Ravi Jayewardene aged 63 reflects on his father JR’s triumphs and setbacks The film was over and the entire audience was stirring prior to standing up to the strains of the national anthem ‘God Save the King’. I moved in my seat to stand up when my father’s large restraining hand came down gently but [...]

Sunday Times 2

Tribute to Ravi Jayewardene


Ravi Jayewardene aged 63 reflects on his father JR’s triumphs and setbacks
The film was over and the entire audience was stirring prior to standing up to the strains of the national anthem ‘God Save the King’. I moved in my seat to stand up when my father’s large restraining hand came down gently but firmly on my forearm. He explained in that characteristic subdued voice of his that had to be obeyed, “We no longer stand for this anthem as we do not consider it our anthem.”

Ravi Jayewardene (left) with mother Elena (centre) and wife Penny

“One day we will stand and respect our own national anthem, when we are free.”
I was too young then to realise the full significance of this statement. I was too concerned about the people around us. All were standing up to attention and some of them turning around to hurl racial abuse at my father who remained seated. All of them were white and I presumed British. To me they all looked big and some bigger than others. I was nine and if there were a confrontation perhaps my only line of defence would have been to kick the big white man directly in front of me for him to go tumbling down over the rows immediately before him. Perhaps tuning into my thoughts, my father again touched my hand while sitting in stony silence as though he himself could not see or hear anything.

This was Sri Lanka in 1945 and my father was a freedom fighter. Unlike most of the liberation struggles of today that fight for freedoms they already possess with guns, grenades and mortars, my father’s liberation struggles had started over 25 years before, using only the power of passive resistance.

Father J.R. Jayewardene (left) celebrating with family members the birth of son Ravi

He did not believe in the sheddding of blood. He explained to me the significance of names like Kotelawala and Senanayake in this long struggle against foreign domination spanning over a quarter of a century. He told me how he planned to take the struggle for Independence to its final conclusion following the principle of non-violence similar to that which was then being practised in India by the great Mahathma Gandhi.

I keenly followed the progress of the protest marches and demonstrations that he planned against the British. He filled my youthful heart with confidence that one day I would grow up in a Lanka that was free and totally independent of foreign rule.
The pages of time have recorded the history of our country since that great day in 1948 when my father’s promise was fulfilled to the nation and to me. As far as he was concerned the fighting was over and it was the time for peace and prosperity. But as we all know, this was not to be. I have often spoken to him in the quiet moments of his retirement after 11 years as the first Executive President of Sri Lanka about his achievements and failures.

He was large enough to admit his failures and mistakes but some of his lesser acheievements he had surprisingly forgotten. When I reminded him of the pension scheme he set up for the soldiers, the salary benefits for the widows of soldiers and the allocation of special wards for injured servicemen, he asked me “Did I do that?” So I continued to refresh his memory about all the other minor things he had accomplished including sending his able minister as an emissary to get Test status in cricket for Sri Lanka and setting up the President’s Fund.

Perhaps in his time he was able to see a degree of prosperity but the peace he so dearly wanted for his country did not seem to come. He was unable to comprehend the mind of the modern terrorist and the callous nature of the senseless slaughter that is his hallmark of accomplishment. The battle that he fought and won did not have the remotest resemblance to the carnage today, the same rules did not apply, and in him an underlying sense of sadness remained, when on a sunny morning during his 90th year, the curtain came down and Sri Lanka’s last freedom fighter stepped off the stage.

(This article first appeared in the Sunday Times’ millennium supplement – Past Times: Glimpses of the 1900 – of January 2, 2000)

A true patriot and hero
It was Lao Tzu who said, “When a nation is filled with strife, then do patriots flourish.” This epitomises Ravi Jayewardene, who in 1983 during the first manifestations of unprecedented violence and destruction, began a response to protect our motherland, threatened by separatist forces of immeasurable proportions.

Ravi became a catalyst for change during one of the most challenging periods in Sri Lanka’s history as brutal attacks of violence occurred by terrorist forces on unarmed, innocent villagers, living in the border areas of the North Central Province, soon spreading to Batticaloa and Trincomalee in the Eastern province, and occurring even in highly populated Colombo. I visited these areas, met the families of men, women and innocent children killed in the most brutal of manner, and was aghast that any humans were capable of such brutality and inhumanity on people who were poor, innocent and unarmed, including children and even pregnant women. It was in this national crisis that Ravi revealed his true character and patriotism, as he sensed with his keen military acumen that this was no ordinary war, but an insurgency of an immense and ruthless nature, which needed great skill, strong determination and immense courage to overcome.

During those early days, there were 33 splinter groups, including the LTTE, at war against government forces in their effort to claim ownership of certain territory by brutal attacks on unarmed civilian targets, obviously creating panic and mayhem. Among such groups the LTTE which was by and large the strongest and most sophisticated in the context of training and arms, waging unconventional warfare not conventional warfare, using the most sophisticated of weaponry to attack unarmed civilians. The LTTE with time soon assumed fame as one of the most ruthless terrorist groups in the world.

Ravi was also known for his marksmanship

Ravi was among the first to sense the magnitude of the threat to his motherland. He then established the elite STF (Special Task Force), a specialised, highly skilled and disciplined group of well-trained officers with the necessory capacity to counteract the continuing deadly carnage which was occurring against people as well as public and state property, occurring with impunity.
It was Ravi’s inborn sense of a responsibility to protect the motherland that influenced him to act as his did, to counteract the violence that had been unleashed.

Ravi was also a Buddhist by thought, word, and deed. He led a life of great simplicity, totally different to the progeny of most political leaders of yesteryear and even those of today. He never sought power, wealth or a position for himself. Ravi thus was a true son of Sri Lanka whose best interest lay in protecting the sovereignty of the motherland.

One of the favourite sayings of the late Minister Lalith Athulathmudali, himself a victim of an assassin’s bullet was, “Who is a terrorist? They do not wear uniforms like regular soldiers; they perform violent acts, dressed as civilians. They are radicalised from a young age, and most are forcibly recruited, conditioned to believe in violence as the only means to achieve a goal.”

Ravi Jayewardene: His most valuable assets were his simplicity

Ravi was particularly disturbed of the carnage that was occurring in “border” villages in Anuradhapura, Trincomalee, and Polonnaruwa, in remote rural areas such as Kebethigollewa , Horawapathana, Padaviya, Tantirimale, Gomarankadewala, Herathhalmillewa, Nikawewa,Seruwila and Serunawa, where endless violent attacks occurred to an innocent villages, particularly children.

Many families, particularly women and children could not access basic health care. I was involved in supporting Ravi to organise teams of volunteer medical staff to visit all vulnerable areas affected by the conflict with essential drugs, dressings and other essentials. The Ministry of Health gave its unstinted support, particularly former Secretaries of Health such as Dr. Malinga Fernando and Dr. Joe Fernando. Mass immunisation camps were held for children and special services for pregnant mothers.

These humanitarian services were undertaken through the Sathsarana Foundation founded by Ravi. He had close contact with local Buddhist priests in many key conflict affected areas, including Tantirimale, Siripura, Padaviya , Vilgamvehera, Dimbulagala, and Budhangala. The Buddhist clergy provided immeasurable support to all the villages at risk of violence. Ravi’s continuous support to the temples and priests of areas at risk of violence was of immeasurable value, as they in turn, supported the families living in such areas.

Ravi’s most valuable assets were his simplicity, total lack of arrogance, great integrity and immense courage to face adversity. He was admired by those among us who loved our motherland, Sri Lanka, as he battled with all his might against all odds to preserve the unitary state.

It is said, a hero is a person who gives his life to something bigger than one’s self. Ravi was indeed such a hero.
Ravi, born to a wealthy and prominent family, the son of a President, led a life of austerity and simplicity. The wisdom of the Buddha had a long abiding and profound influence on him, as his mind evolved with time, leading to a gradual detachment from all that was worldly, in his prime aim to achieve spiritual advancement.

May his sojourn in samsara be brief!
Hiranthi Wijemanne

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