WWW Virtual Library - Sri Lanka

 

Sir John Lionel Kotelawala
 

By Commodore Shemal Fernando, RSP, USP, MSc, psc

The Right Honourable General Sir John Lionel Kotelawala, CH, KBE, LLD is perhaps best known as a former Prime Minister of Sri Lanka. Erect and soldierly in his bearing, ĎSir Johní as he was affectionately known was undoubtedly one of the most colourful personalities of his time.

Always frank and outspoken, Sir John never hesitated to call a spade a spade. He always enjoyed a good story even at his own expense. Anecdotes about his wit and rollicking sense of humour are told and retold to this day.

Beneath his tough exterior, Sir John was a kind hearted and a generous statesman, who made numerous friends among a variety of people. Kandawala with its magnificent mansion and sprawling acres was the home of Sir John for well over five decades.

Being a soldier himself, he had a great regard for the military. In a final gesture of philanthropy and realizing the need for a well-disciplined national security system, Sir John took the decision to bequeath his property to the nation for the establishment of a much-needed Defence Academy.

The General Sir John Kotelawala Defence Academy is surely a fitting monument that stands as testimony to the character, patriotism and statesmanship of the great son of Sri Lanka who held the position of the Prime Minister and the Minister of Defence from October 12, 1953 to April 11, 1956.

 

Gift to the Nation

Lieutenant-General Denis Perera who first presented the idea of the Defence Academy to Sir John, once described the dialogue in a befitting tribute, "I had to ask him for it very diplomatically, because his first reaction was, ĎThis is the trouble with you Army fellows, if you see something good you want to grab it!í But, he was interested in the project and wanted to know more about it, so I gave him my project report which he kept for about three months.

He telephoned me one day and said, come with your family for breakfast. He entertained my sons with elephant rides, took us all around his property, showed us his Walauwa and then said, "You can have Kandawala, look after it. Tell the President so". On November 11, 1979, Sir John first gifted Kandawala to the nation retaining a life-interest in it.

At the vesting ceremony he had told General Perera, "I say Denis, you must let me live in peace, you can have it after I am no more". Later, on April 7, 1980, Sir John transferred his property by way of gift absolute and irrevocable to the nation a truly magnificent bequest worthy indeed of a greathearted patriot.

One day in August 1980 Sir John either had a premonition of death or felt lonesome and had told General Perera, the then Commander of the Army that he should go ahead with plans for establishing the Academy. Accordingly, they decided to establish it on October 11, 1980 the day after Army Day and General Pereraís 50th birthday.

On September 29, General Perera had gone to Kandawala with his staff and all the plans for the October 11 ceremony. Sir John himself had sketched the whole layout of the ceremony, approved of them all and yet insisted on going through it on the ground.

We first moved out to where the masonry for tablet was being built. And after a small rehearsal we walked back to the mansion. That beautiful tree 60 years old that Sir John had planted himself, and a branch seemed unable to shelter the tablet.

"All this was done and then we had breakfast, which turned out to be the last of the famous Kandawala breakfasts, which Sir John had established many years before", wrote General Perera in his inspiring tribute. Sir John suffered a stroke that afternoon and was removed to hospital.

A few hours before Sir Johnís death, on October 1, 1980, the then President, His Excellency J. R. Jayewardene together with General Perera went along to Sir Johnís bedside and bestowed on him the rank of Honorary General. Sir John had been conscious and acknowledged the accolade with a nod, being a true soldier.

Sir John passed away peacefully the following day, October 2, 1980. His remains were cremated at Independence Square on October 5 with full military honours.

 

Military Career

Born on April 4, 1897, "Sir John" as he was popularly known received his education at Royal College, Colombo and Christ Church, Cambridge in the United Kingdom.

A soldier and statesman of no repute, Sir Johnís interests ranged from politics and sports to mining, agriculture and architecture. He excelled in sports at school and in the University, his favourite games being cricket, tennis, golf, polo and boxing. He loved horses and took great pleasure in his morning rides.

John Kotelawala was commissioned in the Ceylon Light Infantry in 1922. He rose steadily in the service and was promoted to the rank of Colonel in 1940. This was the highest rank a Ceylonese could hold in those days.

During the Second World War as he was a member of the War Cabinet, he retired from the service. He however took a keen interest in the military and was President of the Ex-Servicemenís Association for almost three decades up to the time of his death.

 

Sir John as a Statesman

Sir John entered politics when he was 35 and was a freedom fighter. As a member of the First State Council in 1931, he represented the Kurunegala seat and continued to represent it for 11 years. A founder member of the United National Party, he held several ministerial posts and on October 12, 1953, Sir John had the distinction of becoming the third Prime Minister of Sri Lanka.

Sir John as the Prime Minister and Minister for External Affairs was responsible for Ceylonís entry to the United Nations. He was also responsible for several public works during his tenure as Minister of Communications and Works, Minister of Transport and Works and later as the Prime Minister.

The Laxapana Hydro-electric scheme; the development of the Port of Colombo; the University buildings at Peradeniya and several other major schemes; the introduction of Aviation and the construction of the Ratmalana Airport; the development of roads and the construction of the New Kelani Bridge were initiated by Sir John when he was a Minister.

Sir John played a significant role in Asian politics as well, and left the mark of his statesmanship. As Prime Minister he initiated the Colombo Powers Conference, which was the precursor to Bandung Conference held in 1955, from where the Non-Aligned Movement took off after his time.

Sir John retired from politics after his defeat at the polls in 1956 and resided in his estate in Kent, United Kingdom for some years. He later returned to Sri Lanka to spend the last years of his life amid the gracious surroundings of his home in Kandawala.

Sir Johnís popularity and the regard in which he was held both locally and internationally is borne out by the mementos that adorn the wall cabinets of the museum. Among the various honours bestowed on him in his lifetime are Francesís "Grand Croix of the Legion of Honour", the Order of the Lion of Netherlands, Star of the Rising Sun of Japan, Britainís companion of Honour and the Knight Cross of the British Empire.

 

The Defence Academy

The ĎMissioní of the Kotelawala Defence Academy (KDA) is to educate, train and inspire the cadets to a lifetime of dedicated service in the defence of the nation and to promote leadership skills and intellectual growth combined with professionalism as officers of the regular forces.

The KDA was inaugurated on October 11, 1980 at a simple, yet dignified and moving ceremony at the Kandawala Walauwa. On March 3, 1981, the academic programme was inaugurated with an enrolment of 34 officer cadets drawn from the three Armed Forces.

The academy originally functioned as an institution affiliated to both Colombo and Moratuwa Universities; one or the other of which conferred the degrees on the Academy students on completion of their courses. But by an Act of Parliament (No. 27 of 1988), the KDA was granted full university status on January 19, 1989 and became a degree granting institution in its own right.

General Sir John Kotelawala Defence Academy in its inaugural convocation on January 14, 1991 conferred the honorary degree of LLD (Doctor of Law) posthumously on Sir John.

From the inception the KDA awarded the Bachelorís Degrees in Defence Studies in the disciplines of Technology (Engineering), Management, and Technical Sciences, Commerce or Arts as applicable. The Masterís Degree programme was inaugurated in March 2001 with the long-term objective of affording a high degree of professionalism in military affairs and to mould the national leaders.

At the KDA, degrees cannot be obtained through book learning only. Skills acquired in the defence services are a vital factor that will determine whether a student is worth having a degree in defence studies being conferred upon him. All round training and strict discipline are part of the Academy curriculum.The degrees conferred by the KDA are recognized worldwide as the Academy is affiliated to the Association of Commonwealth Universities, United Kingdom. Currently General Denis Perera holds the position of the Chancellor.

A legally constituted Board of Management manages the Academy. The Commandant is appointed for a term of three years and the post rotates among high-ranking officers from the three services. Rear Admiral Nandana Thuduwewatte is serving as the Commandant at present.

The products of KDA have proved their mettle in the battlefields of the North and East. Many of these young men have made the Supreme Sacrifice for their Motherland. The name of Captain W. N. J. W. Perera of the 1 SLE who was Killed in Action on January 21, 1986 is inscribed in golden letters on a "Roll of Honour" on the spacious walls of the Academic Block.

 

The Museum

On October 10, 1993, the Sir John Kotelawala Museum was declared open to the public by the then President of Sri Lanka, His Excellency D. B. Wijetunga. This was in tribute to Sir John who donated his home and its surrounding parklands to the three services and thence to the nation.

Sir John lived by the dictum "For my country, always". His household effects bear the legend set out on his coat-of-arms. He was foremost a military man and to this end Sir John gifted Kandawala to the services to foster generations of well-trained and educated youth, to join ranks with those already dedicated to the task of defence.

Kandawala did not belong to Sir Johnís ancestors. It was his own home, the one he planned, built and furnished in his own style for his requirements. He bought Kandawala at a public auction in 1920. Originally there had been a small three bed-roomed house set in a profusion of cinnamon and coconut trees. The main house was built in 1926 and Sir John entered politics in 1931.

The Kandawala residence, by todayís standards is a modest building. Its chief characteristic is that it is bare of ostentation. The grace of the house and the surroundings is of a fundamental nature. The house is open on all sides to the parklands and view of the venerable trees that surround. One has a sense of space and timelessness amid spacious verandahs, polished floorboards and "open" prospects of the house.

The ground floor comprises spacious living and dining areas and a large airy office-cum-library, where as Prime Minister, Sir John often attended to state business. It is said that he did not live at Temple Trees. This room reflects to a large extent Sir Johnís love of humour and his attitude to life in general.

Running the length and breadth of the room at ceiling level, in a panel of about 3 feet in width are caricatures of leading political figures of the pre-independence era. Foremost cartoonists Aubrey Colette had done "justice", in his own inimitable style to governor and governed alike, providing his sponsor with delight.

"Let us have faith that right makes might: and in that faith let us to the end, dare to do our duty, as we understand it" Abraham Lincoln.

(The writer graduated as one of the Naval officers of the first Masterís Degree programme of the KDA in 2003)

 


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