John Kotelawala

General Sir John Lionel Kotelawala CH KBE KStJ PC (Sinhalese: ශ්‍රිමත් ජෝන් ලයනල් කොතලාවල; 4 April 1895 – 2 October 1980) was a Sri Lankan soldier and politician, most notable for serving as the 3rd Prime Minister of Ceylon (Sri Lanka) from 1953 to 1956.

Sir John Kotelawala was born into a wealthy family, his father John Kotelawala Snr was a former inspector in the Ceylon Police Force turned businessmen and his mother was Alice Elizabeth Kotelawala, CBE, daughter of Mudaliyar Don Charles Gemoris Attygalle, a wealthy land and mine owner. Following accusations of murder of his brother-in-law, John Kotelawala Snr committed suicide when his son was 11. Following this their family was ruined, Alice Kotelawala who was originally a Buddhist converted to Christianity after this. Through careful management of their land holdings and plumbago mines she made her family prosperous. For her social work she was awarded a CBE. He had a younger brother Justin Kotalawela and a sister Freda, who married C.V.S. Corea.

Young Kotelawala attended Royal College, Colombo, but had to leave after he became involved in pro-independence activities during the riots in 1915. Thereafter he embarked on a trip to Europe after leaving school, which was very dangerous because World War I was being fought there. He remained in Europe for five years, spending most of that time in England and France and attended Christ’s College, Cambridge University to study agriculture.

Kotelawala was known as an aggressive and outspoken man who loved sports, horseback riding and cricket and, particularly as a young man, got into physical fights when he was insulted. He was fluent in Sinhala, English and French. After returning to Ceylon, he took up managing his family plantation estates and mines.

He married Effie Manthri Dias Bandaranaike and later divorced. Effie Bandaranaike was the niece of Don Stephen Senanayake. They together had one daughter Lakshmi Kotelawala.

Military career

Kotelawala briefly served with the mounted section of the Colombo Town Guard without enlisting, since he was under age at the time. However, after returning from Europe he was commissioned into the Ceylon Light Infantry as a Second Lieutenant in 1922 being promoted to the ranks of Lieutenant in 1924, Captain in 1929 and Major in 1933. He went on to serve 23 years mostly as a reservist since the Ceylon Defence Force was a volunteer unit of the British Army. In 1939 he became the commanding officer of the Ceylon Light Infantry and was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in 1940. With the start of World War II he became a member of the Ceylon’s War Council and was made a Colonel in 1942, the highest rank that a Ceylonese could achieve at the time.

A strong supporter of the military, he was the first Chairman of the Ceylon Light Infantry Association in 1974. He was awarded the honorary rank of General on his deathbed, the night before he died by President J. R. Jayewardene in recognition for his long service to the country.

He bequeathed his home and estate Kandawala to the government to establish a national defence academy.

Prime minister

As prime minister, Kotelawala led Sri Lanka into the United Nations and contributed to Sri Lanka’s expanding foreign relations, particularly with other Asian countries. He was appointed to the Privy Council in 1954. In 1955 he led his country’s delegation to the Bandung conference in Indonesia, where his performance earned him the epithet Bandung Booruwa (Bandung Donkey) in Sri Lanka. At the conference he stated his belief that fashionably Marxist anti-colonialist rhetoric ignored Communist atrocities. In a private conversation with the prime ministers of Pakistan, India, Burma, and China, he asked Chinese premier Zhou Enlai if he wanted to bring Communism to Tibet. Zhou replied that it was impractical and undesirable, and that the PRC had gone to Tibet because it was “an integral part of the Chinese state” and because it had been threatened by “imperialist intrigues” from the British and Russian empires.

His government had to deal with economic problems and ethnic conflicts, and he and his party were defeated in the 1956 elections by a group of more radically chauvinistic Sinhalese parties under the leadership of Solomon Bandaranaike.

Later life

Kotelawala retired from politics shortly after his electoral defeat and lived for several years in Kent. He eventually returned to Ceylon. When the post of Governor-General appeared vacant with completion of William Gopallawa’s first term, he was hopeful that he would be nominated to the post by the United National Party which was in the government at the time. However Dudley Senanayake in his second term as Prime Minister did not name a successor for Gopallawa and allowed him to have a second term.

On 29 September 1980 he suffered a stroke at his home Kandawala. Sir John Kotelawala died at the Colombo General Hospital on 2 October 1980, and his remains were cremated at Independence Square on 5 October with full military honours.


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