Chandrika Kumaratunga, the First Female President in Sri Lanka in a saree, seated at a press conference
Chandrika Kumaratunga, the First Female President of Sri Lanka

As you may already know, Sri Lanka is a country with a rich history. Of course, it was colonized for more than a century, by Portuguese, Dutch, and British respectively, and thus, this island’s history is unique. However, after gaining independence from British rule in 1948, Sri Lanka remained as a British dominion, until 1972. Thereafter, Mr. Willian Gopallawa became the first president, and D. S. Senanayake, the first prime-minister of independent Sri Lanka. From that day onwards, several personalities became a part of the Sri Lankan politics, creating significant eras, and contributing in varying scales. However, among such various Sri Lankan politicians, Chandrika Kumaratunga is indeed a highlight. Thus, we focused this article on this important personality. Continue reading to know about her!

Who is Chandrika Kumaratunga?

Chandrika Kumaratunga is the 5th Executive President of Sri Lanka. Further, she is Sri Lanka’s first female president and the second female prime minister.

She served as the president of the country from November 1994 to November 2005. However, no lady personality could become the president of Sri Lanka to date after Chandrika Kumaratunga.

Chandrika is the loving daughter of two former prime ministers, S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike and Sirimavo Bandaranaike. Furthermore, Chandrika led the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) until the end of her presidency.

Early Life and Family

Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga was born in June 1945 at Guildford Crescent in Colombo and moved to Rosmead Place in Colombo, a year after her birth. Chandrika’s father S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike was the Minister of Local Administration in Sri Lanka.

Her paternal grandfather was Sir Solomon Dias Bandaranaike, who served as the advisor and the chief representative to the Governor of Ceylon. Barnes Ratwatte Dissawa was Chandrika’s maternal grandfather (Sirima Ratwatte Dias Bandaranaike’s father). He served as a Rate Mahatmya of Balangoda during British rule. Chandrika spent her childhood comfortably with her wealthy Bandaranaike family members. They used to live in both their mansions at Rosmead Place in Colombo and Horagolla Walawwa in Nittambuwa, Gampaha.

During her childhood, her father showed some rising nature in his political career. As a result, S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike became the first Cabinet Minister of Health and Local Government in 1948. In addition, he left the governing party and formed his own party, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, in 1951. Finally, his dedication led him to be the Leader of the Opposition in 1952 and the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka in 1956.

Later, in 1959, her father was assassinated when Chandrika was a young girl of fourteen. Following the assassination, Chandrika’s mother, Sirimavo Bandaranaike was appointed the leader of the SLFP and she made it to an election victory. Thus, becoming the key role model in Chandrika Kumaratunga’s political career, her mother was sworn as the prime minister of Sri Lanka in 1960. And yes, parallely, she became the first female prime minister in the world.

Chandrika’s Education

Chandrika Kumaratunga received her primary and secondary education at the St Bridget’s Convent, Colombo 07. Next, she started to study for a law degree at the Roman Catholic Aquinas University College in Colombo. However, she did not complete it as she got a scholarship to study in France.

From 1967 to 1968, she studied French language and culture at Institut d’études politiques d’Aix-en-Provence. In 1968, she started studying at Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris and successfully completed a diploma in political science in 1970. Later, at the École Pratique des Hautes Études, Paris, Chandrika followed a PhD program in development economics from 1970 to 1973.

Chandrika Kumaratunga is fluent in all Sinhala, English, and French three languages as a result of her education in both Sri Lanka and France.

Early Political Career of Chandrika Kumaratunga

After her studies, Chandrika arrived back in Ceylon in 1972. By that time, her mother had become the prime minister of the country for the second time. As soon as her arrival, she enrolled in and became active in the Sri Lanka Freedom Party. Later, in 1974, Chandrika became an executive committee member of the Women’s League of SLFP.

In a later year, Chandrika Kumaratunga became an Additional Principal Director in the Land Reforms Commission (LRC). Under the Land Reform Law, the Land Reforms Commission (LRC) was able to acquire nearly 228,000 hectares of private land to the government with the ultimate guidance of Chandrika. In 1976, she left the Land Reforms Commission (LRC) and became the chairman of the Janawasa Commission.

However, in the 1977 general election, her mother’s SLFP government had to face a great defeat against J. R. Jayawardena, who fought under the United National Party (UNP). As a result, Chandrika Kumaratunga left the government service in 1977. But, she rendered her service as a consultant to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization until the end of 1979.

Chandrika at Sri Lanka Mahajana Pakshaya

Chandrika married Vijaya Kumaratunga in 1978. Vijaya was a leading actor as well as a political activist in the country. In 1984, Chandrika left the Sri Lanka Freedom Party and formed Sri Lanka Mahajana Pakshaya (SLMP) with her husband. Moreover, she became the Vice President of the party.

However, in 1988, Vijaya Kumaratunga was assassinated by gunmen near his home. Thus, Chandrika became the leader of her husband’s party. Taking the support of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party, Communist Party of Sri Lanka, and the Nava Sama Samaja Party, she formed the United Socialist Alliance. But, it was not a successful move for her even though it was well organized.

Soon after her husband’s death, she sought refuge in the United Kingdom and fled the country for her personal security. As a result, Sri Lanka Mahajana Pakshaya (SLMP) split into two due to her absence.

When did Chandrika Return to Politics?

In 1990, Chandrika started visiting Sri Lanka and re-engaged in politics. This is soon after the end of the second JVP insurrection. In 1991, she permanently returned to Sri Lanka.

In September 1991, the power of the governing United National Party greatly weakened when Gamini Dissanayake and Lalith Athulathmudali left the party. However, Lalith Athulathmudali and Ranasinghe Premadasa were unfortunately assassinated in 1993. This benefited Chandrika and the people elected her as the Chief Minister of the Western Province.

Chandrika Kumaratunga as the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka

Chandrika became the de facto leader of the SLFP in 1994. Next, she formed a coalition called the People’s Alliance and contested the general elections called for in August 1994. In the election, Chandrika Kumaratunga was able to enter the parliament from the Gampaha District.

There she gained the support of the Ceylon Workers’ Congress and achieved a slim majority in parliament. Consequently, the People’s Alliance could form a government in which Chandrika Kumaratunga became the prime minister of Sri Lanka. Thus, she became the second female to be the prime minister of Sri Lanka after her mother. Moreover, her mother, Sirimavo Bandaranaike became a minister in her cabinet on the 19th of August 1994.

Soon Chandrika became the leader of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party.

Chandrika Kumaratunga as the President of Sri Lanka

Sri Lankans elected Chandrika Kumaratunga twice as the president of Sri Lanka. Her first term was from 1994 to 1999 and the second term was from 1999 to 2005. Thus, her name was written in history as the first female executive president in Sri Lanka. In the same way, she is the only female president in Sri Lanka up to date.

Chandrika’s First Term of Presidency (1994 – 1999)

Kumaratunga planned to hold the third presidential election of Sri Lanka in November 1994. The battle was between Prime Minister Kumaratunga backed by the People’s Alliance and Gamini Dissanayake backed by the United National Party. Unfortunately, an LTTE suicide bomber assassinated Gamini Dissanayake and her widow contested the election against Chandrika. In this, Chandrika won the election gaining a majority percentage. Furthermore, she appointed her mother Sirimavo as the prime minister.

She continued the open economic policies of the United National Party, giving tea exports and the apparel industry more prominence. In addition, migrant unskilled labor provided more foreign revenues during her period. However, most of her major economic projects ended up in failure. Lakshman Kadiragamar was the Foreign Minister of her government. He worked hard to uplift the recognition and acceptance of Sri Lanka on the international stage.

Besides, Chandrika was successful enough to ban the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) internationally. Thus, the United States proscribed the LTTE on the 8th of October 1997 while the United Kingdom on the 28th of February 2001. 

Chandrika made conciliatory moves toward the LTTE during her early stage in order to end the war peacefully. But she ended up the conciliatory moves toward the LTTE when they broke the cease-fire and attacked two Sri Lanka Navy gunboats in April 1995. As a result, Chandrika pursued a more military-based strategy and launched the following major offenses against them.

  • Operation Riviresa
  • Battle of Mullaitivu
  • Battle of Kilinochchi
  • Operation Jayasikuru

However, she was not powerful enough to end the civil war during her first term of presidency.

Chandrika’s Second Term of Presidency (1999 – 2005)

Chandrika Kumaratunga announced an early presidential election to be held on the 21st of December 1999. Meanwhile, she had to face an assassination attempt, by the Tamil Tigers. This happened on the 18th of December 1999, three days before the election at her final election rally at Colombo. In this, permanent optic nerve damage happened and Chandrika lost vision in her right eye totally. Overcoming all these obstacles, Chandrika won over Ranil Wickremesinghe and extended her presidency for another term.

As soon as Chandrika started her second presidency term, the civil war started aggravating. Her army lost the Second Battle of Elephant Pass and faced the Bandaranaike Airport attack in addition. Meanwhile, Sri Lanka’s economy started collapsing for the first time in history.

However, three prime ministers were sworn as the prime ministers of Sri Lanka during Chandrika’s second term. Ratnasiri Wickremanayake was the first out of them and he served from August 2000 to December 2001. Meanwhile, Chandrika held the parliamentary election in December 2001 and her People’s Alliance lost to Ranil Wickremasinghe’s United National Party. As a result, Ranil Wickremasinghe became the next prime minister and he served from December 2001 to April 2004. During this season, Ranil signed a permanent ceasefire agreement with the LTTE. However, Ranil started playing a lenient act towards LTTE and Chandrika was unhappy about the condition. As a result, she prorogued the Parliament. In April 2004, she held an election and her party won it and made a government with Mahinda Rajapaksa as prime minister. Mahinda served as the prime minister from April 2004 to November 2005.

In November 2005, Chandrika Bandaranayake’s second term of the presidency came to its end and she held the presidential election. In this, Mahinda Rajapakse succeeded her as president.

Chandrika’s Post-presidency

In 2006, Chandrika temporarily stepped down from the Sri Lanka Freedom Party leadership after continuous harassment she had to face from Mahinda Rajapakshe. As a result, she left the country soon.

Then, she worked as an active member of the Global Leadership Foundation and the Council of Women World Leaders. In addition, she became one of the directors of the Club de Madrid in 2009. Also, Chandrika worked as a member and a frequent panelist of the Clinton Global Initiative. Later, in 2017, the Asian University for Women (AUW) in Chittagong, Bangladesh invited Chandrika Kumaratunga to join the eminent international Council of Patrons and she accepted the invitation.

In November 2014, Chandrika announced her return to active politics. She endorsed Maithripala Sirisena as the common candidate to battle in the presidential election of 2015 against Mahinda Rajapaksa. All her dreams and plans came true and Maithripala Sirisena won the presidency against Rajapaksa. In the same year, she was granted the power to overlook national unity in Sri Lanka. 

Besides, Chandrika supported forming the opposition alliance against the incumbent President Abdulla Yameen in the Maldivian presidential election in 2018. In addition, she supported Sajith Premadasa as the candidate for the 2019 Sri Lankan presidential election against Gotabaya Rajapakse, the brother of Mahinda Rajapakse.

Personal Life of Chandrika Kumaratunga

Chandrika was the second of three children in the family. Sunethra Bandaranaike was her elder sister and she became a socialite. Anura Bandaranaike was his younger brother and he engaged in active politics following his family members.

As mentioned earlier, Chandrika married Vijaya Kumaratunga, who was a famous actor and a leading politician in the country. That was in 1978. Unfortunately, Vijaya Kumaratunga was assassinated outside his residence on the 16th of February 1988.

Chandrika and Vijaya had a daughter and a son who were born in 1980 and 1982 respectively. Their daughter, Yasodhara Kumaratunga got her education from Corpus Christi College, Cambridge and St George’s, University of London, and now continues her profession as a medical doctor. Their son, Vimukthi Kumaratunga received his education from the University of Bristol and now continues his profession as a veterinary surgeon. However, none of Chandrika Kumaratunga’s children engaged in Sri Lankan politics.

Honors and Awards

In 2005, Forbes magazine listed Chandrika Kumaratunga in its “100 most powerful women”. In addition, she was entitled to “Commander of the Legion of Honor” in 2018. 

The Bottom Line

After all, Chandrika Kumaratunga is simply one of the most famous people from Sri Lanka, and indeed a significant political figure ever emerged on this island. The role she played as a female political leader, especially in a male-dominent society, is indeed impressive. Even though some people doubt some of her political decisions, there are many things that future politicians, especially budding female politicians can learn from her life and career. So, we appreciate all the good things that she has done on behalf of this country, and we wish her all the best and good health!