Sri Lanka's J. R. navigates between 'Tigers' and priests

Junius Richard Jayewardene is a man in the middle, pulled by two increasingly militant extremes - the 20 percent of his population which is Hindu Tamil, and the majority community, which is Buddhist Sinhalese.

At 77, he should be as acute as any politician can be, with a clear mandate of five more years in office, and a parliamentary majority which has been extended through 1989.

But when I arrived at the home of the President of Sri Lanka - who is meeting with President Reagan in Washington today on his first state visit to the United States - he looked glum and worried.

A jeep full of police constables had been ambushed in the northern peninsula of Jaffna at dawn. Three had died in the latest of a number of ''Tamil Tiger'' guerrilla attacks.

His own 3,400-strong Army, now occupying the heart of Sri Lanka's northern Tamil country, continued its own brand of justice. In one particularly repugnant outburst two months ago, they opened fire on a crowded market, killing women and children.

''The President is hopping mad when a soldier simply shoots someone without provocation,'' one of Mr. Jayewardene's senior advisers said.

Is that why, I asked the President, he had taken the highly controversial step of inviting the Israelis back to Sri Lanka - after a break of 14 years - to train his security forces and set up an intelligence organization, which Sri Lanka currently lacks?

''No other country was prepared to help us. Not the Americans. Not the British. Not certain European countries,'' he answered.

''We've asked them all. But there's a big Tamil lobby in Europe and the States, and they've convinced the US Congress and European parliaments that 'you should not aid a country persecuting a minority.' They've cleverly submerged the Tamil terrorist issue. We're now bringing it to the top.''

Had he then lost hope of a political solution to end the Sinhalese-Tamil strife, which he himself has said could turn Sri Lanka into the ''Northern Ireland of the Indian Ocean'' in a very short time?

''No, we are going to have a political solution,'' he replied with some firmness in his voice. ''The only question is how power for the Tamils will be devolved, whether through district or regional councils. . . . I'm prepared to impose a solution, but I can't. I need to be heedful of Parliament, but I do have a plan.''

It was only 8:00 in the morning, but the temperature was already pressing toward 100 degrees F. In the drive across Colombo, block after block of shops and businesses glistened with new paint.

It was a seemingly studied effort to mute the memory of the island's bitter racial riots last year, when mobs of Sinhalese Buddhists unleashed long pent-up hate and attacked the Tamils during 10 unprecedented, bloody days.

Could the July riots be repeated, I asked the President in his quiet, suburban house?

''If the (Tamil) terrorists in the north continue their activities, there could be a thousand Julys.''

Later I asked a friend of the President, a moderate and reasoned man, if it were true that the venerable Jayewardene, rather than attempting to solve the island's ethnic problem, had become part of the problem itself, by no longer wishing to defy the popular, Sinhalese-chauvinist will.

''More than being part of the problem, he's one of its major victims,'' said his longtime friend. ''Just like Mrs. (Indira) Gandhi in the Punjab, he's temporized too long. The extremists have taken over and he is, sadly, a weakened and weakening leader, no longer really capable of delivering the goods.''

Thirty-eight years ago the world first recognized J. R. Jayewardene, then a handsome member of the parliament of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). In San Francisco in 1946, he stood up before the world's leaders and pleaded for fair play for the defeated Japanese.

In 1950, he introduced the Colombo Plan, the first program for cooperation between developed and developing countries. At the 1951 conference which formally signed the Allies' peace treaty with Japan, the young Ceylonese lawyer had his first open clash with the Soviet delegation. His sense of compassion and fair play, his pro-Western credentials, were all apparent that day.

Son of a well-known patrician family, J. R., as he is called by friends, is a goigama, a member of Sri Lanka's highest caste. He was the first of 11 brothers and sisters, and would have probably followed his father as a Supreme Court judge, had he not entered politics in 1938. He has not left it since that day.

He is a devout and practicing Buddhist, yet for decades he had painstakingly shunned the militant Buddhist clergy who have so wrapped themselves into the fabric of Sri Lanka's political cloth.

Outside his 200-year-old rambling house, his guards in their red, black, and gold uniforms had not yet arrived. Only the servants gossiped in the garden. The President waited alone, in his library, inside.

Was he in the middle, pulled by the extremists, the Buddhist clergy and the Tamil militants, I asked?

''Yes, that's quite a fair assessment. They're both becoming increasingly intransigent, increasingly extreme. I am in the middle. We might yet find a middle path. . . .''

He hesitated.

''We will have an election before the end of the year, and I will place this solution, this middle path, before the people. But, before that happens, again, I come back to the issue of the terrorists. . . .''

I pressed him for details of an election, but he refused to say. Two of his Cabinet ministers - far younger - were clearly stunned, somewhat nervously saying that their mandate continued through 1989.

''He must have meant by-elections,'' one said with acknowledged relief, for 16 empty Tamil and two Sinhalese seats.

The other opined that perhaps the President meant a referendum, going dirctly to the people with a specific proposal to end the Sinhalese-Tamil impasse.

Neither of their arguments was totally convincing, and I began to suspect that perhaps the ''old man'' of Sri Lankan politics was not quite as defeated as many now claim: Perhaps he could hold a national parliamentary contest in the hope of ridding his own government and party of those beholden to the Buddhist priests.

In 1977, after 40 years in politics, J. R. Jayewardene was elected prime minister of Sri Lanka in an unprecedented landslide. His United National Party won 143 of Parliament's 168 seats. The following year, he became the first president in Sri Lanka's history.

His election meant that the United States would continue to back his free-market philosophy and development plans. On a per capita basis, Sri Lanka has the largest aid program in Asia, just under $100 million a year.

When J. R. Jayewardene completes this, his second term, he will be 83 years old. Like Ronald Reagan in Washington, he quotes Milton Friedman. And his party's symbol is - what else? - an elephant.

One will be with Jayewardene and his wife when they visit Washington today in what will be, for Sri Lanka, an unprecedented news media blitz.

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