Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga is a Sri Lankan politician who served as the fifth President of Sri Lanka, from 12 November 1994 to 19 November 2005. The country’s only female president to date, she is the daughter of two former prime ministers and was the leader of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) until the end of 2005. In 2015 she was appointed as the chairperson of office for national unity and reconciliation.
Born Chandrika Bandaranaike comes from a political family with a long history of socio-political involvement in the country. Her father, Solomon Bandaranaike was a government minister at the time of her birth and later became Prime Minister. He was assassinated in 1959, when Chandrika was fourteen. Chandrika’s mother, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, then became the world’s first female prime minister, in 1960. Chandrika’s brother, Anura Bandaranaike is a former Speaker of the Parliament of Sri Lanka and a former minister who died in March 2008. Her sister Sunethra Bandaranaike is a well-known philanthropist and runs the Sunera Trust. Their paternal grandfather, Sir Solomon Dias Bandaranike, was the Maha Mudaliyar, the chief Ceylonese representative and advisor to the Governor of Ceylon and maternal grandfather was Barnes Ratwatte, Dissawa of Sabaragamuwa during British colonial rule who was a who were descended from Ratwatte Dissawa, Dissawa of Matale, a signatory on behalf of the Sinhalese to the Kandyan Convention of 1815.
Chandrika was educated at the St Bridget’s Convent, Colombo, and at the Aquinas University College Colombo where she studied for the bachelor of laws. She gained a scholarship to the University of Paris where she spent five years, graduating from the Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris (Sciences Po) in political science and international relations in 1970. While in Paris she obtained a diploma in Group Leadership from the same university and was trained as a political journalist at the Le Mondenewspaper. Her PhD studies in Development Economics at the University of Paris 1970–73 were interrupted when she returned to Sri Lanka to enter politics, when her mother’s government had launched a wide-ranging programme of socialist reform and development. During her days in France, it is reported that Chandrika was active in the Student Revolution of 1968. She is fluent in Sinhala, English and French.
Upon returning to Sri Lanka, she enrolled in and became active in the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and, in 1974, became an executive committee member of its Women’s League. Following the land reforms in Sri Lanka in 1972–1976, she was the principal director of the Land Reform Commission. From 1976 to 1977, she was chairman of the Janawasa Commission, which established collective farms. From 1976 to 1979, she acted as a consultant to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
She stayed active in politics leaving the SLFP and supporting her husband’s party, the Sri Lanka Mahajana Party. After Kumaratunga was assassinated, she left the country for the UK, working for World Institute for Development Economics Research at the United Nations University in the interim, and not returning until 1991.
Premiership and presidency
On return to Sri Lanka she rejoined SLFP and led her party to a historic and decisive victory at the southern provincial council elections. Kumaratunga was elected as the chief minister of the Western Province of Sri Lanka in 1993 in a landslide election victory. Kumaratunga herself was elected prime minister of a People’s Alliance (PA) government from 19 August 1994 and won the presidential election held shortly thereafter in November. This ended 17 years of United National Party rule. She appointed her mother to succeed her as prime minister. Early in her term she made conciliatory moves towards the separatist Tamil Tigers (LTTE) in an attempt to end the ongoing civil war. After these overtures failed, she later pursued a more military-based strategy against them.
In October 1999, Kumaratunga called an early presidential election. She lost vision in her right eye (permanent optic nerve damage) in an assassination attempt, by the Tamil Tigers, at her final election rally at Colombo Town Hall premises on 18 December 1999. She managed to defeat Ranil Wickremasinghe in the election held on 21 December and was sworn in for another term the next day.
In December 2001 she suffered a setback in the parliamentary election: Her People’s Alliance lost to the UNP, and her political opponent, Ranil Wickremasinghe, became Sri Lanka’s new prime minister. She continued as president of Sri Lanka although her relationship with the Wickremasinghe government was a strained one.
In February 2002 Wickremasinghe’s government and the LTTE signed a permanent ceasefire agreement, paving the way for talks to end the long-running conflict. In December, the government and the rebels agreed to share power during peace talks in Norway. President Kumaratunga believed Wickremasinghe was being too lenient towards the LTTE, and in May 2003 she indicated her willingness to sack the prime minister and government if she felt they were making too many concessions to the rebels. On 4 November 2003, while Prime Minister Wickremasinghe was on an official visit to the US, Kumaratunga prorogued Parliament and took over Defense, Interior and Media ministries herself. Her opponents criticised her, calling her behaviour dictatorial.
Kumaratunga is a member of the Council of Women World Leaders, an international network of current and former female presidents and prime ministers whose mission is to mobilise the highest-level women leaders globally for collective action on issues of critical importance to women and equitable development. In November 2009, Kumaratunga was appointed to the 12-member board of directors of the Club de Madrid. She is a frequent panelist and member of the Clinton Global Initiative and advisor to its annual meeting held every September.
Chandrika Kumaratunga is a member of the Global Leadership Foundation, a nonprofit organisation that offers, discreetly and confidentially, a range of experienced advisors to political leaders facing difficult situations. It works to support democratic leadership, prevent and resolve conflict through mediation and promote good governance in the form of democratic institutions, open markets, human rights and the rule of law. It does so by making available, discreetly and in confidence, the experience of former leaders to today’s national leaders. It is a nonprofit organization composed of former heads of government, senior governmental and international organization officials who work closely with heads of government on governance-related issues of their concern.
In February 2017, Kumaratunga accepted an invitation to join the eminent international Council of Patrons of the Asian University for Women (AUW) in Chittagong, Bangladesh. The University, which is the product of east-west foundational partnerships (Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Open Society Foundation, IKEA Foundation etc.) and regional cooperation, serves extraordinarily talented women from 15 countries across Asia and the Middle East, including Sri Lanka.
Return to politics
On 21 November 2014 Kumaratunga formally announced her return to active politics at a press conference held by the country’s opposition coalition, following weeks of speculation regarding her involvement in the coalition’s decision-making. She successfully endorsed Maithripala Sirisena common candidate in the 2015 Presidential election, who defeated Mahinda Rajapaksa. In the same the year, Kumaratunga supported the United National Party in the General elections to avoid Rajapaksa becoming the Prime Minister.
Chairperson of Office for National Unity and Reconciliation
In 2015 she was appointed as the chairperson of office for national unity and reconciliation to overlook national unity in Sri Lanka.
Her legacy of being a daughter of two former Sri Lankan prime ministers drove much global attention even in her childhood.She also earned immense international recognition by being Sri Lanka’s first-ever female president.Chandrika was also considered as one of the world’s most powerful women and in 2005 Forbes magazine named her as 25th in its “100 most powerful women” list in which Hillary Clinton former first lady of the United States was ranked just below her as 26th.
Chandrika married movie star and politician Vijaya Kumaratunga in 1978. He was assassinated on 16 February 1988, outside his residence in the presence of Chandrika and their two children, then aged five and seven. The extremist Marxist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) claimed responsibility. Kumaratunga’s funeral remains to date, the largest-attended funeral of any politician or film idol in Sri Lanka (and potentially in the whole of Asia). Their two children are Yasodhara Kumaratunga Walker (born 1980), a medical doctor (Corpus Christi College, University of Cambridge and St George’s Medical School, University of London), and Vimukthi Kumaratunga (born 1982), a veterinary surgeon (University of Bristol), both in the UK.