Junius Richard Jayewardene

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Junius Richard Jayewardene

Junius Richard Jayewardene (1906-1996) was a leader of the nationalist movement in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) who served in a variety of cabinet positions in the decades after independence. In 1977, he became prime minister, and then president, of Sri Lanka.

Junius Richard Jayewardene, eldest in a family of 11 children, was born September 17, 1906, in Colombo, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). His father was a judge of the Ceylon Supreme Court, and JR, as he was popularly known in his country, became a lawyer after attaining a distinguished academic record in the Colombo Law College.

Jayewardene did not practice law for long, however. He became an activist in the Ceylon National Congress (CNC), which provided the organizational platform for Ceylon's nationalist movement (the island was officially renamed Sri Lanka in 1972). Drawing inspiration from the non-violent freedom movement of the Indian National Congress (INC) under the Mahatma Gandhi's leadership in nearby India, JR soon became the effective spokesman for the CNC's younger generation of leadership. He became CNC secretary in 1939, and held that position until 1947 when Ceylon became a dominion in the British Commonwealth.

Jayewardene made his parliamentary debut in 1943. After that, JR's political career had its ups and downs. In the first general election, in 1947, the CNC regrouped itself as the United National Party (UNP) to accommodate those who had been outside the congress and won the largest number of seats in the House of Representatives. UNP leader D. S. Senanayake was called upon to form the government. Senanayake chose Jayewardene to be his finance minister. And when independence was heralded on February 4, 1948, the UNP regime became the legatee of the new state.

The life of the parliament ended in 1952. By then D. S. Senanayake had passed away, leaving the mantle of UNP leadership to his son, Dudley Senanayake. Dudley and JR had worked closely together in the CNC, and JR continued as finance minister when the UNP was again returned to power in the newly formed parliament.

In his second term as finance minister JR found himself confronted with external constraints. The plantation-based economy depended solely on tea and rubber exports for revenues and Sri Lanka imported virtually all its food. JR found himself compelled to cut drastically the subsidies on rice and flour when export earnings from rubber fell sharply.

This led to food riots, finally forcing Senanayake to resign as prime minister. His successor, Sir John Kotelawala, retained JR in his cabinet as minister for food and agriculture, a portfolio he held until the general elections of 1956. In the elections, marked by a resurgence of the Sinhalese-Buddhist forces, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) won the elections and the UNP suffered a shattering defeat.

Jayewardene applied himself to the difficult task of rebuilding a party that had become identified with the Western-oriented elite, against which the electorate had revolted. It was a measure of JR's success that in the elections of 1965 the UNP was returned to power. In the new UNP government JR became the parliamentary secretary for defense and external affairs with a protocol ranking him next to Dudley Senanayake, who had again become prime minister.

In the general elections of 1970, dissatisfied with the pace of economic growth, the electorate voted overwhelmingly for the opposition and the SLFP was back in power under Sirimavo Bandaranaike. The SLFP and its leftist allies had won 116 seats. The UNP won only 17 in a house of 151.

As he had done earlier while in opposition, JR's principal task was to reorganize the party. His relations with Dudley Senanayake became somewhat strained because of differences over the party's role, but their long association and friendship did not rupture. With Dudley's death in 1973, JR was the unanimous choice for the UNP presidency. Earlier he had been the party's treasurer, secretary, and vice-president. Alongside his varied political and organizational experience, his position as the top UNP leader left him free to effect his socio-economic and political ideas. The opportunity soon came when in the general election of 1977 the UNP emerged with 140 seats in a House of 168. The SLFP won just eight seats and its leftist allies none.

Within months of assuming the highest office, as he neared age 70, Prime Minister Jayewardene's UNP regime geared itself to draw a new constitution modeled on the French system, with the president being both the head of the state and of the government. JR was sworn in as the first executive president under the new constitution, with concurrent duties as premier and president. In the presidential election of October 1982 (scheduled originally for February 1984 and advanced at his own initiative) JR won with a convincing majority. By then, JR was cherishing a new nickname: "the Old Fox."

The Jayewardene regime began its task with a set of bold socio-economic initiatives. Broadly speaking, JR's economic policies were based on principles of a free market economy with the state providing infrastructural facilities for private investment, similar to the Singapore model.

However, the politico-economic activities of the JR regime were adversely affected and marred by ethnic strife between the majority Buddhist Sinhalese, of which Jayewardene was a member, and the minority Hindu Tamils. After simmering a number of years, the antagonism erupted into a near holocaust in July 1983, engulfing the country. This spate of violence and counter-violence seriously set back JR's vision of a Dharmishtha Society—a society based on the principles of justice and equity—in Sri Lanka.

JR retired in 1989. By the time of his death seven years later, Sri Lanka's top office was held by Chandrika Kumaratunga, daughter of his old political foe, Sirimavo Bandaranaike. The nation's ethnic strife was unsettled, but JR's free market initiatives remained in place.

Further Reading

A one-volume biography, J.R. Jayewardene, by K.M. De Silva, was published in 1997; The Break-Up of Sri Lanka (1988) is Canadian professor A. Jeyaratnam Wilson's account of his mediation efforts between Jayewardene and Tamil rebels. Jayewardene's extensive writings are available in English as well as Sinhalese; also of note are: Buddhist Essays (Colombo, 1942); Buddhism and Marxism (Colombo, 1950); Selected Speeches: 1944-1973 (Colombo, 1974); A New Path (Colombo, 1978); and Tolerance, Nonaggression and Mutual Respect (Colombo, 1979). □