The Sunday Leader

For Better Or For Worse…

By Raisa Wickrematunge

Sri Lanka was one of the first countries to elect a female president, making it a pioneer, in a sense, for women’s rights. Since then, women have played a role in politics which cannot be discounted. Now, with General Sarath Fonseka incarcerated, there is a chance that Anoma Fonseka might do the same.

Whispers have persisted that Fonseka’s wife might make a foray into politics, ever since she appeared in the public eye to plead for the release of her husband.

When The Sunday Leader questioned Mrs. Fonseka on this possibility, she said she hadn’t yet decided if she would be contesting in the upcoming election. “I have to discuss this with my husband before taking a decision. My family comes first.”

If Mrs. Fonseka does decide to go into politics, she would be far from the first woman to do so. Nor would she be the first wife who has stepped in to fill a husband’s shoes. Many before her have done so. How successful have these wives been in the political sphere? Perhaps the time is ripe to examine the past and find out.

All these women have one thing in common — they lost their husbands violently and unexpectedly. Most entered politics only after their husbands were brutally murdered. Many had little political experience. The two Bandaranaikes enjoyed long careers, albeit studded with controversy. The rest have enjoyed some small measure of success, if short-lived. Is it possible that Anoma Fonseka might decide to join these ranks, and contest in the elections in lieu of her husband? That remains to be seen.

Sirima Bandaranaike

Sirima Bandaranaike was the world’s first elected female prime minister. In fact she won this distinguished office three times. However her entry into politics was not as a result of lifelong ambition, but rather arose out of personal tragedy.

Bandaranaike’s husband, then Prime Minister S.W.R.D Bandaranaike, was assassinated on September 25, 1959.

Senior members of the party coaxed Mrs. Bandaranaike into taking his place. She shone in the international sphere, being a founder member of the Non Aligned Movement, and maintaining close ties with neighbouring countries. She was certainly a striking figure in the male-dominated political sphere. She weathered a coup in 1962 and quashed the 1971 JVP uprising. However her takeover of Lake House, and the subsequent closure of the Independent Newspaper Group, won her few supporters amongst advocates of freedom of speech. Her Leftist policies led to queues and shortages of goods from clothing to foodstuffs.

Ultimately she was ousted by the UNP, and to add insult to injury was stripped of her civic rights for ‘abuses of power.’ She later re-entered politics and resigned only in 2000, passing away the same year. Sirima Bandaranaike remains a historical figure in Sri Lankan politics, but her career was shadowed with controversy.

Ferial Ashraff

On September 16, 2000 former cabinet minister and founder of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) M.H.M Ashraff, died in a helicopter crash in Kegalle. His wife, Ferial Ashraff, decided to join the SLMC in her husband’s place. She also led a break-away faction of the SLMC: the National Unity Alliance (NUA).

Ashraff was eventually appointed Cabinet Minister of Housing and Common Amenities. She was the first Muslim woman in Sri Lanka to become a cabinet minister. On February 18, it was announced that Ashraff had decided to join ranks with the SLFP. She plans to contest the upcoming general elections in the Digamadulla District. Ashraff continues to make her presence felt in the political circuit.

Sudarshini Fernandopulle

Like Srima Dissanayake, Fernandopulle lost her husband to a suicide bomb blast on April 6, 2008.  Jeyaraj Fernandopulle was the Minister of Highways and Road Development at the time he was killed, at a road marathon in the Weliweriya area.

A doctor by profession, Mrs. Fernandopulle entered politics in her husband’s stead. She held a top post at the Health Ministry, before resigning in order to become the SLFP Chief Organiser for Katana, an area in which her late husband was popular.

It was recently announced that Fernandopulle will be contesting in the upcoming general elections as well. Fernandopulle will be contesting from the Gampaha District, on the UPFA ticket.

Srima Dissanayake

Gamini Dissanayake was the leader of the opposition in parliament, and best known for his work on the Mahaweli Development Project. In 1994, he was put forward as the presidential candidate by the UNP.

However, he was executed by a female LTTE suicide bomber at a campaign rally. In a by now well-worn pattern, his wife, lawyer Srima Dissanayake agreed to take his place. (She) “is our only hope of winning,” a top party official said at the time. However their hopes were in vain as Dissanayake was defeated.

Kumaratunga, her main rival, got 62.1% of the vote, with Dissanayake only receiving 35.9%. After the huge loss Dissanayake gradually faded out of politics. She established the Gamini Dissanayake Institute of Technology and Vocational Studies, for those students who were unable to gain entrance to university.

Srimani Athulathmudali

Like the Bandaranaikes, it was a violent and tragic death which propelled Athulathmudali into politics. She first met her husband, Lalith Athulathmudali, when she was an administrative secretary in Geneva.

Lalith Athulathmudali had begun forming a new party (the Democratic United National Front) when he was brutally gunned down on April 23, 1993.

His wife, Srimani, stepped in and took over the party. She won a seat in parliament in August 1994, with over 150,000 preferential votes. She later became the Cabinet Minister for Transport, Environment and Women’s Affairs.

However she fell foul of then President Chandrika Kumaratunga, who fired her from the cabinet in 1997. In 2000, Srimani Athulathmudali resigned from politics. Her short career spanned only a decade.

Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga
The Bandaranaike legacy continued. With two former prime ministers as parents, it was almost inevitable that Chandrika Bandaranaike would eventually move into the political sphere. She first held a post in the Land Reform Commission, while her mother was Prime Minister. In 1978 she married Vijaya Kumaratunga, an actor.

Together they later formed a new party, the Sri Lanka Mahajana Party (SLMP). Kumaratunga lost her father when she was just 14, but that was not the last tragedy she would have to endure. In February 1988, she watched from her front doorstep as Sinhalese extremists, averse to Vijaya’s policies with regards to the Tamil minority, killed her husband before her eyes.

Kumaratunga then left the country, returning only in 1990. She rejoined the SLFP, becoming first prime minister and finally achieving the post of president in 1994. Once again, like her mother, Kumaratunga made history as the first female president in Sri Lanka. There was much hope that Kumaratunga might bring an end to the long war between the government and the LTTE, but the conflict dragged on, bloodier than ever. In 1999, she was the victim of an assassination attempt by an LTTE suicide bomber, which left her blinded in one eye. In 2001, her party was vanquished by the UNP. What followed was an extensive struggle between Ranil Wickremesinghe and Kumaratunga.

Wickremesinghe attempted to bring about a ceasefire with the LTTE, but Kumaratunga claimed he was withholding valuable information, even accusing him of working with the LTTE himself. In November 2003, Kumaratunga fired three ministers from the cabinet. Placing troops around various government buildings, she declared a state of emergency. At the time, Wickremesinghe was overseas on an official visit to the United States. Most controversially, she attempted to extend her presidential term by another year — though a Supreme Court ruling prevented her from doing so.

1 Comment for “For Better Or For Worse…”

  1. Mr B Future

    Non of them can come close to Late Mrs SWRD -

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