Sri Lankan premier steps down, aged 84

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The Independent Online

The Sri Lankan Prime Minister, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, who became the world's first woman premier when she was elected on 20 July 1960, resigned yesterday because of poor health.

The Sri Lankan Prime Minister, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, who became the world's first woman premier when she was elected on 20 July 1960, resigned yesterday because of poor health.

Mrs Bandaranaike, 84, is the mother of President Chandrika Kumaratunga and as prime minister held only a ceremonial position in her daughter's government. She has spent most of her last years in a wheelchair.

She was replaced by Ratnasiri Wickremanayake, the former minister of public administration, home affairs and plantation industries, who was sworn in at a simple ceremony in Colombo following the surprise announcement.

"The present state of my health does not permit me to actively participate in governmental activities nor in party politics," Mrs Bandaranaike said in a letter to her daughter.

Mrs Bandaranaike's retirement comes amid intense speculation that Mrs Kumaratunga is planning to dissolve parliament early after mounting opposition forced her to put off the government's new constitution.

Two weeks before parliament ends its six-year term on 24 August and general elections become due, Mrs Kumaratunga also inducted Ronnie de Mel as the new Economic and Industrial Development Minister.

Mr de Mel, who last month defected from the main opposition United National Party, was finance minister for many years.

Mrs Bandaranaike said she was stepping down to make way for someone who could campaign for the ruling People's Alliance at the forthcoming elections as Mrs Kumaratunga's movements will be restricted due to security concerns.

Mr Wickremanayake, 67, was secretary of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, the main constituent in Mrs Kumaratunga's ruling People's Alliance. He is seen as a Sinhalese hardliner, an image that will go down well with the majority community during the polls, where Mrs Kumaratunga needs to get the influential Buddhist monks on her side.

The monks are unhappy with her efforts to end the long ethnic war with the Tamils by pushing through a draft constitution which they say would lead to the division of the country.

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