Reviewing JR’s legacy | Sunday Observer

Reviewing JR’s legacy

21 November, 2021

Junius Richard Jayewardene, commonly known as J. R., was born on September 17, 1906 and passed away on November 1, 1996. As we mark his 25th death anniversary this month, it is timely to assess his legacy in politics and economic development in Sri Lanka.

J.R. first entered politics by being elected to the State Council under colonial rule, through a by-election held for the Kelaniya electorate in 1943. The anti-Christian campaign he carried out against E. W. Perera, his opponent, was conspicuous at the election.

Subsequently, J. R. was a founder member of the United National Party (UNP), formed in 1946. He continued to be a Member of Parliament for the Kelaniya electorate and was also appointed the Minister of Finance by D. S. Senanayake, the first Prime Minister of Sri Lanka (then Ceylon). Since then, as the de facto second-in-command of the UNP, his political career had been illustrious and controversial until the party was electorally defeated in 1956.

Although he was compelled to find contentment to be the second-in-command of the party, as a result of the dominance of the Senanayake clan with Dudley Senanayake, the son of D.S Senanayake being appointed as the leader, J.R. was an effective campaigner against the Bandaranaike regimes which held power for a long period albeit short interruptions. Realising that his popularity in the Kelaniya electorate was on the wane, J.R. moved to another constituency which was prominent for the predominance of middle-class and elitist constituents.


In 1965, the UNP came back to power defeating the SLFP-LSSP-CP coalition. While holding different portfolios under the Dudley Senanayake Government, J.R. time and again articulated his vision on the structure of governance with regard to Sri Lanka.

In 1966, while addressing the annual session of the Ceylon Association of Advancement of Science, he put forward the concept of Executive Presidency, of which the most aspects were drawn from the French Constitution. He believed that an Executive Presidency of that nature, which surpasses the direct control of Parliament, is essential for a developing country like Sri Lanka. J. R.’s aim for putting into action his vision was realised with his resounding victory over the United Front Government in 1977.

It was due to the highly state-controlled protectionist policies of the United Front Government that J.R. who was not a trusted or popular political personality in Sri Lanka at the time, also held the unceremonious sobriquet of ‘Yanky Dicky’, became successful in creating a healthy atmosphere for getting his party (UNP) elected with an emphatic majority.

With the introduction of the 1978 Constitution, which is known to have been drafted by his brother H.W. Jayewardene, J. R. became the first Executive President of Sri Lanka leaving minimum responsibility to Parliament.

New era

J.R.’s appointment as the Executive President, with almost all authoritarian powers, could be considered the advent of a new era of politics in Sri Lanka. He once claimed that he will fold up the electoral map of Sri Lanka and later, it was proved that he meant business through the referendum held in 1982 having in mind the sinister intention of evading the upcoming Parliamentary election which seemed unhealthy for him.

The largely undemocratic system of governance carried out by J.R. violated all forms of human rights. All norms of democratic traditions were violated at the referendum that the unbiased critics openly referred to as a daylight robbery of the rights of opposition parties and even voters. It was conspicuously seen how most of sitting MPs along with their goons rampaged polling stations and marked the ballot papers snatched from the public servants manning those stations to ensure J.R.’s victory. The writer himself experienced the brutality of these marauders.

Opposition party members, legally present at the polling stations to ensure free and fair elections, were assaulted or simply chased out from those premises. The scar created by the infamous assault on the highly revered bhikkhu Ven. Maduluwawe Sobhitha Thera and most respected intellectual, Professor Ediriweera Sarathchandra in vengeance for using the democratic right of criticism is far from getting erased from the history of Sri Lanka. That was how the J.R. regime brutally suppressed voices of the opposition.

Dharmishta Samajaya

The motto of J.R.’s 1977 election campaign, Dharmishta Samajaya (Righteous Society) was proved during his regime to be the total opposite. His political legacy comprised thuggery and vandalism unabashedly became gangrenous within the society.

The Jathika Sevaka Sangamaya (JSS) – the trade union wing of the UNP was conspicuous to be one of the main instruments used for these disagreeable misdeeds. Members of the trade union had the freedom to brutally suppress the freedom of anyone whom they deemed anti-regime elements.

Their branches established in all state-owned enterprises harshly interfered with the management activities so that the functional sobriety thereof were compelled to get disrupted in addition to ‘officially’ violating the freedom and rights of opposing political parties, their leadership as well as all sympathisers. It is a well-known fact that these same goons of the UNP/JSS were behind most of the murders and robberies perpetrated.

It was they who set fire to the properties of Tamils during the 1983 Black July.

The by-election held for the Mahara electorate where Vijaya Kumaratunga, a most popular leader who was also a beloved celebrity of the country contested, is a highly disgraceful scar in the electoral history of the island. It was a conspicuous evidence for the reversal of J.R.’s righteous society concept. Similarly, to defeat his opponent, Hector Kobbekaduwa in the next Presidential election, the J.R. regime invented an utterly falsified Naxalite conspiracy and detained Kobbekaduwa’s most active and popular supporters including Vijaya Kumaranatunga, Ossie Abeygunasekera and Tennakoone Rusiripala.

It was heard that during the day of the election, ballot papers of a number of nationally well-known figures including even his opponent Hector Kobbekaduwa, were clandestinely cast by UNP goons. These, of course, are a few of the legacies of J.R.’s so-called democratic politics. J. R.’s emergence as an Opposition Leader was well-noticed by many Lake House journalists at the time. They include well-known journalist Dharmasiri Jayakody who held the position of Editorial Adviser to the Board of Directors of Lake House, and used to write weekly columns under the pseudonym ‘Arjuna’. In his analytical articles, Arjuna, described J.R. as a potential fascist dictator if ever come to power.

Two days after the 1977 UNP election victory, the Gonawala residence of Jayakody was robbed, vandalised and burnt down. The machinery for the deadly suppression of the JVP insurrection was created under the J.R. regime, which was later effectively and further brutally implemented by the R. Premadasa regime. The motive of the suppression of the youth rebellion was to torture and murder JVP members, their supporters and sympathisers, as well as future potential supporters. American and other Western democracies, which considered Sri Lanka as a budding classical free market economy, were dead silent of the extra-judicial killings of Sri Lankan youth during the period.

Economic legacy

J.R’s economic legacy is marked by ‘constructive destruction’ and half-baked liberalisation. UNP’s resounding victory cannot reasonably be attributed to any trust the people of the country placed on JR or his popularity, but to the disgust created towards the economic policy and programs of the United Front Government.

The so-called economic liberalisation was an immediately popular measure as the people were suffering from the scarcity of almost all essential commodities. However, the sudden opening of flood gates seriously damaged and completely destroyed thousands of infant industries emerging under a highly protected environment. The complete import dependency was the final outcome.

This was the formula of the IMF and the World Bank that lavishly funded this market opening and pro-Western foreign policy. While the destruction of infant industries and some local agriculture was creating a huge displacement of the labour force, the J.R. era was, on the other hand, marked by several new initiatives including the Accelerated Mahaweli Development Program, the Greater Colombo Economic Commission (GCEC) and housing development.

Of these programs, the Accelerated Mahaweli Development Program, which envisioned originally a 30-year development, conceptualised - probably during the United Front Government - into a 5-10 year series of projects. It was one of Sri Lanka’s largest initiatives. It resulted in the creation of several projects in hydropower generation, land development, irrigation and human settlement, mostly surrounding reservoirs such as Kotmale and Rantembe. These projects were lavishly funded by bilateral and multilateral donors. The people are still reaping benefits from the J.R. era projects.

Corrupt-ridden project

Notwithstanding the long-term benefits of these Mahaweli schemes, it was reported to be one of the most corruption-ridden programs in the country. Rather than the true beneficiaries, it resulted in politicians, their relatives, other cronies of the UNP, and the governing party obtaining large benefits.

It can be safely assumed that the level of corruption that infested the country from the highest to the lowest level was originated and facilitated during the J.R. regime through Mahaweli development as well as several other activities, many of which were promoted and facilitated by foreign donors. It was also widely known during the Mahaweli development program that ‘Mahaweli Flows to Sinco not to Trinco’ (Sinco being the company owned by the relevant Minister).

Under the Greater Colombo Economic Commission (GCEC) - established to promote and facilitate foreign direct investment projects - the Katunayake Export Processing Zone and the Biyagama Export Processing Zone were set up.

This has been a landmark initiative during that era. Another well-known project was the housing development program under which many urban and rural housing projects were established.

All these projects were implemented primarily as government-owned and operated schemes while the main and sub-contractors were foreign or local private enterprises. It is claimed that the private sector involvement was the beginning of the mass-scale creation of a crony-capitalist class financed through utmost non-transparent, and corrupt practices.

The long-term disastrous impact of institutionalising and popularising widespread corruption which spread from the highest level of government to the national and local level administrative apparatus and even to the common man, has created a ‘culture of corruption, malpractices and nepotism,’ which even today, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa finds it extremely difficult to eliminate.

J.R.’s so-called economic liberalisation or the creation of a market economy was widely hailed by foreign donors including the IMF and the World Bank.

Unfortunately for the Sri Lankan people, those institutions and countries, unlike today, did not lay down conditions to get rid of state-owned enterprises infested with utter corruption, malpractice and misappropriation of funds.

The so-called J.R.’s economic liberalism ended at the doorsteps of these enterprises with the open and visible intention of using them and their employees as UNP goons, thugs, murderers and marauders. The employees of these government corporations were rampaging throughout the country during the so-called free and fair elections, by-elections, and referendums.

Missed opportunities

If it had not been for these undemocratic, and economically disastrous intentions, the J.R. regime could have used this opportunity for wholesale privatisation to foreign and local investors. Even the present day left-leaning and patriotic people, who are against privatisation, would have been delighted to deprive J.R.’s repressive regime from these publicly-funded tools of repression. In addition, the massive inflow of foreign funding to the Mahaweli program could have cushioned the adverse impact of such privatisation, particularly in areas such as employment. All these missed opportunities, related wastages, misuse and the establishment and institutionalisation of undemocratic practices, took place under the noses of so-called defenders of human rights. It is a clear indication of their double-standard.

The infamous J.R. regime is notoriously known for creating a domestic and regional environment for the separatist movement led by the LTTE, mishandling Sri Lanka’s relations with the biggest and closest neighbour, and unleashed violence against the Tamil people in 1978 and 1983 as well as worshipping the American-led western countries.

These were the root causes of the most destructive 30-years of terrorism in Sri Lanka. Publicly and foolishly criticising then ruling leaders of India and opposition leader’s family in Sri Lanka, is considered the gravest mistake committed by the cunning fox, J.R. Jayewardene.

The lessons learnt by the Sri Lankan people, political parties and opinion-makers is the possibly devastating outcomes of installing a regime with a leadership without vision, nor wisdom, nor way forward.