The statesman MISUNDERSTOOD | Sunday Observer
JRJ’s 26th death anniversary


6 November, 2022

Whether we are for him or against him, the undeniable truth is that we still largely live in JRJ’s Sri Lanka! Five more Sri Lankans have taken the Presidential Oath since he left office in 1989, but with every passing day, it is his political vision that becomes evident. Many of the debates that matter today in the public arena, whether in politics, economics, or otherwise, still bear the indelible imprint he left on them during his tenure in office.

There are certainly millions who remember him purely as a tough, strong-willed, and dominant political figure, but to his harshest critics, he was nothing more than an ideologue or an indomitable politico. The Chief Architect of the 1978 Constitution, he had even earned the wrath of his opponents to the extent of being ironically rebuffed as the chief architect of all social ills since 1977!

President J. R. Jayewardene adds to the long list of legendary Sri Lankans who have carved a niche in the contemporary political landscape of Sri Lanka.

Ravi Jayewardene

JRJ as he was popularly known possessed some unique qualities of leadership and was a leader with ambitious traits in him to take bold steps when it came to politics or otherwise. A great believer of Avihimsa and follower of Mohandas Gandhi, his historic discourse in San Francisco was received with much acclaim by the Japanese people.

As the only leader who received a stunning 5/6th Parliamentary

Majority at the 1977 Parliamentary General Elections, JRJ ventured into constitution building where he introduced the Executive Presidency to the Sri Lankan political system that embodied salient features of the US and French constitutions to be later known as the Gaullist of Asia by well-known author A. J. Wilson.

Though the Executive Presidency came in for much flak by opposition political leaders it has also rendered a great service to the country during the battle against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Most of the politicians grudgingly acknowledge that terrorism that engulfed the country for nearly three decades came to an end mainly because of the concentration of power in the Executive.

President Jayewardene’s 26th Death Anniversary fell on November 1, 2022.

Reproduced below are excerpts from an interview the writer had with his only son Ravi Jayewardene which was first published in the Daily News on December 7, 2015.

Yet, whatever else he was, he was far from unfeeling. It was political courage and far-sighted vision, not insensitivity that carried JRJ through, reveals his son Ravi Jayewardene, who calls his father an exemplary human being.

“I have never seen him angry in his whole life, he did not raise his voice, he was a quiet and wonderful man, but very often misunderstood!”

Dispelling a long-lasting misunderstanding at the very onset of the Daily News interview, the son of Sri Lanka’s ‘most pragmatic’ yet ‘controversial’ former President said that even though the whole country was of the view that his father withdrew Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s civic rights, it was completely a false statement. “That was one of the key areas that he was misunderstood on.”

How Bandaranaike was deprived of her civic rights and unceremoniously expelled from Parliament in 1980 had been a topic of hot political debate for years. There had been considerable criticism of the manner through which ‘she was robbed of her civic rights’ and JRJ who was well supported by his ‘executive powers’ had always been pinpointed as the ‘culprit.’ However, nearly 35 years after this ‘political tragedy,’ as her supporters would still call it, JRJ’s son readily unravelled his account of the story hitherto unshared.

The weight of his words carried the strength of his thoughts.

“Chandrika will challenge me on this. But if you look at the Hansard during those years you will know exactly what happened. I think it was one Senanayake [E.L.Senanayake] who made a statement in Parliament that Mrs. Bandaranaike had adhered to many undemocratic practices when she was the PM. In response, she got up and asked him not to make false allegations, but to appoint a committee if they had any grouse. My father who was the then Prime Minister agreed to appoint a Commission.”

Thus, as Jayewardene recollected it was at her request that a Commission was appointed and she was given the opportunity to choose the judges. Three judges were chosen, but since she did not like one of them, another judge was appointed. “And that Commission sat and found her guilty of three or four offences. And the Commission themselves decided what punishment should be given. So she was given the punishments of one being her civic rights being removed,” re-emphasized Jayewardene.

Though Jayewardene agreed that his father could have given back the civic rights she was deprived of, the point he repeatedly emphasised was that “The fact that J.R. Jayewardene removed Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s civic rights using his presidential powers was not true.”

The above is just one of the many incidents where he was misunderstood on, according to Jayewardene. “It was because he did not speak very much. He did not just stipulate and make speeches. He was a very quiet man.”

JRJ was known as a politician who imposed his will, but he was never unethical. His son calls him “exemplarily ethical.” “He was a great follower of Mohandas Gandhi at that time who was fighting for Indian Independence. My father even went for the Congress Sessions in India,” reminisced an emotive son who upheld his father’s passion for non-violence and his great liking to “do everything peacefully.”

Peaceful man

Jayewardene took yet another stroll down memory lane to prove the point that his father always had a passion for peace. “Even when he was stopped on his march to Kandy (when he was in the Opposition) by the then government he decided not to proceed despite his followers’ requests to do otherwise.”

As his son explained, JR Jayewardene had been on his march to Kandy to participate in a meeting against a motion taken by Prime Minister S.W.R.D Bandaranaike.

“He decided to walk the whole way! And he started walking, but by the time he reached Kalagedihena (just beyond Kadawatha) the supporters of the government started pelting stones at him and his followers.”

“The situation turned from bad to worse and the Prime Minister who realised that if he marched to Kandy the whole of the country would follow him decided to stop the march. So he got S.D. Bandaranayake to lie on the road to prevent them from moving forward. But my father’s supporters wanted to physically lift him and throw him off the road and proceed with the march, but my father insisted that they should not touch him. ‘The Government has decided this March is banned, so I am going to stop here.’ So they stopped there. And that marked the end of it.”


He remembers his early days spent with his father with nostalgia. One particular incident which is clearly etched in Jayewardene’s mind bears testimony to his father’s patriotism.

“When I was very young, Sri Lanka was under the British and my father was one of the freedom fighters for this country. When I was 10-11 my father used to take me for films that I liked to watch, and he and I used to sit and watch films,” he recalled.

Though the exact year of the incident was far from his memory, the spirit of the whole episode was still freshly embedded in his mind.

“And of course most of the audience were Englishmen. There were only a very few Sri Lankans. After the movie, they played their National Anthem God Save the King to which everybody stood up. I too was about to stand up, but my father put his hand on my arm and asked me not to. ‘We don’t stand for this National Anthem, but one day when we have an anthem of our own and we are free, then we will stand for that, my father said. “

Jayewardene could still recollect the ‘angry’ faces of the Englishmen and the nasty racial comments they made for not standing up for their ‘sacred’ National anthem.

“And I was getting a bit angry and then my father put his hand on my arm once again and said ‘calm down and just pretend you don’t hear anything.’ So we sat through the British National Anthem!” he laughed triumphantly.

President’s son

When asked what it was like to be the son of Sri Lanka’s first Executive President, the former Pilot and well-known nature photographer was quick to retort that ‘it was nothing extraordinary.’

“There was no difference in the way he treated me and my mother after he assumed office except that there was a lot of activity in the house, a lot of people used to visit the place daily.”

When asked whether his father was an exemplary politician, Jayewardene said he did not know exactly ‘all the things his father did in politics’ to arrive at a judgement, but was quick to add that ‘he was an exemplary human being!’

“Just love them”

Decades have passed since he had meals at their Ward Place Residence together with his parents. His parents are no more, and the only ‘memento’ that he brought from his parent’s residence was a painting of the Buddha which was dearly loved by his father. Those who are dear to us leave us, but the memory lingers on till we breathe our last.

Recollecting nostalgic memories Jayewardene recounted his happy days spent at home with his father and mother.

“Very often three of us, my mother, my father, and I used to have meals together. My mother was quite hot-tempered. So one day she was going on telling something about politics to my father, but he was staying silent! Still, she went on, but my father grew even more silent. And my mother was getting more angry as he was silent,” he laughed. Then my father quietly turned towards me and said ‘you know about women, never try to understand them, just love them!,” Jayewardene recalled with a wide nostalgic smile.

“His respect for women was immense. It was he who brought equal salaries for women; he was the one who gave women recognition in his time. That is an outstanding quality,” added Penny, Jayewardene’s beloved wife.

Next Jayewardene recollected what his father told him about female leaders of the country back then.

“One day he said ‘if I have 10 men like Renuka Herath I can run this country properly.’ He always recognised the executive ability of women. So whenever I meet Renuka I always tell her what my father said about her and she gets very embarrassed,” and I used to say “well, this is what he said what can I do!’” he recalled.

No politics

However, the son of the man who transformed life in this country profoundly, permanently, and through sheer force of personality had never wanted to follow in the footsteps of his pragmatic father but recollected how J.R. Jayewardene once suggested to him to get into politics.

“He did not want me to do it. But he asked me to think about it a long time ago. I told him that I was not interested in it at that moment, but would think about it later. But I never thought about it and he did not ask me ever again!” he laughed.


Jayewardene still remembers how his father spent long hours reading books on varied topics. “He liked reading a lot. This is a habit that he inculcated in me. When I was young he used to say always remember that reading is a very good habit/hobby and you will never be lonely when you are old if you are a reader.”

And he lived his word. As his son recalled J.R. Jayewardene did not quit his favourite hobby until almost he went to ‘hospital for the final time!’

“He was reading Life of General Patton and he had half-finished the book when he went to the hospital. That’s how I got into the habit of reading because he insisted that I read.”

His love for his grandchildren was immense, recalls Jayewardene. “He used to spend hours with them playing and talking with them!”


Jayewardene remembers his father as friendly and outgoing. “He always had his old school friends as his close friends. Sam Gunasekera, Percy Pieris, and Maniccavasagar (who became a District Judge) are to name a few. He outlived all his contemporaries.”

“Mr. Maniccavasagar used to drop in always and would say ‘Hello, Dicky” and my father would say “Please come or have some breakfast with me. So they used to sit and chat,” Jayewardene revisited an emotional moment his father shared with his friend in his old age.

“My father was a boxer; he was the Rugby Captain of Royal College. Cricket colours, rugby colours, and boxing colours, he had many feathers in his cap even during his school days,” he proudly claimed.

He remembered a Vesak day from the distant past. “We were in the car and I saw a tall well-built Police officer walking towards us. He greeted my father “Hi, Dicky” and my father greeted him in return in a very friendly manner. As he left I asked my father who he was as he called him Dicky. “He seems to be very familiar with you,” I added.

“Oh, He is Mr. Seeber, my school mate and he is entitled to be familiar with me!” my father said.

“I can remember a boxing fight I had with him. He and I boxed till we almost fell down and I managed to beat him with one punch,” Jayewardene recalled his father’s words throwing his memory back to that long and ‘friendly’ Vesak Night tinged with nostalgia.

Happy days

The early days spent with his father can never be forgotten. Jayewardene dearly loves to keep those lovely days close to heart.

“We had a lot of happy days together. Whenever he had some time off, we used to go to the estate very often and have breakfast there. As the years went by, however, he had less and less time off. Sometimes we had breakfast at home and go and have lunch and dinner at the estate and come back. So those were happy days we used to go out. There was a little rock in the estate which he used to climb and a lot of photographs was taken there!” As he recounted the family outing, the amiable JRJ Jr kept smiling broadly.

Religious life

Ever thought that the ‘stern’ and ‘tough’ First Executive President of the country was so religious? Yes, he was, said his son. “He didn’t do Poojas and observed Sil like normal people would do, but he intellectually comprehended the Buddha’s teachings.”

“And he always told me a lot about the Buddha’s teachings. He said that the Buddha was perhaps the most perfect religious leader that ever lived. There is not one instance in the life of Gauthama Buddha that he had ever lost his temper or lost control of himself. ‘That is a great trait’, my father used to say.”

“I remember asking him ‘what about Christ, he too did not lose his temper when he was crucified.’ My father agreed with me but added that there was an instance when he got angry. When the House of Prayer had been turned to a den of thieves Jesus Christ wrecked the Temple in anger.”

“My father respected the Buddha, he respected the religion he taught, and he tried to follow it in the best way he could,” recalled Jayewardene, but added laughingly that ‘the son’ had inherited more traits from the mother!

“I get angry very often like my mother. My father used to tell me always ‘calm down, don’t get so angry over anything!” But this legendary father had certainly influenced the son’s life through his examples ‘by being kind, being non-violent and being non-aggressive.’

“My father did not believe in fighting and winning. He did not insult anybody in public. He didn’t say bad things about people at meetings and he always tried to maintain the truth. If he was not sure of something he was always humble to admit it,” added Jayewardene.


JRJ was a political leader who had the courage and determination to ‘sail against the wind’ in his pursuit of ‘building the country’ and he lived his life with that heightened sense of purpose. Even his worst political critic would admit that he set the agenda for the past 38 years of Sri Lankan politics since he assumed office in 1977. Ardent followers of JRJ’s politics always acknowledged that he had a ‘quiet, persistent charisma’ and was never hesitant to put what he thought was best for the country over his personal politics.

“His political vision as we can see for ourselves (Open Economy, Free Trade Zones) really boosted the country,” said Jayewardene.

“The country progressed because of Open Economy. He used to tell me how Singapore did advance. ‘If I just make one area, equivalent to the size of Singapore into a free trade zone that is enough to make the country developed. So he chose an area and had major plans for the country on his head,” recollected the only son of the astute politician.

Now he is getting more nostalgic about his father’s life and times.

“He had the courage to do what he thought was right. But lots of people say that what he did regarding the Constitution was wrong, that he should not have changed the old constitution and brought a new presidential system. But when I asked him about that he said with the old system that existed (with PM and Cabinet) it took a long time to get work done. But with this present system one can because the President has a lot of power,” he reminisced.

However, Jayewardene noted that he did not pay much attention to his father’s words back then. “But a friend of mine recently told me that my father was talking to Dr. N.M. Perera over the dinner and the latter had told my father “Dick, I think what you are trying to do is good, but as long you are in power it will work. But supposing some unscrupulous man gets to this position and when he has unlimited power what will he do to the country?’ When my father does not want to answer a question he laughs and keeps quiet. And he apparently did that and did not answer Dr. N. M. Perera’s question and he too did not pursue it. But now we have seen the disaster of the Executive Presidency.”

However, the son of the inventor of the Executive Presidency added that the Constitution itself had enabled us to bring democracy back. “Democracy was ultimately upheld.”

“But the only wrong thing is that his successors who came into power promising to abolish it never kept their promise,”

As Jayewardene specifically noted his father got an unprecedented mandate from the people; he executed it, but never abused it.”

He also agreed that former President Mahinda Rajapaksa would not have been able to win the battle against terrorism if not for the Executive Presidency. “If he was a PM he would have to wait to get sanctions from the Cabinet to get things done. But here as the Commanding officer of the Tri-forces, he was able to handle everything alone,” he added.

However, Jayewardene too now believes that it is high time we abolished the Executive Presidency.

“I think it is a good system, but the problem is with people who get control of it. We have no control over these people. I think it may be good now to abolish it.”

His last words

Ravi and Penny Jayewardene last saw J.R Jayewardene on the day before he died.

“He had had an operation and he was recovering from it. And my wife and I were there. We used to spend the afternoon with him very often. And when we were about to go back he told us “don’t leave me today till I am fast asleep’ as we might not get this opportunity again. So we waited until he fell asleep and that was the last time I saw him alive.

I think he had some premonition that he might not live long,” Jayewardene added with a sigh. “The next day when we saw him he was not conscious.”

He lived well, and he lives on in him. His staunch supporters and opponents alike still describe him as one of the most dominant political figures ever emerged in Sri Lanka. And his legend lives on along with the memories he left in the heart of his son, in his people.

A head full of wise thoughts, a heart full of grace, and a soul generated by love make a good leader and JRJ lived it, as his son’s words reassure.

He needs not to be ‘idealised’ or ‘enlarged’ in death beyond what he was in life. JRJ earned his place in Sri Lanka’s political history through his efforts and shrewdness, persistence, and courage. JRJ Jr wants us, the Sri Lankans, to remember his legendary father as ‘a man of his word, a quiet man who did not want to do what was wrong.’

“If he undertook something he completed it. He didn’t leave it half-done. So I would finally say he was a man of few words and a man of good deeds!”