J R Jayewardene, the Sri Lankan President who Created a Remarkable Era!
J R Jayewardene, the Sri Lankan President who Created a Remarkable Era!

The grandeur and the majesty of the 2500 years long proud history of Sri Lanka are simply impressive. Still, being a colony for more than a century, mingling with a rapidly developing world was always a severe problem for this beautiful island. Thus, when traversing through the history of Sri Lanka, the country’s important political and economical milestones can never be ignored. The challenges faced being a colony, the struggles of achieving independence, and significant milestones passed during the post-independence era are indeed noteworthy. And when traversing likewise down the past of Sri Lanka, there are few significant personalities that we cannot ignore. J R Jayewardene, who was an important figure in placing the name ‘Ceylon’ (later known as Sri Lanka) more boldly in this world is certainly one of them.

Hence, we thought of focusing this read on this iconic personality in Sri Lankan political history. Continue reading, and you will surely get to know several things that you did not know, from the history of this teardrop island!

Who is J R Jayewardene?

J R Jayewardene was the first executive President of Sri Lanka. He began his political career as the finance minister of Ceylon in 1946. He was a pioneer who brought about an economic upsurge decade following independence. Sri Lankan economy continued to grow owing to measures he took, even amidst a civil war.

Besides, he was a genuine leader and a great example to any modern politician. As an eloquent speaker, he always communicated with simple, soft-spoken words and a clear message to deliver. Indeed, he believed that his people were his generation to protect, heirs and heiresses to the crown, and the property that he had to tighten. Thus, he carried out several initiatives and plans with the aim of creating a new era for this wonderful island nation.

Early Life and Education

Junius Richard Jayewardene, also known as J.R, comes from a prestigious family in the legal profession of Sri Lanka. Eugene Wilfred Jayewardene and Agnes Helen Jayewardene were his parents. He was born on the 17th of September 1906.

He obtained his primary education from Bishop’s College and entered Royal College, Colombo for his secondary education. J R Jayewardene was an outstanding sportsman during his school days and a bright student as well. He represented the school Cricket team, captained the Rugby team, and was the vice-captain of the school football team. In addition, he was a part of the Royal College Boxing team and won school colors for Boxing. In the same way, he was a senior cadet and the captain of the school debating team. Later, he became the head prefect of the Royal College in 1925.

J R Jayewardene entered the University College in Colombo to pursue the advocate course, a family tradition. Later, he entered the Ceylon Law College in 1925. At the Law College, he formed a Student Union similar to Oxford Union with S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike. During his days at Ceylon Law College, he won the Hector Jayewardene award and the Walter Pereira prize. In 1931, after graduating from Ceylon Law College he started practicing law.

Marriage and Family

J R Jayewardene was the eldest son of 12 children of his family. He married Elina Bandara Rupasinghe, an heiress and the daughter of a wealthy merchant. They had only one son, Ravindra Jayewardene, and he was born in 1936.

Early Political Career of J R Jayewardene

J R Jayewardene did not practice law for long. He developed strong nationalist views during his college days, and as a result, he became an activist of the Ceylon National Congress (CNC).  Moreover, he became the co-secretary of CNC and was elected to Colombo Municipal Council in 1940.

Similarly, he was elected to the state council when he won the Kelaniya by-election in 1943. Later, J. R. joined the United National Party (UNP) as a founder member in 1946. The UNP won the first parliamentary election next year. As a result, J R Jayewardene became the finance minister of the cabinet. He was a member of the committee to select a national anthem for Sri Lanka as well. In 1952 he became the President of the Board of Control for Sri Lankan Cricket.

Important Milestones of JR’s Political Career

J R Jayewardene owns a political career of more than 40 years and has been in the government as well as the opposition. During his career, his party has seen huge victories as well as crushing defeats. Let us take a look at his political career, his tactfulness in politics, and the later years until he became the Executive President of the country.

The First Finance Minister of Ceylon

The United National Party led by D. S. Senanayake saw a narrow victory from the first parliamentary election in 1947. J R Jayewardene who was a founder and a member of the party was elected to the parliament from Kelaniya district, however.

Accordingly, Prime Minister D. S. Senanayake appointed J. R. as the finance minister of the first cabinet of Ceylon. Thus, he became the first Prime Minister of Ceylon as well as the youngest finance minister of commonwealth nations.

He delivered the first-ever budget speech to the Sri Lankan parliament. The quality and structure of the speech were followed by finance ministers for the next 30 years thenceforth. Moreover, J R Jayewardene took the initiative to establish the Central Bank of Sri Lanka in 1950 with the guidance of American specialist John Dexter. J R Jayewardene became popular as Yankee-Dinkee as he didn’t trust the British with their guidance in the deed but gained the assistance of an American.

Furthermore, J. R. represented Sri Lanka in conferences for finance ministers. During his reign, he carried on close relations with the World Bank and the IMF. These relations he acquired during his role as the finance minister from 1948 – 1952 later were instrumental in securing funds for development projects when he came to power.

Minister of Agriculture and Food

J R Jayewardene entered the parliament again in the 1953 parliamentary election, and he was reappointed as the finance minister. He proposed to cut off the subsidies which led to much opposition and developed strikes called “Hartal”. The proposal was abolished. Soon after that “Hartal”, Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake resigned. Sir John Kotalawela succeeded him as the Prime Minister and he appointed J R Jayewardene as the minister of agriculture and food. 

Defeat in 1956 Election

In the 1956 parliamentary election, UNP suffered a major defeat at the hands of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) led by S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike. J. R. even lost his seat from Kelaniya.

After the defeat, he felt the need for the UNP to adapt to play the ethnic card. The Bandaranaike government passed the Sinhala Only act, replacing English with Sinhala as the official language. However, ethnic minorities strongly opposed the deed. It is essential to mention that it was in 1956, the first seeds of ethnic clashes arose in the country. These clashes developed through the next 2 decades and dragged on for another 3 decades.

Towards the end of the ’60s, J. R. had a dispute with the party leader Dudley Senanayake. However, the UNP managed to win the 1960 election, and J. R. again became the finance minister. But, this government did not last a quarter of a year. They lost the 1960 July election to a newly formed coalition led by Sirimavo Bandaranaike, the widow of S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike. However, J R Jayewardene managed to win his seat and therefore remained in the parliament.

Minister of State

The UNP won the 1965 parliamentary election, and Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake appointed J. R. as the minister of state and parliamentary secretary to the minister of defense and external affairs. Moreover, J R Jayewardene saw the tourism industry as an opportunity to earn foreign exchange and create massive employment within the country. It is this government that created the basis of tourism as an industry. Even today, the tourism industry is one of the two vital sources that drive foreign exchange to Sri Lanka.

Becoming the Leader of the Opposition

In the 1970 election, the UNP saw a crushing defeat. Yet, he won the seat and became the leader of the opposition and the de facto leader of the UNP due to the ill health of Dudley Senanayake. After Dudley Senanayake died in 1973, J. R. became the leader of the UNP.

He supported the government during the 1971 Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) insurrection but criticized the government for economic stagnation caused by the closed economic system. Similarly, he believed such policies were threatening the development of the country’s economy. Furthermore, restrictions on imported goods paved the way for a shortage of essential goods in the country. Hence, J. R. continued to criticize the government in public and started to strengthen the UNP.

Five by-elections took place amidst all the chaos and the government put their maximum effort to win the by-elections. However, the UNP led by J. R. won all the five by-elections. As a result, the number of members of the opposition in the parliament increased.

In 1975, the government used its two-third of power to extend its official duration of 5 years without a referendum. J. R. strongly opposed this and tactfully handed over his resignation from his seat. The government had nothing to do but held another by-election for the seat vacated. However, J. R. won the Colombo South by-election and was re-elected to the parliament. He used this as a way of showing how displeased were the people with the government.

Prime Minister

J. R. led the UNP to a landslide victory in the 1977 election thanks to the rising unpopularity of the SLFP government. His party won 140 out of 168 seats in the parliament. J R Jayewardene’s contribution was praiseworthy in this historic victory for the UNP. Accordingly, J R Jayewardene became the Prime Minister of the new government.


After becoming Prime Minister he made amendments to the 1972 constitution to make the presidency an executive post. Later, he swore as the first executive President of Sri Lanka on the 4th of February 1978. He passed a new constitution later the same year which granted the President nearly dictatorial power. During his rule, the Sri Lankan economy saw major changes, and if I might add, positive changes.

The Economy of Sri Lanka under President J R Jayewardene

The closed economy policy adopted by the former government completely changed under J R Jayewardene. He opened the economy for market forces, improved the private sector, and amended the existing policies to facilitate local and foreign investment. Accordingly, under the accelerated Mahaweli project, he built Kotmale, Randenigala, Maduru Oya, Rantebe, Ulhitiya, and Victoria reservoirs. In addition, he proposed extensive housing schemes and built them as a solution to the accommodation problem. Moreover, J R Jayewardene established free trade zones in Biyagama and Katunayake and initiated the Swarnabhumi scheme.

During his time, free school books programs came on stage, and the Mahapola Scholarship Programme also began. In addition, his government was able to overcome the prolonged unemployment issue Sri Lanka suffered immediately after the independence. Furthermore, he moved the capital of Sri Lanka from Colombo to Sri Jayewardenepura Kotte. All these actions impacted the economy of the country on varying scales.

National Politics of J R Jayewardene

J R Jayewardene used sweeping powers that were granted by the ‘78 constitution to control some of his political enemies. In fact, he deprived his opponent, former Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike of her civil rights.

The SLFP did not have a suitable candidate for the 1982 election so UNP guaranteed their victory. J. R. ran for the presidency in the 1982 presidential election and he won the election by defeating Hector Kobbakaduwa of SLFP.

J R Jayewardene realized that in the next parliamentary election his party won’t be able to secure an epic win like the last time. Therefore, he called for a referendum to extend the time of the existing parliament by 6 years. However, the UNP won this referendum too. This was the first and only referendum in Sri Lankan history. But, critics and opposition claimed that both the presidential election and referendum were corrupted.

Foreign Policy Conducted by J R Jayewardene

J R Jayewardene was able to carry friendly relations with almost every nation even before he became the President in 1978.  Besides, when he became the President of the country, he announced that he would follow a “genuinely non-aligned path” in foreign relationships.

However, his policies were somewhat hostile towards India, as the Indian government continued to assist LTTE which was then nothing but a mob. Moreover, he continued a good relationship with America and met Fidel Castro during the Non-aligned Nations Summit in Havana. However, the speech he delivered at the San Francisco treaty can be marked as a highlight of his foreign relations.

J R Jayewardene’s Speech in San Francisco

The San Francisco treaty was signed to re-establish peaceful relationships between allied nations and Japan after World War II. J. R.’s speech was iconic and praised by the world community. 

He was the finance minister of Sri Lanka and the delegate to the San Francisco treaty. In his speech, he stated Buddha’s teaching that hatred only ceases by love. While many nations present at the treaty wanted the Japanese to be punished for the warfare they carried on, J R Jayewardene stated “This treaty is as magnanimous as it is just to a defeated foe. We extend to Japan the hand of friendship and trust that with the closing of this chapter in the history of man, the last page of which we write today, and with the beginning of the new one, the first page of which we dictate tomorrow, her people and ours may march together to enjoy the full dignity of human life in peace and prosperity”.

His speech was welcomed with thunderous reception and the Japanese Prime Minister met him with tears in his eyes. Even after the Japanese got back on their feet, Japan remained in favor of Sri Lanka as a result of this speech.

Civil War Raised in Sri Lanka During Jayewardene’s Period

It is an undeniable fact that the actions of politicians caused strife between Sinhalese and Tamils. Tamils felt the need for a separate land when they were continuously harassed and were not treated equally as the Sinhala majority.

Tamil mobs carried out several assassinations in North and South. Tension was on the rise as Sinhala mobs set fire to the Jaffna Library in 1981. The Jaffna Tamil saw this as destroying their culture with state patronage, therefore they lost faith in the government more.

Accordingly, the first Eelam war took place from 1983 to 1989. In July 1983, the LTTE blasted a truck carrying Sinhala soldiers, killing 13 soldiers. This was the immediate cause of the Tamil riots in the South. Yet, the infamous truth was that the Sinhala mobs were the ones who raided and killed the Tamils who were assisted by the state. They massacred more than 600 Tamils and around 70,000 people lost their homes. Most of them went to Jaffna, with bitterness in their hearts. 

Furthermore, people criticized J R Jayewardene who was the President at the time for turning a blind eye to the situation. The war raged on, and the LTTE took control of Jaffna.

While the Sri Lankan military was ready to regain terrorist acquired areas even at a cost of civilian casualties, J.R had to halt the attacks due to the requests of the Indian government. President J R Jayewardene and Indian Prime Minister Rajeev Gandhi signed the Indo-Sri Lanka accord which allowed the Indian Peace Army to stay in the North. But, LTTE refused to obey the accord. However, Sinhalese were furious that a foreign army was on their home soil. As a result, Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) started young revolts. However, the authorities could immediately control them.


After the conclusion of the Indo-Sri Lankan accord, an attempt took place to assassinate President J R Jayewardene. But, it was unsuccessful. J. R. retired from politics when his term ended in 1989 and Ranasinghe Premadasa succeeded him. However, he retired at the age of 84 even though he was healthy.

Later, J R Jayewardene died on the 1st of November 1996 in a private hospital after suffering from colorectal cancer (CRC).

Legacy of J R Jayewardene

J R Jayewardene should be credited for the economic upsurge of the country which was led astray for almost three decades after independence. What we today have and celebrate are because of the economic strategies he took upon.

As scandalous of a legacy it may be, the 30-year-old war that took the lives of thousands of people was brought upon because of racial actions taken by his government and government before him.

However, in order to commemorate his great speech at the San Francisco treaty, there is a statue built in his honor at the Kamakura temple in Japan. Furthermore, in the quest for peace, a collection of J R Jayewardene’s international speeches was published in 1988.

J R Jayewardene Center

J R Jayewardene Center was established in 1988 by a special act to conserve the former President’s legacy at his childhood home in Dharmapala Mawatha, Colombo. Moreover, the center consists of J R Jayewardene’s library, museum, and a Japanese museum. In addition, it archives the papers and gifts he received during his tenure as President. The center is open for the public and now serves as the Sri Jayewardene memorial hall. 

The Bottom Line

Of course, different people may read the political character of J R Jayewardene in varying aspects. In fact, the way his actions impacted the social and economic excursion of this country in an era as such, is of course, immense. However it is, we cannot ignore the fact that he was a significant personality who tried to create a post-colonial identity to this splendid island. And yes, it is the simple reason why the name of this iconic politician is still remembered by Sri Lankans, even after several decades of his presidency!