The Sunday Leader

The Iron Lady And The Man In The Iron Mask

By Gamini Weerakoon

The death of Margaret Thatcher last week was observed more or less perfunctorily by Third World countries, but the changes she brought about in Britain and their fall out beyond her country’s shores, brought about irreversible radical changes internationally.

Victoria Dam

Margaret Thatcher and J. R. Jayewardene

In Sri Lanka, she has left her mark with the giant Victoria reservoir constructed with on outright grant of 750 million pounds sterling by the government of Britain.

J.R. Jayewardene, after his sweeping electoral victory in 1977 set about the Accelerated Mahaweli Diversion scheme which would provide power and irrigation to lands by the Mahaweli River as it flowed along into the sea at Trincomalee. Victoria was the second and the biggest dam thrown across the river. All this construction was possible in a matter of few years at minimal cost through assistance of donor countries — Sweden, Britain, Germany and the United States.

JR, who was of the same conservative rightist mold, as Margaret Thatcher went ahead with the Mahaweli project against much criticism and completed it in four years. Construction work was estimated to go on for 30 years under the plans of his predecessor Sirima Bandaranaike.

JR stood by Thatcher against criticism of the entire Third World when Britain took over the disputed Falklands Islands occupied by Argentina. Falkland Islands were far away from Britain in the South Atlantic in proximity to Argentina. Thatcher had been in power only for a short while when the Falklands issue came up and Britain was considered a dwindling power.The Sun had set over the British Empire decades ago and the glory of the empire had faded away. Britain was almost paralysed with trade unions virtually dictating to the government. It was fast receding into the status of an insignificant European power.

Pariah of the Non Aligned

Thatcher’s ability to withstand all pressures both at home and abroad and send the British navy to the Falklands and retake the Falklands occupied by descendants of loyal British settlers when Argentina took it over, raised the standing of Britain once again to a world power.

Sri Lanka was a leading country of the Non Aligned Movement at that having hosted the Non Aligned summit in 1976.But she was the only Non Aligned country that voted for Britain on the Falklands issue and came to be considered the ‘Pariah of the Non Aligned World’.

But JR only chuckled. He had got the Victoria dam free and the British firm Balfour Beatty built it. There were allegations made even in Britain that Dennis Thatcher, Margaret Thatcher’s husband had links to the constructing firm.

But that was not Jayewardene’s concern. He couldn’t care less about those allegations made and stood loyally by Britain.
This writer recalls that at one stage a well meaning scholar bureaucrat proposed that Victoria Dam be named as the Mahawahalkade Dam because it was the place the last King of Kandy was captured by the British. ‘Victoria will stay Victoria’, JR proclaimed firmly and the issue was no more.


There are many parallels between the British and Sri Lankan leaders. While Margaret Thatcher withstood all opposition from the powerful trade union and socialist forces so did JR. Thatcher broke the back of the British trade union movement for it never to rise again. So did JR with the powerful trade union, which was directed in taking Sri Lanka towards a socialist economy.

J.R. Jayewardene in no time turned the Sri Lankan economy into a free market economy 10 years before India turned from a ‘Nehruvian Socialist economy’ to a free economy. The economic growth rates of both India and Sri Lanka since then have been phenomenal. J.R. privatized most of the state owned corporation, White Elephants, into private enterprises. So did Thatcher.

Listening to tributes paid to Margaret Thatcher revived our memories for we had forgotten that it was she who set the privatization movement to spread globally. One commentator pointed out it was Thatcher who privatized British Telecom, earlier all telecommunication institutions in the world being government owned and controlled. Today all such institutions are privately owned and managed.

The movement towards a free economy became contagious after Thatcher. India, China, Russia, Vietnam and most countries have followed suit save for North Vietnam and Cuba.

Margaret Thatcher is loved and hated in most countries. Even in Britain TV showed some former miners drinking champagne to her death. So it is with J.R. Jayewardene after his death although his achievements such as establishment of the free economy will stand in his memory.

Even today his creations the free economy and the executive presidency and many more remain unchanged, though reviled.
Margaret Thatcher was called the Iron Lady by a hostile Soviet Union press for her determined and inflexible ways. J. R. Jayewardene, we recall, being called the Man in the Iron Mask by the late lobby columnist and Editor Fred Silva, after JR sat stony faced without flinching an eyelid in parliament as leftist leaders were lambasting him.

These two truly ‘iron’ characters, did what they thought was right irrespective of the consequences. At times they were wrong but were prepared to take the consequences.

1 Comment for “The Iron Lady And The Man In The Iron Mask”

  1. Here is a journalist who has a good knowledge of world affairs, unlike Nazeem from the daily Mirror with a twisted personality writes negative articles about the west,

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