473. Telegram From the Embassy in Sri Lanka to the Department of State1

2539. Subj: New Sri Lanka Prime Minister.

1. Sri Lanka’s new Prime Minister,2 70-year old Junius Richard Jayewardene, is a man whose total career has been devoted to politics. After thirty-seven years in the electoral arena J.R. has finally earned supreme power. That it was earned, there can be no doubt. His reputation for thorough organization, hard work, and political astuteness is more than borne out by the smooth and effective operation of the campaign which brought the overwhelming election victory of the UNP. His followers, to whom he is “the leader”, shower him with praise for his personal discipline, keen sense of morality, and toughness (or what his opponents call ruthlessness). No one has ever suggested, however, that he is endowed with great personal charm or warmth. His image is of an aloof, unsmiling authority figure. He is certainly not of the “press the flesh” style of politician. His followers prefer instead to keep him on a pedestal and at a respected distance. His austere costume of “national dress” (white shirt and sarong) invites comparison with Morarji Desai of India, and, indeed, he has benefitted from a similar image. (He does not smoke or drink, although he apparently has no special dietary habits.)

2. His political philosophy is difficult to pin down. He is criticized by opponents as pro-Western (whence his nickname “Yankee Dickie”) but his might be more a function of his distrust toward Communism (one factor, perhaps, in his campaign attack on the Soviet Embassy) than any uncritical admiration of the U.S. economic system. He has for some time advocated a form of democratic socialism. Aided by the pressure both of events and of the youth in the UNP he has brought much of the party hierarchy around to the more statist economic viewpoint that is today the sine qua non of Sri Lanka politics. He has made it clear that he accepts the social and economic reforms, including land reform, of the previous government.

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3. Particularly in the early years of independent Ceylon, J.R. worked periodically on foreign affairs. He is proud of his co-authorship of the Colombo Plan and was a Governor of the World Bank and IMF in the early 1950’s. He represented Ceylon at the Algeria UNCTAD Conference in 1967 and travelled extensively on government missions.

4. Although he has had party critics, the prominent ones have been forced out of the UNP; disloyalty to J.R. by Rukman Senanayake, ex-Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake’s nephew and political heir was punished by expulsion from the party. J.R. has been particularly quick to stamp out any cliques threatening his leadership.

5. Personal data: Born September 17, 1906, J.R. is of the Goyigama caste, and thus of acceptably high birth to become Prime Minister. Although baptized as an Anglican, he later became Buddhist. His education was at Royal College and the Ceylon Law College, both in Colombo. Unlike others of his generation from wealthy backgrounds, he and others in his family did not attend university in England, a fact in which they take quiet pride.

6. In the 1930’s he married Elina Rupasinghe, reportedly a rather quiet woman. They had only one child, Ravi, who after marriage and three children, fast living, divorce, and careers as a businessman, pilot and captain in the Ceylon army volunteers, entered the Buddhist monkhood in Thailand. Earlier this year he left the monastery and married a burgher (Anglo-Ceylonese) former air hostess Penny White; they now live in Australia.

7. Among J.R.’s seven brothers and sisters, mostly professional people, are Harry W. Jayewardene, President of Sri Lanka’s bar association, R.P. Jayewardene, a member of the American College of Cardiologists, and Ione, wife of the late N.W. Authukorale, former Counselor in the Sri Lanka Embassy in Washington. Although a talented and fairly large family, it does not appear likely to be employed as prominently in government jobs as was the extended Ratwatte clan of his predecessor Sirimavo Bandaranaike (nee Ratwatte).

8. The Jayewardene family is wealthy, and has business interests in textiles (Asian cotton mills) and journalism (shares in now government-controlled Lake House, founded by J.R.’s maternal grandfather).

9. Political career: 1940—elected to Colombo Municipal Council; 1943—elected to State Council; 1947—elected to Parliament; 1947–53—Minister of Finance; 1953–56—Minister of Agriculture and Food; 1956—defeated in Bandaranaike landslide; 1960—elected to Parliament; 1960–65—Deputy Leader of the Opposition; 1965–70—Minister of State, Deputy Minister of Defence and External Affairs; 1970–77, Leader of the Opposition.

  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D770262–0236. Confidential; Immediate. Sent for information to New Delhi.
  2. In telegram 2528 from Colombo, July 22, the Embassy reported: “The United National Party (UNP) scored an unprecedented landslide over Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SRFP) in general elections July 21. The UNP now has a clear majority in the new 166 member assembly.” (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D770260–0904)