Chandrika Kumaratunga

President, Sri Lanka 1994-2005

Biographical Information

Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga was the fifth President of Sri Lanka, serving from 1994 to 2006. The daughter of two former Prime Ministers, she was also the leader of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party until the end of 2005. She is Sri Lanka's only female president to date.

Public Career

Having been greatly influenced as a student in Paris by the radical student movement in the 1960s, Chandrika Kumaratunga remained deeply committed throughout her career, to the imperatives of a plural society and to the welfare of the deprived, the underprivileged and the disadvantaged. Upon her return to Sri Lanka after her studies in Paris, she became heavily involved in politics through the Sri Lanka Freedom Party and in 1974 became an Executive Committee member of the Party’s Women's League. Between 1972-1976 she served as Principal Director of the Land Reforms Commission and in 1976 became Chairman of the Janawasa Commission, which established cooperative farms for rural youth. From 1976–1979, she acted as a consultant to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations. (In 2003 she was awarded the FAO Ceres Medal for efforts to foster rural development and peace in Sri Lanka).

Following the assassination in February 1988 of her husband, Vijaya Kumaratunga, a popular Sri Lankan film actor and politician, Chandrika Kumaratunga left Sri Lanka for the United Kingdom, working for World Institute for Development Economics Research. When she returned in 1991, she entered politics and in May 1993 was elected to the Western Provincial Council with an unprecedented majority. She was appointed the Chief Minister of the Western Province, the country's largest.

In August 1994, she contested the Parliamentary General Elections as the People’s Alliance candidate for Prime Minister and was elected by an overwhelming majority. In the Presidential Elections held shortly thereafter in November 1994, she was elected President obtaining a record 62% of the votes cast, thereby ending 17 years of rule by the right-leaning United National Party.

During her Presidency, Chandrika Kumaratunga led the successful privatization of state enterprises in a range of industries and her government enacted new laws and institutions to tackle rampant state corruption.   She also helped Sri Lanka move away from its pro-war, confrontational mind-set to one of negotiations and peace. Having inherited a nation plagued by violent politics - a civil war between the government and a separatist terror group as well as a state accused of massive human rights violations - Chandrika Kumaratunga made conciliatory moves towards the separatist Tamil Tigers to attempt to end the ongoing civil war and help steer the country to a plural, multicultural society.

Mrs Kumaratunga’s stated economic policy was “free market economy with a human face” and was designed to give access to the benefits of development to all sections of the population. During her Presidency, in the midst of an ongoing civil war, Sri Lanka experienced annual economic growth rates of 5 and 6 %, both GDP and per capita income doubled, the supply of electricity and safe drinking water to households increased and there was a seven fold increase in fixed and mobile telephones. During this period the Sri Lankan government also tripled budgetary provisions for education and health to modernize and render these services to be more responsive to the needs of the people, and completed the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) for Education and Health.

Following the December 1999 Presidential elections, Chandrika Kumaratunga defeated the UNDP candidate, Ranil Wickremasinghe, and was sworn in for a second term. (This followed an assassination attempt on her days before the voting, by the separatist Tamil Tigers, as a result of which she lost vision in her right eye through permanent optic nerve damage). Two years later, however, Chandrika Kumaratunga’s People's Alliance lost to the UNP in the parliamentary elections and her political opponent Ranil Wickremasinghe took office as Sri Lanka's new Prime Minister. Kumaratunga 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.  Chandrika Kumaratunga believed Wickremasinghe was being too lenient towards the LTTE and in May 2003 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 United States, Chandrika Kumaratunga prorogued Parliament and assigned Defense Interior and Media ministries on her.   In January 2004 President Kumaratunga's People's Alliance and the leftist People's Liberation Front formed the United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA) and dissolved Parliament. The UPFA went on to win the election on 2 April 2004 and formed a government with Mahinda Rajapaksa as Prime Minister.

Kumaratunga's six-year term ended in 2005. She is one of the few Asian leaders to retire at 60 years of age, after serving two terms as President.

Activity after Public politics

Chandrika Kumaratunga is currently engaged in social entrepreneurship and is Chairperson of the CBK Foundation for Democracy and Justice (FDJ) and the South Asia Policy and Research Institute (SAPRI). Both are non-profit, non-political bodies.

Chandrika Kumaratunga is a member of the Council of Women World Leaders, an International network of current and former women presidents and prime ministers whose mission is to mobilize the highest-level women leaders globally for collective action on issues of critical importance to women and equitable development.

Chandrika Kumaratunga has been a Member of the Global Leadership Foundation since 2012.

Memberships and Associations

  • Chairperson of the CBK Foundation for Democracy
  • Chairman of the South Asia Policy and Research Institute
  • Member of the Council of Women World Leaders
  • Member of the Board of Directors of the Club of Madrid
  • Member of the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI)
Top of page