Speaker Karu Jayasuriya tries to heal old wounds and rein in a brawling Parliament.
O n an island divided, Speaker Karu Jayasuriya keeps watch over a raucous Parliament house that has erupted into fistfights, a place with a stubborn and minority opposition that makes it hard to get anything done.
Through it all, he maintains a gentle, soft-spoken disposition.
If that seems unusual, consider that in 1997, when Jayasuriya ran for mayor of Colombo, the experts thought he was crazy.
For one thing, in Sri Lanka’s superheated political climate, candidates’ faces typically smile down from countless gigantic billboards and wall posters. It is hard to drive through cities and not see them at every turn. Jayasuriya ran his first campaign “without posters, banners, cutouts or polythene.”
“We had two posters. Those were my first and only posters,” he said.
Even his campaign manager thought he was crazy.
Until he won.
Colombo had never seen a campaign like it. He got 250,000 votes, obliterating the other candidates. Jayasuriya said his billboard ban helped separate him from the crowd and establish him as the fresh face his party was looking for.
Another Jayasuriyan surprise was just ahead. After only 20 months in office, he won a parliamentary election in 2000 and was appointed minister of power and energy in 2001. He immediately started offering jobs to people from the opposition, creating a bipartisan administration in a land where party is everything.
Still full of surprises, he is now the powerful speaker of the island’s eighth Parliament, something he’ll tell you he couldn’t have predicted 30 years ago.
Now the welcoming, comforting, grandfatherly politician – he’s 77 – presides over a volatile assembly known for unruly debates and brawls, a place where progress is tough because in the current coalition government, the country’s previous president, an autocratic ruler, leads a loud minority that would love to reclaim power.
In the midst of the island’s stormy politics, Karu Jayasuriya looked forward to celebrating 70 years of Sri Lankan democracy in October. Some would call it democracy with an asterisk, because the previous administration of autocratic President Mahinda Rajapaksa was often accused of corruption, nepotism, torture, bullying his critics, “disappearing” his foes and other human rights violations.
The reform government of President Maithripala Sirisena took over in 2015 vowing transparency, a rooting out of government corruption, economic reforms and an investigation into alleged war crimes by the military during a long and brutal civil war that Rajapaksa’s military ended.
But progress has been tough. Some promised reforms have been delayed and government spending is restrained by the need to commit 95 percent of state revenues to pay off debt to the likes of China and the World Bank. Significantly, a promise to the United Nations to let outside judges examine alleged war crimes and help mete out justice has been delayed past a U.N. deadline.
The U.N. granted two more years, but Sinhalese who make up the majority of the population have been loath to reopen those old wounds. Facing public opposition, the government has shown no taste for letting judges from outside the island scrutinize wartime crimes. Coalition politics, it turns out, is perilously difficult.
And Jayasuriya is the man on the legislative firing line.
Jayasuriya caught the public service bug in the country’s military and it has never left him. He got there unconventionally, with never a whiff of corruption and without throwing any punches along the way.
He first became a member of Parliament in 2000, elected from the Gampaha District, hoping to give a new face to the United National Party and put a stop to entrenched corruption. The civil war between the majority Sinhalese and minority Tamils was nearly 20 years old and Jayasuriya had just finished a year and a half as mayor of Colombo. Sri Lankans were divided, distrustful of their government and their neighbors.
Then, after the eighth Parliament of Sri Lanka was gaveled into order in September 2015, the members elected Jayasuriya as speaker.
“We have very ambitious plans for the future. And of course, corruption is there in every country, and now at least in Sri Lanka it’s everything getting exposed,” Jayasuriya said.
Karu Jayasuriya never thought he’d be a politician.
His public service began when he joined the Ceylon Volunteer Force in 1962 after an attempted military coup. His company tracked and captured smugglers in the north, a heavily Tamil region, for nearly 10 years. It taught him, he said, the value of discipline. In 1971 Jayasuriya married a woman who didn’t want him to stay in the military, so he plunged headlong into the business world and was an instant success.
We have very ambitious plans for the future and of course corruption is there in every country and now at least in Sri Lanka it’s everything getting exposed.-Karu Jayasuriya
He started with the huge Danish-owned Ceylon Trading Co. and quickly moved up to export manager, dealing in tea, rubber and coconuts. When Ceylon Trading acquired exporter C.W. Mackie, Karu became Mackie’s chairman. He traveled constantly to Russia to negotiate rubber contracts, expanded into sugar trading and led Mackie to become the largest rubber exporter in Sri Lanka and one of the largest suppliers of cocoa to American candy giant Mars Inc.
It was an auspicious start to a career that would see him become chairman or director of 50 corporations, including the chairmanship of Bank of Ceylon subsidiaries Merchant Bank and Merchant Credit.
He seemed to have a sort of Midas touch.
And the politicians noticed.
“I have no political aspirations,” Jayasuriya insisted. “I never pried, I never wanted to join the party.”
But leaders of the United National Party (UNP) picked up on the potential of his outsider approach and slowly pulled him into the political fold. Over the next decade, Jayasuriya and Sri Lanka’s second president, J.R. Jayewardene, hatched ideas that helped the government jumpstart the economy. Jayasuriya helped craft the nation’s successful free trade zones and pulled off revolutionary joint ventures between the private sector and the government.
Once, Jayewardene asked him to save a failing venture with Korea. Korea Ceylon Footwear was on the brink of closure. Its stock price had plummeted to 2 rupees a share. He took the helm, reorganized the company and motivated employees. Within two years the stock was selling for 280 rupees a share. Korea Ceylon Footwear became the largest footwear exporter in Sri Lanka.
As Jayewardene grew more powerful, Jayasuriya became more important to the government’s inner workings. The president would frequently call him in for brainstorming sessions at the unlikely hour of 4 or 5 a.m. to map out policy.
“When he was coming up, I was also dragged, from behind the scenes, into the policy decisions,” Jayasuriya said. “He was very keen to bring me into politics.”
One of those early mornings, the prime minister tasked Jayasuriya to create the country’s first special trade exhibition. He wanted to make a splash that would lure business back to war-torn Sri Lanka. Jayasuriya was urged to get 1,001 people to show up, in order to beat the 1,000-person turnout for the South Korean president’s glitzy inaugural exhibition.
Expo ’92 became Sri Lanka’s largest-ever international trade fair with more than 5,600 in attendance. It did wonders for the island’s confidence and the business community’s ambition.
A few years later, the slumping economy was badly in need of a boost thanks to a terror campaign of assassinations by the Marxist-Leninist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), or People’s Liberation Front. New President Ranasinghe Premadasa got the International Monetary Fund to commit to a crucial loan but the IMF required the island to privatize its government-owned businesses before it would release the money.
The president turned to Jayasuriya. His task: Privatize (they called it “peopleasation”) United Motors, a major Sri Lankan automotive distributor.
Jayasuriya got it done, but it almost got him killed. Trade unions opposed the deal. And 14 young terrorists showed up at his house 48 hours before privatization, demanding he come with them, one day after the assassination of a vice chancellor. He talked and talked, reasoned and reasoned with them about the merits of privatization until they finally left. But they vowed to kill him if he did not resign the next day.
“My eldest daughter was 13 at the time, other one was 11, and I didn’t want to take a chance,” Jayasuriya said. “So the next 48 hours I did the privatization. IMF was to give us some 2 billion or 2-and-a-half-billion stand-by package. Money came in 72 hours. Immediately I took my children and went to England.”
He decided government wasn’t worth it. But government didn’t give up on Jayasuriya that easily.
Premadasa made Jayasuriya ambassador to Germany. He sold him on the job by explaining that he would be able to build up the UNP’s international relations while still keeping his family safe in London. He stayed in Germany for less than two years, returning home shortly before Premadasa himself was assassinated by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the rebel army from the northern part of Sri Lanka.
“When I came back from serving as ambassador, he was looking for a new face so he invited me to come into politics. I was reluctant, but again, a lot of pressure. I joined him and I was offered the party chairmanship,” Jayasuriya said.
As chairman, he hit the ground running. This led to his unprecedented victory in the Colombo mayoral elections and eventually his rise through Parliament.
“I believe in something called destiny you know, and I look at it as my national duty,” he said.
Over the years, Jayasuriya has used his gentlemanly ways and business savvy to steer his country and his party through a turbulent political sea, stirred up by both internal battles and international interventions. As the civil war wound down, tensions between the minority Tamils and majority Sinhalese remained taut and the United Nations stepped up its scrutiny of human rights.
Even in this impossible political environment, Jayasuriya held fast and fought for his country’s survival. He knew he would need help from the press, but said it was both an asset and a handicap in trying to heal the wounds of war.
He had crafted the Right to Information Act in 2002, during a massive governmental regime change. In 2015, voters shocked political experts by throwing out the authoritarian Rajapaksa and installing the reform-minded Sirisena. The Information Act, which gives citizens the right to any data owned by the government or a public authority, took years of debate and tweaking. It was finally implemented in February.
“In this country, the press freedom is almost there,” Jayasuriya said. “Our problem is that sometimes it has been abused. In some cases, but not all.”
The speaker places some blame for the country’s divisions on the media and outspoken politicians. He said Sri Lankans’ ethnic divisions are not nearly as intense as television commentators make them seem. He points to local cricket teams, where Sinhalese and Tamils play alongside each other with no sign of animosity.
“Buddhism and Hinduism, both with warm thoughts about human love, human affection,” he said. “It is really the politicians who created all this extremism.”
Jayasuriya led his party and his country through an evolution, and is still working to balance the myriad of interests at play at every level of change, especially when it comes to building up the economy.
“It’s not easy because there are trade unions, political trade unions, and we have too many holidays,” Jayasuriya said. “Every full moon day is a holiday … It’s not easy to change. If you try to change, you get thrown out from the government.”
He’s stayed in office for nearly 20 years now, so he must be doing something right. Now he can sit back and admire what he’s brought to his home country and craft how it all works in the grand scheme of things.
“Now I am coming to the tail end of my career, the last few hours you see, the last inning,” Jayasuriya said. “But unfortunately, you never get the time to do that in the moment.”