Obituary : J. R. Jayawardene

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The Independent Online
When distinguished politicians die at a very great age it is often said that their lives spanned eras that seem as distant in time as in spirit. Of no politician can this observation be more appropriate than Junius Richard Jayawardene, who began his career at a time when Sri Lanka, then Ceylon, was often referred to as the "Switzerland of the East", and finished it when that same island had become a byword for terror, abuse of human rights and many other things distinctly undemocratic. The critical question that will face his biographer is to assess to what extent, if any, did Jayawardene (always known as JR) contribute to the national tragedy that forms the backdrop to his life.

He was born in 1906, one of 11 children in a family at the very heart of the Ceylonese Anglophile elite. The Jayawardenes had emerged under the Dutch, done well under the British and by the turn of the century had become very powerful indeed. His father, E.R. Jayawardene, was appointed Chief Justice in 1924, and his uncle, D.R. Wijewardene, owned the most powerful newspaper publishing group in Colombo.

He was successful at school, but did not (since family finances were always a problem) leave the island to attend a foreign university. This was a source of considerable personal regret though in the long term may have been to his advantage. Certainly Jayawardene's world view would always be less Anglocentric, more internationalist, than that of his Oxford-educated contemporaries. At a time when most Ceylonese were still preoccupied with their country's relations with Europe, he perceived that its future lay with Asia. In 1946, as Ceylonese delegate to the Peace Conference in San Francisco, he pleaded for fair play for the defeated Japanese, something that country never forgot and would generously reward in later years. He was co-author of the 1950 Colombo Plan for Asian Economic Development after the Second World War.

Jayawardene studied at Colombo Law School, was called to the Bar and by his mid-thirties had established himself in his profession, married a great heiress, and acquired a reputation as one of the most intelligent, cultivated, articulate and ambitious young men of his generation. It is also said that he was amongst the most arrogant and least popular.

There was ample scope for jealousy. Political life was dominated by his unashamedly nepotistic cousins by marriage, the Senanayakes, who groomed him for office. In his politics he was accused of hypocrisy aud opportunism - professing Marxism while leading the life of a plutocrat, praising secularism and pluralism while promoting policies undisguisedly chauvinistic. While still a young man he publicly suggested the adoption by the United National Party of a "Sinhala only" language policy. This was eventually put into law by his opponent and most formidable contemporary S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, and would prove to be utterly disastrous.

Like Bandaranaike, Jayawardene went to some pains to throw off the Western trappings in which he had been steeped. He converted to Buddhism, acquired competent Sinhala and adopted an improvised "national dress". Inevitably these changes were criticised as insincere, though he claimed to be a convinced Buddhist.

They were also essential. Jayawardene realised before many others that in a democracy (which Ceylon became in 1931) the elite could no longer afford to be alienated from the majority in religion, manners, language and dress.

His father had believed that the British Empire would last a thousand years. Jayawardene, like the rest of his generation, did not. When independence came in 1947, he was well- positioned to take office. He was offered and accepted the Finance Ministry.

In later years this would be one of the least envied jobs in the cabinet, but in the honeymoon period immediately post-independence the island's finances were reasonably healthy. Ceylon had become well-off in the war, and its commodities were valuable. In his first budget speech he was able to announce to Parliament that Ceylon was the richest nation per capita in Asia after Japan, a statement now somewhat painful to recall. His policies were prudent, competent and generally admired.

The honeymoon ended in 1953, when faced with an alarming budget crisis, he attempted to cut the rice subsidy. The result was deep unpopularity from which he was not to recover for a very long time. He lost his seat in 1956 and remained out of Parliament until 1960.

This in effect ended the first phase of Jayawardene's political career. There followed a long gap until 1977 when, aged 71, he was elected Prime Minister by a landslide. The intervening period, dominated by the Bandaranaike family, was one of rapid economic decline and increasing social confusion. For all sorts of reasons, some unavoidable - the population boom, for instance, and declining terms of trade - but many others artificially created, the island found itself in increasingly difficult circumstances and was left out of the general rise to prosperity that took place in other Asian countries.

Jayawardene's own politics at this time drifted steadily to the right. He became convinced that the sub-Marxist, anti- Western stance of Sri Lankan government since 1956 had contributed to its economic failure. He believed, correctly, that the success of Ceylon under colonial rule had had much to do with its combination of foreign capital and expertise with local resources, and endeavoured to create the same conditions.

In office he immediately set about a radical programme of political and economic change. Diplomatically he re-aligned Sri Lanka with the West, seeking at the same time Western co-operation in the development of the Sri Lankan economy, along the lines of successful newly industrialised countries of South East Asia.

At first things seemed to go very well indeed. He rewrote the constitution to adopt a French-type presidential system. Economic initiatives such as the creation of the Free Trade Zone brought in a good deal of foreign investment. Vast amounts of aid were lined up for the Mahaweli damming and irrigation scheme. The Economist magazine in 1981 praised his adroit management and talked of the island's "economic miracle". The Queen, visiting in 1982, spoke in the same vein. There was talk of Sri Lanka joining the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN).

It was not long afterwards that things began to go very wrong indeed on all fronts. Rapid spending, some of it on unnecessary prestige projects, caused inflation which in turn brought social unrest. Further constitutional amendments marginalised the legitimate opposition and concentrated an unhealthy degree of power in his own hands.

Improvidence and mild megalomania, however, were not as serious as Jayawardene's failure to handle in its early stages the grievances of the island's minority community, the Tamils. The history of the Tamil uprising is very complex indeed. While there was never the possibility of a simple solution, even the most sympathetic observer of Sri Lankan affairs must come to the conclusion that his handling of the problem was far from adroit.

From the beginning Jayawardene seemed not to realise the seriousness of Tamil grievances, and lost the chance to negotiate with the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) MPs when he clumsily obliged them to resign from Parliament in 1981. It might be argued that from July 1983, when communal violence began in earnest, there was nothing to be done to save the situation. It is doubtful, however, whether any strategy could have been more disastrous than that which he chose to pursue. Jayawardene opted for a military solution, but did so without the crucial co- operation of India, and without realising the Tamils' military and diplomatic strength. India, by arming the rebels and offering them safe haven, rendered the military objectives ludicrous.

Internationally Tamil pressure-groups blackened the name of Jayawardene and his government, which saw its aid receipts drop and its expenses rise. The violence went from bad to worse. Decisions were in effect removed from Jayawardene's hands in 1987 by Rajiv Gandhi, who forced on him the Indo-Lankan Accord and despatched a peace-keeping force to control the situation.

If internationally this was humiliating, domestically it was disastrous. Jayawardene, for long hated by the Tamils, now became public enemy number one of the Sinhalese. He narrowly survived an assassination attempt in August 1987.

In the JVP (People's Liberation Front) uprising of 1988-89 it was clear that to ordinary rural Sinhalese whom Jayawardene had in the past championed, he was an object of profound, irrational hatred. He is likely to remain so for many years. During his last year in office he was obliged to sign emergency regulations which granted the army and police powers that in all but name amounted to martial law. These were much abused.

Anyone who called at Braemar, Jayawardene's house in Colombo, during his last year or so in office (he resigned to permit elections in February 1989) found a man alarmingly out of touch. He seemed remote, exhausted, bewildered, and astounded to read of himself compared to fascist dictators or South American tyrants.

On the positive side, post-Jayawardene Sri Lanka remains a democracy, and now boasts a small but important private sector. It might be that in the next decades Sri Lanka achieves the success that JR so passionately desired, but which proved so cruelly elusive during his own very long life.

Rupert Scott

Junius Richard Jayawardene, lawyer and politician: born Colombo 17 September 1906; Minister of Finance, the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka 1947-53, Leader of Opposition 1970-77, Prime Minister 1977-78, President 1978-89; married 1935 Elina Rupesinge (one son); died Colombo 1 November 1996.