Posted on May 7th, 2023



Ryp Van Winkle ( Sunday Times) wrote to JR Jayewardene in February 2023.  My dear JR, I thought I must write to you, though it has been over a quarter of a century since you left us, because your name is being mentioned frequently these days. That is after your nephew began doing the job you did 45 years ago. What we have now realized is that his actions are very similar to yours”, said Ryp Van Winkle.

Your nephew seems to have learnt so much from you in his 45-year apprenticeship for the top job. In just a few months, he has shown us that whatever you did, he can do better. With him in charge, it feels as if you never left us!  For example, there was the time when you sent a grim message to workers who staged strikes, sacking 40,000 of them in July ’80. Your nephew hasn’t sacked anyone yet, but he deals sternly with any protest, water cannons and all, concluded Ryp Van Winkle.

Daily News cartoon 25.7.2022

The election of 1977 was a landmark election, following the election of 1956.  It marked a critical stage in the history of Sri Lanka, bringing with it many changes in the political and economic sectors. But these changes were not for the good of the country and JR became increasingly unpopular.

 JR contested the Presidential election of 1982. He won with 52.9% of votes cast but only 42.3% of the votes in the register. Kobbekaduwa got over 39% of the votes. That was good, said Vittachi. The strong showing of Kobbekaduwa came as a shock to JR, said Sarath Amunugama.

Then came Black July 1983. Esmond Wickremasinghe had told Sarath Amunugama that JR never anticipated that this would spiral out of control. Cyril Matthew had overstepped his brief, complained JR.  JR was scared of a violent overthrow of his regime, that was why he did not address the nation immediately and stop the violence , said Esmond .

JR lost popularity when he signed the Indo –Lanka Accord (1987). Sarath Amunugama was there at the signing. The whole of Colombo was shut down and there was an eerie silence in President’s office area. Area was strongly guarded. As soon as the Accord was signed, two Indian destroyers steamed into Colombo harbor said Sarath. Before the ink was dry on the Accord, 3000 Indian troops had landed in Jaffna including several Generals who outranked Brigadier Silva. There were Indian warships in the sea, added  Vittachi. 

 A few hours before,  a large contingent of protesters led by bhikkhus and the SLFP  had staged a silent protest at  Fort railway station.  Violence was unleashed by UNP goons against them. About a dozen protesters were killed. There were reports that gangs of protestors were approaching Colombo city from the suburbs. JR was worried though he looked unfazed, said Sarath Amunugama.

 JR Jayewardene is also remembered with contempt as the person who got the 13th Amendment accepted in Parliament. The Amendment was passé with 2/3 majority. MPs were taken by bus with an armed   escort to Parliament and back to a heavily guarded hotel in Colombo. There was strong opposition to this Accord and there were many killings.  UNP MPs such as de Silva of Habaraduwa and Tikiri Banda of Galagedara as well as many UNP party officials were killed.

JR began to fear a military coup, said Sarath.  JVP burned down JR’s holiday home at Mirissa in late 1980s.  Media said that the two persons who were to propose JR’s name to the UNP working committee, for the third round, Keerthinanda and Lionel Jayatilleke, were killed and JR backed down out of fear for his own life.   JR did not attempt a third bout as President. JR’s term as President ended in January 1989. He died in 1996.

JR was to spend his last days with his reputation in tatters and ignored by the UNP which he had had done much to build. Only Japan remembered him for his intervention in San Francisco, said Sarath Amunugama. SWRD is still remembered on his birthday, but JR is not, he observed. JR has drawn the most criticism concluded Sarath. In 2023, JR was criticized at the May Day rally of the Uttara Lanka Saubhagya.

In 2010 Island newspaper ran a letter praising JR. There came a reply listing all the  wrong things JR had done  including taking Mudu Katuwa estate, the best coconut estate in the country, for himself. (Island 19.5.10 p 9)

Can JR   be considered a traitor after Vadamarachchi asked Izeth Hussain writing in 2015. His nationalism has always been suspect; He was known as Yankee Dickie. ‘There are Sri Lankans who believed that in reality he hated the Sinhalese.   The problem is really JR he hates the people of this country and therefore he can only bring disaster to the country,  they said. Sir John had said that JR wants to be PM and when he does so ‘he will destroy the country’, recalled Hussein.

JR brazenly amended and manipulated the Constitution. Sam Wijesinha Secretary General of Parliament  said that he had advised the Speaker  not to allow something that JR wanted. JR had told him, ‘If you had not been here,  I would have got away with it.’

JR was not prepared to tolerate any  opposition. He did not allow Premadasa to function   on his behalf as acting President.  He obtained undated letters of resignation from all his MPs other than from S. Thondaman of the Ceylon Workers Congress . He engineered  the Rajadurai Amendment that allowed  MPs from the Opposition to join the government but not the other way about.  He arrested radical leftists of the NLSSP and  CP. 

  JR was intent on silencing all dissent and criticism from whatever source. In 1982, the    chief monk of Getambe temple  had  called JR a traitor. The government  temporarily acquired the temple land and barbed wired it, reported Vittachi.

JR  did not hesitate to use violence. His major domo for this was Cyril Mathew who was  the boss of the UNP trade unions. Mathew proceeded to staff his numerous boards with  violence prone unionists who in turn packed the unions with working class stalwarts. When his plans met with organized resistance  JR turned to Mathew and used thuggish trade unions under Mathew to attack his opponents. JR was behind the attacks on persons like Sarachchandra. 

JR” ushered in political, economic and electoral changes that utterly changed Sri Lanka.  Whether this change has made Sri Lanka better or worse remains debatable said DBS Jeyaraj remembering JR on his birthday in 2022. The changes he brought about in Sri Lanka remain unchanged.

Rajiva Wijesinha (2021) spoke of JR’s destructive contribution, his  willingness to encourage exploitation of our resources with little benefit to the country, economic mismanagement based on unthinking commitment to capitalism and reliance on trickledown effect, a cavalier approach to constitution making  . The  destruction of CTB caused disarray in transport. I was eye witness to the CTB debacle as I was a transport executive    at  the time, said a reader in a letter to me.

JR set in motion the wave of political and economic corruption which is operating in the country today, said critics. Political interference by police, thuggery by government MPs, law breaking by police to curry favour with government, became features in JR time, said Vittachi.  .JR  concentrated power in his hands and allowed  ministers to make money. This is the system that has prevailed thereafter, said Victor Ivan. Data on the establishment of liquor bars in Sri Lanka starting from 1926 showed that many had been issued in the period 1977-1997.

Today JR is remembered angrily whenever anything goes wrong in Sri Lanka.  .When Sri Lanka entered its present financial crisis, JR was blamed. Sri Lanka was till 1977 a country that was not in debt.  How did a country that had no foreign debt degenerate to have a foreign debt of $ 56 billion, within the five decades, from 1978 to today asked one critic. JR was cause, said a retired senior officer of the Central Bank.

Sri Lanka became a debt ridden country when from  1978 she followed the IMF teachings to be liberal in spending foreign exchange, allow imports freely and when the expenses exceeded the available foreign exchange, was advised to borrow and continue spending, said Garvin Karunaratne.

While our country seems to have had IMF agreements since about 1965, Sri Lanka’s most unproductive IMF period started with the UNP’s landslide victory in 1977, when the UNP government decided to “liberalize” the economy in true capitalist mode and invited IMF to dictate economic policy, continued   critics. The IMF abolished many development programmes in 1978.

 IMF gave loans freely on condition that Sri Lanka follows neoliberal economics and allowed the rich to spend foreign funds that the country had obtained as loans. In 1978, the IMF even gave grace periods, when Sri Lanka did not need to pay the interest and repayment installments on loans so that the leaders would not be burdened with the repayment. The burden was shifted to future leaders, added  Garvin..

JR was  mesmerized  by the West and  capitalism. That is all. He was not able to  harness the power of capitalism for the greater good of the people. JR lacked vision, critics said. (Concluded)

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