Junius Richard Jayewardene (September 17, 1906–November 1, 1996), famously abbreviated in Sri Lanka as JR, was the first executive President of Sri Lanka from 1978 until 1989. He was a leader of the nationalist movement in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) who served in a variety of cabinet positions in the decades after independence. Before taking over the newly created executive presidency, he served as the Prime minister of Sri Lanka between 1977 and 1978.
J.R. Jayewardene, who was the eldest in a family of 11 children, was the son of Hon. Justice Eugene Wilfred Jayewardene KC a judge of the Ceylon Supreme Court. He was schooled at Royal College, Colombo where he played for the cricket team, debuting in the Royal-Thomian series in 1925. He became a lawyer after attaining a distinguished academic record at the University College, Colombo and later at the Colombo Law College.
Jayewardene did not practice law for long, however. In 1938 he became an activist in the Ceylon National Congress (CNC), which provided the organizational platform for Ceylon’s nationalist movement (the island was officially renamed Sri Lanka in 1972). He became its Joint Secretary in 1940. He was elected to the colonial legislature, the State Council in 1943.
After joining the United National Party on its formation in 1946, he became Finance Minister in the island’s first Cabinet in 1947. He played a major role in re-admitting Japan to the world community at the San Francisco Conference.
Jayewardene’s acute intelligence and subtle, often aggressive political skills earned him leading roles in government (1947-1956 and 1965-1970) and in opposition (1956-1965 and 1970-1977). In 1951 Jayewardene was a member of the committee to select a National Anthem for Sri Lanka headed by Sir Edwin Wijeyeratne.
As Finance Minister in D.S. Senanayake’s government, Jayewardene struggled to balance the budget, faced with mounting government expenditures, particularly for rice subsidies. His 1953 proposal to cut the subsidies – on which many poor people depended on for survival – provoked fierce opposition and the 1953 Hartal campaign, and had to be called off.
No government gave serious thought to the development of the industry as an economically viable venture until the United National Party came to power in 1965 and the subject of tourism came under the purview of the Minister of State Hon. J. R. Jayewardene.
The new Minister Jayewardene saw tourism in a new dimension as a great industry capable of earning foreign exchange, providing avenues of mass employment, creating a manpower which commanded a high, employment potential in the world. He was determined to place this industry on a solid foundation providing it a ‘ conceptional base and institutional support.’ This was necessary to bring dynamism and cohesiveness into an industry, shunned by leaders in the past, ignored by investors who were inhibited by the lack of incentive to invest in projects which were uncertain of a satisfactory return. The new Minister Hon. J. R. Jayewardene considered it essential for the government to give that assurance and with this objective in view he tabled the Ceylon Tourist Board Act No 10 of 1966 followed by Ceylon Hotels Corporation Act No 14 of 1966.
This was the beginning of a new industry ignored by the previous governments but given a new life by Minister J. R. Jayewardene. As a result today tourist resorts exist in almost all cities and today an annual turnover of over 500,000 tourists are enjoying the tropical climes and beautiful beaches of Sri Lanka not to mention the enormous amount of foreign exchange they bring into the country.
In the general election of 1970 the UNP suffered a major defeat, when the SLFP and its newly formed collation of leftist parties won almost 2/3 of the parliamentary seats. Once again elected to parliament J. R. Jayewardene took over as opposition leader and de-facto leader of the UNP due to the ill health of Dudley Senanayake. After Senanayake’s death in 1973, Jayewardene succeeded him as UNP leader. He gave the SLFP government his fullest support during the 1971 JVP Insurrection (even thou his son was arrested by the police without charges) and in 1972 when the new constitution was enacted proclaiming Ceylon a republic. However he opposed the government in many moves, which he saw as short sighted and damaging for the country’s economy in the long run. These included the adaptation of the closed economy and nationalization of many private business and lands. In 1976 he resigned from his seat in parliament in protest, when the government used its large majority in parliament to extend the duration of the government by two more years at the end of its six year term without holding a general election.
Jayewardene won a sweeping election victory in 1977 to become Prime Minister. Immediately thereafter, he drew up a new national constitution which created an Executive Presidency with drastic and unchecked powers, and, on its adoption into law, became, in 1978, the first Sri Lankan Executive President. He moved the legislative capital from Colombo to Sri Jayawardanapura Kotte. He opened the heavily state-controlled economy to market forces, which many credit with subsequent economic growth but also with the greater divisions in society.
On the economic front, Jayewardene’s legacy was decisive. For thirty years after independence, Sri Lanka had struggled in vain with slow growth and high unemployment. Since Jayewardene’s reforms, the island has maintained healthy growth despite the civil war.
Jayewardene married Elina Rupasinghe, with whom he had two sons. One of his sons, Ravi Jayewardene was an officer in the Sri Lanka Army and went on to be a presidential adviser on security.