By Izeth Hussain –
Some readers may wonder why I want to re-assess President JR Jayewardene, who belongs to a past that is dead, when there are so many urgent problems of the present that might be addressed by a weekly columnist. My answer is that the way we assess the past reflects the way we assess the present, and more importantly it also shapes our orientation to the future. There is a whole school of thought about history behind my view, which I hope to clarify later. At present it seems to me important, desperately important, to make a reassessment of President JR for this reason: he has harmed this country terribly in the past; we must try to ensure that he does not harm this country terribly in the future as well.
It seems to me important to take into account the personality traits of JR in making a re-assessment of him. I have earlier speculated on the possible influence of his ancestry on his politics. According to a widespread view there were uncertainties about his ancestry, which is why the Kandyan aristocracy refused to confer elite status on his family by marrying into it. Did that lead to a secret hatred of the Sinhalese people and did that induce him to play traitor in 1987? I believe that it is important in political analysis to raise such questions even though in the present state of knowledge no definitive answer may be possible. Two other personality traits also seem very relevant to the task of re-assessing him. He belonged essentially to what Eric Fromm categorized as the necrophiliac personality as he was driven to destruction and death. Blood started flowing as soon as he assumed office in 1977 and it was flowing in torrents by the time he relinquished it in 1988. The other trait is that he was evil. By evil I mean the propensity, or perhaps the compulsion, to damage and to destroy. JR, I think, was richly endowed with that compulsion.
It might seem that I am caricaturing JR. Actually I am being selective in noting only those traits that seem to have weighed in his politics. Outside that field he may well have been a genial and wholesome man. I acknowledge his enormous political ability which was shown by his charismatic performance at the San Francisco Peace Conference, and I would acknowledge also two of his mighty achievements. He was the first South Asian leader to understand that the state-centric economy could only bring further disaster and he moved away from it in a process that soon became irreversible. Furthermore he did not destroy the welfare system in that process. The other mighty achievement was I think theMahaveli Accelerated Program in which he showed a dynamism that has not been common among our leaders.
Here I come to the crux of this article: politicians should be judged by their achievements; not by their precepts but by their practice; not by their promises but by their performance; not by the cunning, deviousness, and duplicity of an old fox but by what the old fox actually achieved. It is meet and proper that a leader should be judged by his achievements in an age in which the achievement orientation is more valued among a people than anything else. What was JR’s record of achievement? At the time he assumed office in 1977 Sri Lanka was bright with promise. He set the economy on the right course, and all that he had to do was to solve the ethnic problem. That was not an insuperable problem in 1977: it could have been solved without much difficulty by granting a reasonable measure of devolution and allowing a fully functioning democracy to correct the inequities that had come to characterize our majority/minority relations. But in 1988 when JR relinquished office the situation facing Sri Lanka was this: there were two serious rebellions going on at the same time, that of the LTTE and the JVP, the IPKF troops were here behaving like a conquering army, and the Government had lost control over a third of the national territory and almost half the coastline. It seemed that the prophesy of the late Professor of History Karl Goonawardene had come true. It went something like this: “The problem is that JR hates the people of this country, and since that is so he can only bring disaster to this country”.
JR’s great failures were in the fields of the ethnic problem and democracy, both of which are in reality integrally connected. I have been arguing since around 1993 that JR was the originator of the ethnic problem in its militant violent form. There were no ethnic riots from 1958 to 1977, but thereafter there was State terrorism under his aegis which reached its apogee in 1983, and it was that that led to a quarter century of civil war. I have recently argued in an article – I will not therefore repeat my arguments in any detail – that by preventing the extension of the Vadamarachchi campaign he was responsible for the extension of the war by twenty two years at the cost of a hundred thousand deaths. It is arguable that India was responsible for that by coercing JR to abandon military operations after Vadamarachchi. But I believe that I have established convincingly enough that JR has to bear the primary responsibility because he could have successfully resisted that coercion with the support of the international community: 1) India would not have dared invade Sri Lanka because of food shortages in Jaffna that were easily corrigible. 2) The international community would have acknowledged that the SL Government had the primordial duty of putting down an armed rebellion by military means. 3) The irritant of supposed special Sri Lanka/US relations did not count because by 1987 the US was in collusion with India over Sri Lanka.
JR was the originator of the ethnic problem in its violent form after 1983, and he was at least partly responsible for the extension of the war after 1987. It is arguable that his virtual destruction of democracy played an important role in that extension. According to K.M. de Silva’s Sri Lanka and the Defeat of the LTTE the Vadamarachchi operation became one of the forgotten episodes of the war and the orthodoxy came to be established that the war was “unwinnable”. That was the conventional wisdom, the almost unchallenged orthodoxy, that prevailed for a long period both locally and in the international community. It is understandable that that orthodoxy went together with a defeatist mentality, if not for which the war could have been concluded much earlier than in 2009. But for that, Vadamarachchi had to be remembered and General Ranatunge and others who thought like him had to speak out. That was not possible under the quasi-dictatorship instituted by JR. According to de Silva, in his retirement General Ranatunge used to speak about the success of the Vadamarachchi operation to his visitors, “especially those whom he trusted to be discreet ….”. Evidently he believed that it would be dangerous to make public all he knew about Vadamarachchi.
In this article I have not of course tried to make a re-assessment of JR. I have merely tried to provide some pointers, or rather raise some questions, about how we should go about that task. It seems important to take some of his personality traits into account. Did the stories about his ancestry influence his politics? Certainly his State terrorism which transformed the ethnic problem into an extremely violent one suggests a necrophiliac personality driven by a will to death and destruction. Several facts about him suggest that he was an evil person who took pleasure in harming and destroying people. The way he went about restructuring the Judiciary, making some Supreme Court Judges walk the streets, and the later episode in which the houses of SC judges were stoned, showed intent not just to control the Judiciary but to humiliate it. A whole huge tome can be written to show that he was a thoroughly unsavory character.
How on earth has it come about that JR has earned a positive reputation as an old fox when the truth is that he left behind a record of gigantic disaster? It may be that that positive reputation prevails only or mainly among UNP supporters, but my question remains valid. I believe that the answer has to be found in our modern history. We had a century of peace from 1848 to 1948, and we got Independence without anything worth calling a struggle. Consequently British power was inherited by a political class that was unheroic, mean-spirited, self-regarding, pusillanimous. Understandably that class found its greatest hero in Sir Oliver Goonetilleke who was admired above all for his shrewdness. Likewise JR is admired for his cunning. We must re-assess our modern history and figures such as JR in order to re-orient our political values and go forward towards a wholesome modernity.