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SWRD Bandaranaike: Altered the Course of Sri Lankan Politics  

27 May 2020

By Srimal Fernando and Abhishekh Ganesh

The year 1951 would change the course of Sri Lankan political history when a split occurred inside the United National Party (UNP). In a astonishing political move SWRD Bandaranaike left his cabinet  post and crossed the floor in the Parliament to the opposition. Simultaneously his prevalence started to ascend inside the Sri Lankan masses as Bandaranaike launched a centre-leftist political party called Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP).

Sri Lanka Freedom Party  (SLFP).

This is not really the entire story be that as it may. .Since the political change, a slow but increasing tide of  blue wave  began  when the SLFP membership  increased compared  to  the centre right  United National Party (UNP) . This background paved the way for Sinhala nationalists such as S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, D.A. Rajapaksa and Philip Gunewardena to form an alliance in order to topple the UNP government that was ruling the nation from the time of independence.

In Sri Lanka voters do not always behave as predicted and by 1956 the chances of the SLFP backed leftist government coming to power remained very high.  On the other hand elections remained a matter of speculation but there was no indication that the United National Party (UNP) had lost any influence with the rural masses of the country. Prime Minister Bandaranaike’s assassination on September 26, 1959 by a Buddhist priest Somarama Thero once again changed Ceylon’s political discourse and its foreign policy directions. The assassination of SWRD Bandaranaike in 1959 led to a decade where the political thinking was divided between the Socialist leaning party and the Western thinking liberal party  . More over  Sri Lankan voters expectations about Sirimavo Bandaranaikerose within no time after the unfortunate assassination of her husband S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike in 1959. On 21 July, 1960, Sirimavo Bandaranaike became the first ever woman Prime Minister of Sri Lanka and the world  . Over the  years the    pragmatic policies implemented  by   the SLFP have gone much further than the policies that Bandaranaike envisioned  . Nonetheless the SLFP has come long path since 1957 opening the hallways of political capacity to Former Sri Lankan Presidents like Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, Mahinda Rajapaksa, and Maithripala Sirisena.The party  policies are today inadequate to deliver Sri Lankan citizen’s interests.  The policy makers of the SLFP  must craft a new strategy to tackle the domestic voter base and the international community in finding a future path to become a formidable party in taking the island nation  to the next level of socio economic growth.

Foreign Policy

Having succeeded in their mission, the SLFP came into power in 1956. SWRD Bandaranaike became the new Prime Minister with a Sinhala nationalist base and was backed by what were known as the five forces: the clergy; teachers; physicians; farmers and the working class. The general election in April 1956 brought a sea change in the country’s foreign policy and was a significant departure from the previous regime’s pro-Western policy. Premier Bandaranaike’s approach to foreign policy was that the proper position for Sri Lanka is to follow a neutral policy and non- aligned with any power bloc. On this basis he wanted to be “friends of all, enemies of non.” A notable feature in Bandaranaike’s policy soon after becoming Prime Minister was his request that the British withdraw their bases in Sri Lanka. As a result, the government of UK transferred to Sri Lanka the Royal Base in Trincomalee and the Air Force Station at Katunayake. At the Commonwealth Prime Minister’s conference in 1956, Bandaranaike declared his intent of making Sri Lanka a republic while remaining in the Commonwealth, as India had. Thus, foreign policy was taking on a new dimension of anti- colonist notion amplified by the Bandaranaike – Nehru joint communiqué of May 1957 expressing concern about “development in some parts of Western Asia” and that people of those parts should be left free to solve their own issues.

Non Aligned Movement (NAM)

In contrast to the former UNP regime, the SLFP government’s foreign relations now tilted towards the Soviet Union and China. Bandaranaike and his counterpart in India, Indian  Prime Minister Nehru were not only close friends but also shared an identical view on world affairs. This relationship helped bridge the gap . However, Nehru and Bandaranaike championed the concept of the Non Aligned Movement (NAM) which brought together mostly developing nations who preferred to stay away from either power bloc. Furthermore, due to Bandaranaike’s close association with the socialist bloc, China became a close friend of Sri Lanka for the first time. On the Foreign Policy front S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, revised strong bilateral connections with India and China and his  policies remained important for Non Aligned Movement (NAM) nations and for India  and China ties with Sri Lanka.

The Impacts of home-grown  Issues

In keeping with his election promises to the majority Sinhalese who brought him into power, he passed the Sinhala only Act in 1956 making Sinhalese the official language of the country. Hence, this new Act was vehemently opposed by the minority Tamils leading to riots.  Meanwhile the Tamil Federal Party led by S.J.V. Chelvanayakam began to demand for minority rights.   Chelvanayakam pressed for devolved power within a federalist structure for the Northern and Eastern provinces of Ceylon where most of the minority communities live. This demand was strongly opposed by Sinhalese Nationalists. Bandarainake realizing the gravity of the impact of the official languages Act attempted to diffuse the prevailing hostiles between the two communities. He made a pact with Chelvanayakam in April 1958, allowing for the use of Tamil as the official language in Tamil speaking Provinces. This pact was strongly opposed by the UNP led by the then Finance Minister J.R. Jayewardene which led to Bandaranaike nullifying the pact.  What followed were the first ethnic riots since independence known as the 58 riots targeting the minority Tamil community. At that time Ceylonese (Sri Lankan) society found itself ill prepared to deal with the troublesome issues.


As a nation Sri Lanka is moving away from a conflict past to a progressive future. There is hope that political leaders and members of the SLFP will learn from their mistakes and finally establish a unified leadership. In Sri Lanka politics remained unpredictable. It is obvious that SLFPs expansion was a reflection on the principals laid sixty eight  years ago by SWRD Bandaranaike that altered the political course of Sri Lanka in a new direction. Even today nearly seven  decades later, SWRD  and Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s names  are  remembered  with  profound  respect  among the thousands of Sri Lankans and Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) supporters . The SLFP must produce simple solutions to simple problems that is affecting the stability of Sri Lanka In years ahead the role of SLFP leadership will play an increasingly significant role in unifying the nations multi-cultural spirit. Also the late Bandaranaike’s realistic policies counted very much for the South Asian island nation, the region and to the world at large.

Srimal Fernando is a Doctoral Fellow at Jindal School of International Affairs (JSIA), India and Advisor / Global Editor of Diplomatic Society for South Africa. He is the winner of the 2018/2019 ‘Best Journalist of the Year’ award in South Africa, and has been the recipient of GCA Media Award for 2016.In the field of politics, and Policy affairs, Fernando is a specialist, with over ten years of first hand experience in Sri Lanka and the Maldives.

Abhishekh Ganesh is a Social Entrepreneur and an MBA Scholar from Jindal Global Business School (JGBS), India. He is the recipient of the Google Start-up Weekend - Best Start-up Idea 2018 award and was selected as a representation from India to present his social venture at the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI U Exhibition) 2018 in the University of Chicago, USA which was presided by Former President Bill Clinton and Secretary Hillary Clinton




February/March 2020


















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