ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday September 16, 2007
Vol. 42 - No 16

A visionary strategist

The late President J.R. Jayewardene’s 101st birth anniversary falls tomorrow

By Dr. Karunasena Kodithuwakku

On September 17, we commemorate the 101st birth anniversary of the late President J R Jayawardene. I had the opportunity of working closely and associating with the late JRJ in my capacity as the General Secretary of the All Ceylon UNP Youth League and in view of my continuous involvement in many other party activities during his leadership.

Throughout his public life, JRJ was accepted and acknowledged as an astute politician with a unique mind and inimitable leadership qualities, ever ready to get involved and actively participate in whatever he undertook. He was mainly guided by reason and often by what he ought to do than what he liked to do, irrespective of the consequences. Those in the UNP always believed that where firm handling of any matter of governance was necessary, it was none other but JRJ. His leadership qualities as a visionary, strategist and non-violent revolutionary were enriched by his long years of political culturing and experience which far exceeded those of his peers in many respects.

President J. R. Jayewardene standing in front of his statue in Tokyo, Japan, which was erected in his honour after his speech at the 1951 San Francisco Peace Conference . The writer, who was the Sri Lankan Ambassador in Japan, is standing on the far left.

In the capacity of firstly as Minister of Finance and then of Agriculture, JRJ's achievements merit special mention. The establishment of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka obtaining the services of John Exeter from the United States and freeing Sri Lanka from Currency Board operations, were unique achievements. He contributed immensely to the development of the country under the first Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, D.S. Senanayake, embarking on the Gal Oya Multi-Purpose Project.

Through the Colombo Plan, JRJ was instrumental in securing thousands of training opportunities for the youth in Asia in the fields of technology and science. At that time, in Asia, Sri Lanka was second only to Japan. Japan, after World War II, was heavily dependent on foreign aid for its reconstruction. Sri Lanka, however, was not; for it managed its development schemes out of its own resources.

At the Peace Conference in San Francisco in 1951, JRJ not only ably convinced the two super powers to allow Japan to achieve lasting peace but also thereby brought international fame to Sri Lanka. It was nothing but this contribution of JRJ which formed the cornerstone of the subsequent Japan - Sri Lanka Friendship.

On several occasions, I had the rare privilege of personally witnessing how the people of Japan, including the Emperor, the members of the Royal Family and other dignitaries, displayed utmost sincerity, warmth and respect towards JRJ. During the period that I was in Japan as Sri Lanka's ambassador, I saw the JRJ-led friendship with Japan blossoming and Japan emerging as the largest donor to Sri Lanka, which position remains unchanged to date.

As President, JRJ's contributions are unsurpassable. The introduction of the open market economic reforms in 1977 and implementation of large multi-purpose projects such as the Mahaweli on an accelerated basis, Investment Promotion Zones (popularly known as the Free Trade Zones) and Urban Development Projects were significant. He was responsible for the opening of foreign employment opportunities, the transfer of technology to Sri Lanka, the liberalization of media and communication and the introduction of electronic media. He ensured the transformation of the Sri Lankan economy, which was primarily agrarian, to a better-diversified export-oriented economy, which was more resilient to external shocks, by substantially increasing the contribution of the industrial sector. Rupavahini changed the lifestyle of Sri Lankan people.

His foremost contribution, however, was the Second Republican Constitution of 1978 (SRC). One reason that the SRC has become controversial is that many find it difficult to understand and appreciate the innovative structuring of the government machinery contemplated therein. Many aspects of the SRC, i.e. the Executive Presidency, Degree of Accountability of the President to Parliament, Proportional Representation, Constitutional Amendments, Status of Parliament vis a vis the Executive and Independence of the Judiciary, are criticized as ill-conceived. The SRC has been in operation for 29 years now.

Some of the very serious criticisms levelled against the SRC were that it was thrust upon the people without having consulted them nor given adequate time to air their views and that it was rushed through Parliament. The mandate sought by the UNP in 1977 was not just to amend the Constitution that was then in force, but to enact a new Constitution with an Executive President directly elected by the people. This mandate in fact became the central issue of debate at the pre-election campaign. All parties - the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the Leftists canvassed against it.

The UNP, as we all know, received an unprecedented mandate. Voter turnout was 86% in that election and was the highest ever recorded in the history of the country.

The UNP, on its own, secured 50.9% of votes and had under the then prevailing "First Past the Post" system (FPP), 140 members elected. The political parties, which opposed the enactment of a new Constitution, had a virtual electoral annihilation with the SLFP securing only 30% of the votes polled while the left parties (LSSP & CP) were wiped out completely. It was with this overwhelming mandate that JRJ proceeded ahead.

Therefore, considering the overwhelming mandate that was received and the Parliamentary Select Committee process which followed, the criticisms of SRC being thrust upon the people are unreasonable, baseless and a deliberate distortion of the reality.

The Executive Presidency, which was first created by an amendment to the First Republican Constitution (FRC) and then incorporated into the SRC with detailed provisions, has been the subject of much controversy. Often criticism is levelled that a virtual dictator was created.

JRJ hardly expected to create a Presidency that will not be answerable to the Parliament. Hence, a specific provision was made in terms of Article 42 of the SRC, which read "the President shall be responsible to Parliament for the due exercise, performance and discharge of his powers, duties and functions under the Constitutions and any written law, including the law for the time being relating to public security”.

JRJ believed that to move the government machinery with efficiency and discipline, the President must be the Head of the Cabinet. He wanted the Cabinet to be appointed from the people's representatives who were elected to Parliament, and the executive power to be shared with the legislature, rather than a Cabinet in the form of advisors/ professionals as found in the US. This was not an afterthought, but how the mandate was sought at the 1977 General Election where "…the other Ministers of the Cabinet will also be elected Members of Parliament”.

A second feature of the SRC which is often debated is the Proportional Representation System (PRS). The major concern regarding PRS was the most likely thwarting of the growth of the two-party system, with the proliferation of political parties and the higher cut-off point at 12 ½ %. The cut-off point had already been reduced to 5%.

It was the unrepresentative character of the legislature and the instability created thereby that was to be redressed by the introduction of the PRS. "In 1970, SLFP with 36.9% of the total vote was able to secure 60.3% of the total number of seats in the legislature while the UNP, with 37.9% of the total vote was able to secure 11.3% of the seats." The converse occurred in 1977, when the UNP with 50.9% of the total vote was able to secure 83.3% of the total seats whereas the SLFP with 29.7% of the total votes secured only 5% of the seats. JRJ did not agree with the above concerns and strongly believed that the First-Past-the-Post system created instability.

There appears to be an exaggeration of the disadvantages of the PRS. The introduction of the PRS has enabled every vote to have an equal value as opposed to the FPP where the votes cast in favour of a losing candidate had no value. Minority parties, not necessarily different ethnic groups but also parties like the JVP, have been able to secure representation in Parliament due to the PRS. If not for the introduction of this system, the unrest and alienation among the youth would have grown to unimaginable proportions by now. Similarly, divisive ethnic forces would have made the secessionist claims much stronger. More than anything else, owing to the PRS we as a country seem to have moved or pushed from Majoritarian politics to Majority-led consensual politics.

Some have derided the effecting of 18 Amendments to the SRC up to now. This, I believe, is no cause for concern. Whilst amendments for non-genuine purposes should be avoided, if the situation demands it, there should not be hesitation to effect amendments when and if necessary given the pace at which society changes. It is noted that the Indian Constitution has been amended 93 times since its adoption in 1949 and in contrast with the 18 Amendments to the Sri Lanka Constitution by 2006 over a period of 29 years. Proportionately our numbers are less than half that of India (L. Marasinghe, 2007). The Federal Constitution of the USA has been amended 27 times and of that 11 such amendments had been within the first ten years.

When JRJ assumed the leadership of the UNP in 1973, it had to face a strong coalition government which included powerful personalities such as Sirimavo, Felix, NM, Colvin, Keuneman, etc. They were not only able to adopt a Constitution which extended its own life, without consulting the people who were vested with sovereignty, but also imposed emergency rule suspending normal laws with regard to citizen's rights.

JRJ realized that conventional methods were not sufficient to motivate the masses. Therefore he turned the UNP party machinery into a non-violent direct action. When media houses were nationalized he went from door to door to hundreds of houses in different towns requesting the boycott of the Lake House (State) newspapers. When meetings and processions were banned, he led processions and Satyagrahas breaking the Emergency regulations. Satyagrahas were organized in Colombo, Nuwara Eliya, Anuradhapura and Attanagalla, the Bandaranaike fortress. All roads to Attanagalla Temple, when the Satyagraha was to be held, were barricaded by the Police. Foreseeing the impending police barricades, JRJ spent the previous night nearby at a friend's house close to the temple and emerged at the venue at the correct time, though many of his UNP followers were stopped at Kalagedihena, Pasyala (this writer, with Rukman Senanayake, was also prevented from proceding), Urapola, etc. JRJ conducted a hundred public meetings on the same day at two different places despite the government ban. With such non-violent action against the draconian Emergency regulations, he was able to rally democratic forces around him and the UNP was turned into a dynamic political machinery which finally obtained a resounding victory in 1977.

It was JRJ who really opened the economy and society to the world through his market economic reforms in 1977. Not only were exports and imports liberalized, but labour migration to the Middle East was also opened up. Pilgrimages to historical sites in India for Buddhists and Mecca for Muslim devotees were not possible before his reforms. Foreign investment was invited; not only much-needed capital, but new technology came in. Rupavahini, computers and other electrical gadgets were allowed and modernization commenced. The lifestyles of Sri Lankans changed positively. Many of these reforms were not heard of before 1977 in South Asia.

JRJ created the Executive Presidency to ensure that the country had a leader who could take decisions needed for speedy economic growth. He himself took bold and far-reaching decisions. The agrarian economy was transformed and a foundation was laid for accelerated growth, which developed a middle-class based entrepreneurship. Many were against the Market Economic Reforms initiated by JRJ, but today it is the foundation. JRJ envisioned a technologically developed Sri Lanka and it is under his leadership that revolutionary developments such as the introduction of television and the application of electronic computers in education, management and communication were begun.

JRJ was an exceptional leader; a visionary, strategist and non-violent revolutionary who was enriched by his long years of political culturing and experience. He was mainly guided by reason and often by what he ought to do than what he liked to do, irrespective of the consequences.

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