Remembering JRJ

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Tuesday 19th September, 2023

It is customary to avoid speaking ill of the dead and instead focus on their positive qualities and accomplishments. That may be the reason why those who recently spoke or wrote about the late President J. R. Jayewardene (JRJ), on the occasion if his 117th birth anniversary, paid him glowing tributes and overlooked the dark side of his rule. Prominent among them were President Ranil Wickremesinghe and former Speaker Karu Jaysuriya. The former reportedly went to the extent of claiming that if Sri Lanka had sustained the socio-economic reforms initiated by his uncle, JRJ, it would have been a developed nation today.

We thought all governments since 1977 had followed JRJ’s economic policies. The UNP and the SLFP/the SLPP see eye to eye on economic liberalisation; they are the purveyors of crony capitalism in this country.

The JRJ presidency no doubt served as a catalytic force for economic, political and social change, but it was far from messianic or benevolent. In 1977, JRJ did the right thing, the wrong way on the economic front, paradoxical as it may sound. Dirigisme has become an anachronism in the modern world; it can exist only in a hermit kingdom like North Korea. The Sri Lankan economy had to be opened up in the late 1970s in keeping with emerging global politico-economic realities, but that task should have been carried out cautiously. Instead, JRJ flung the economy open.

JRJ was known for what may be called free market fundamentalism, which led to the ruination of some vital local industries and public enterprises. If only JRJ had cared to cross the river by feeling the stones, as the Chinese say, and heeded the oxymoronic adage, festina lente (‘make haste slowly’). Some economic commentators have traced the origin of Sri Lanka’s debt crisis to the JRJ rule, which led to a sharp increase in external borrowings.

On the political front, JRJ did not scruple to subjugate all democratic institutions to self-interest, and they have not recovered yet. The Constitution he introduced is replete with serious flaws, which have stood the unscrupulous in good stead. He was no respecter of the doctrine of the separation of powers and had the legislature under his thumb and did his damnedest to suppress the judiciary, albeit without much success. He once had the houses of the Supreme Court judges who refused to kowtow to him stoned, and openly shielded the police personnel who blatantly violated the fundamental rights of his political opponents at his behest. Political violence took a turn for the worse on his watch. He started the practice of giving presidential pardons to criminals. Ironically, all those who opposed his dictatorial actions and subsequently had themselves elevated to the executive presidency, which they promised to abolish, have been emulating him.

Curiously, Jayasuriya, who, as the Speaker, intrepidly defended the legislature vis-à-vis President Maithripala Sirisena’s deplorable efforts to wrest control of it, in 2018, and is championing democracy, has spoken highly of JRJ, who reduced Parliament to a mere appendage of the Executive and had barbaric violence unleashed against the Opposition, trade unions, etc.

The SLFP-led United Front government made a mockery of its commitment to democracy, in 1975, by abusing its two-thirds majority to extend the life of Parliament by two years. JRJ went a step ahead and replaced a general election with a heavily rigged referendum. His nephew has overtaken him posthumously! Today, it is the President who decides whether to hold elections!

Blunders that JRJ made were legion. He turned the country’s foreign policy on its head, sought to punch above his weight, and antagonised India in the process. His government also did precious little to stop the anti-Tamil pogrom in 1983; its goons were accused of organising and carrying out savage attacks on Tamil civilians. If JRJ had acted prudently and democratically, respecting the rule of law, perhaps, the country would not have had to fight a protracted terrorist war. He also blundered by falsely blaming the JVP for ethnic violence and proscribing it in 1983. He did so because the JVP had legally challenged the outcome of the referendum, which he used to retain his five-sixths majority in Parliament. The JVP went underground and took up arms again, plunging the country into a bloodbath in the late 1980s. Ironically, the JVP opted for a honeymoon with the UNP about three decades later and propped up the crumbling Yahapalana government; it has proved that politics is all about expediency and not principles.

The JRJ administration was not without some positives. The country is reaping the benefits of the development projects that the JRJ government launched despite criticism thereof in some quarters. It brought about an economic revival, which unfortunately the UNP itself failed to sustain due to corruption, mismanagement and cronyism.

When political leaders are commemorated, their policies and actions should be dispassionately appraised for the benefit of younger generations.


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