convicted of abuses of power in 1977.

Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s political career was full of peaks and valleys, but her ascension to power was not merely a twist of fate caused by the assassination of her husband. At the age of 19, she took up social work in rural areas of the country, distributing food and medicine to villages and joined the Lankan Women’s Association, the largest voluntary women’s organization and served as its Treasurer, Vice-President and President. It might be unfortunate that her performance as a leader is defined by the decline of the Sri Lankan economy during her stewardship. It diluted a ground breaking career as a woman of formidable intellect with unrivalled power in a new political frontier.

A similar fate would befall another pioneering woman of Sri Lankan politics, its first female cabinet minister; Ms Wimala Wijewardene, whose political career was inextricably linked to the SWRD Bandaranaike assassination.

Ms. Wimala Wijewardene contested the seat for Kelaniya in 1952, at the 2nd Parliamentary election, but was defeated by her nephew J.R. Jayewardene. She would enter parliament and become a Cabinet Minister in 1956, but her career would be overshadowed by her close association with the Kelaniya Raja Maha Vihara and its Chief Priest, “Ven.” Mapitigama Buddharakkita Thera. The Chief Priest had long been suspected of racketeering and other not so venerable business dealings. He was also the founder of the Eksath Bhikku Peramuna (United Bhikku Front) which represented the politicized section of the clergy. Pamphlets, anonymously distributed, implied an affair between Buddharakkita and Sri Lanka’s first female Cabinet Minister. When Ms. Wimala urged SWRD to take action, he disregarded the request and allegedly retorted “Wimala, after all, aren’t some of these things true”. Investigations following the assassination of the Prime Minister revealed that Buddharakkita had convinced a fanatic nationalist monk to murder the PM and reportedly even provided the weapon. Further investigations revealed SWRD Bandaranaike’s wavering patronage to Buddharakkita and his business interests; the refusal of a shipping contract and a sugar manufacturing license, as prime motives for his assassination.

Ms Wijewardene was arrested along with Buddharakkita as a suspect in the murder assassination, but was later released. She did not return to politics but the dramatic events should not dilute a crucial political career which peaked with her appointment as the Minister of Health in 1956. Twenty years later, another equally skilled administrator would be appointed as the Minister of Health.

Sivagami Verina “Siva” Dassanaike and her husband James Obeysekere lll, were early supporters of the breakaway faction led by S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike in the 1950s. Thus, “Siva” became politically active in the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) at the age of 22 and contested the Mirigama seat in 1965 at the age of 36. Her victory as a first time candidate was even more impressive considering that she was an Anglican contesting a majoritarian Sinhala Buddhist district.

As Health Minister, Siva formulated a National Health Programme that would be adopted by the United Nations as an international model, earning her a special award of appreciation from the United States Senator for Massachusetts: Edward Kennedy. However Ms Obeysekere’s career was characterized by more than an award from a Kennedy. Despite, or may be because of a privileged upbringing, she was ahead of her time in realizing that the poorest in Ceylon had no meaningful income through employment and what work they did do was often exploitative, both in deed and remuneration. During her visits to far flung villages around the island she noticed that local artists in rural towns and villages, many of them women, would lovingly create handicrafts and handlooms but received very low prices for their labour. That was until Ms Obeysekere created ‘Laksala’ to earn better prices for handicrafts, an income generator to this day. Ms Obeysekere’s work towards uplifting the poor earned her the title of “Deshamanya” (Pride of the Island); the first female recipient of the award.

Sri Lanka’s independence heroes are rightly revered, with monuments, institutes and street signs bearing their names. D.S. Senenayake, Henry Pedris, C.W.W. Kannangara, Leslie Gunawardena, Ponnambalam Ramanathan, Colvin R. De Silva and the like are cemented in history, but there are others who deserve recognition. Sri Lanka’s independence movement was partly the result of the agitation of a broad coalition of leftist political parties, thus Sri Lanka’s original socialists deserve more than an honourable mention.

The country’s first political party was the Trotskyist Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP), formed in 1935 by Colvin R De Silva and Philip Gunawardena on an anti-imperialist platform. The party aimed to dismantle the colonial government from within by fielding popular candidates to positions in the State Council. Yet the first leftist to be elected to the State Council was Dr. S.A. Wickramasinghe (1931), who later founded the Communist Party of Ceylon, and had met the aforementioned Colvin R.de Silva and Philip Gunawardena many years earlier in the UK. Whilst socializing amongst the radicals in London, Dr. Wickramasinghe would also meet his future wife, Doreen Young, whose parents were ardent British socialists and ingrained in her a revolutionary streak that would serve Ceylon well in later years.

Ms. Young would relocate to Ceylon as Principal of Sujatha Vidyalaya in Matara and made her mark almost immediately by launching a campaign of formal training for Ceylon’s predominantly female teachers, so they may obtain qualifications and improve their bargaining positions in the labour market. Her career as a revolutionary and radical in Ceylon had begun. She learnt Sinhala and proceeded to update the local curriculum to replace British history with Sri Lankan and world history. Her marriage to the leader of the Communist Party and their anti-imperialist campaigns led to the revocation of an employment offer from Vishaka Vidyalaya. She was later also removed as the Principal of Ananda Balika Vidyalaya in 1936, accused of spreading anti-British propaganda.

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