3rd Prime Minister of Ceylon (Sri Lanka) who donated his entire property to establish a defence academy to train Tri Service Officers
Sir John Lionel Kotelawala was born on 04 April 1895 to John Kotelawala Sr. and Alice Elizabeth (nee Attygalle) of Madapatha. Sir John, as he was quite fondly known, was the eldest of a family of three along with his brother Justin Kotelawala and sister, Freda Kotelawala who married Dr CVS Corea. Hailing from a leading family at Madapatha, Sir John received his formal education at the Royal College, Colombo and he proceeded to Christ’s College, Cambridge to pursue higher education in Agriculture. He is known to have been a popular character, both at school and university mainly due to his sporting prowess. John Kotelawala (Snr) was an Inspector of the Ceylon Police Force well known for his heroic and fearless acts, and at the time of his untimely demise in 1908, Sir John was just an eleven year old boy. Sir John is known to have inherited his rather impulsive character from his father while he drew inspiration for moulding his character from his beloved mother. Sir John has written, “It is from her (the mother) that I have learned lessons in tolerance and the importance of tackling every difficult situation with courage and determination.” Sir John has often gratefully remembered FR Senanayake for being the most influential figure in his life. In his autobiography titled “An Asian Prime Minister’s Story”, he wrote, “The man who has most to do with moulding my character and influencing me for good in my youth was FR Senanayake, who married my mother’s sister, and managed our family’s estates.” Sir John married Miss Effie Dias Bandaranaike who was a niece of Don Stephen (DS) Senanayake, the first Prime Minister of independent Sri Lanka, and the couple had a daughter, Lakshmini Kotelawala. Realizing his strong desire to become a soldier, Sir John joined the Ceylon Light Infantry (CLI) on 15 September 1922 at the age of 25 as a Second Lieutenant. He was elevated to the rank of Lieutenant on 27 October 1924 and to that of Captain on 23 August 1929. Upon reaching the rank of Major on 01 October 1933, Sir John was appointed 2nd in Command of the Ceylon Light Infantry on 01 July 1939 and rose to be the Commanding Officer of the CLI on 01 September 1939. On 01 October 1940, he was promoted to the rank of Lt Colonel and was posted to the Reserve of the Corps. Subsequently, he was promoted to the rank of Colonel on 02 July 1942, and he became popularly known as ‘Col. JL Kotelawala.’ Sir John was elevated to the rank of ‘General’ (the highest rank in the Sri Lanka Army at the time) as he has on his deathbed at the Merchants Ward, General Hospital Colombo by His Excellency JR Jayewardene, the then President of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka. This was the day prior to his death on 02 October, 1980, and Sir John, though feeble, is said to have responded to the honour with a smile. While serving as a Military Officer in the Voluntary Reserve of the Ceylon Light Infantry, Sir John entered politics in the late 1920s under the guidance of his relative DS Senanayake and his son Dudley Senanayake. He contested the Kurunegala seat when the first election was held in 1931 to elect members for the State Council of Ceylon, which he represented from 1931. He was privileged to hold an acting portfolio as the Minister of Agriculture and Lands from 1931 to1935. During the second State Council from 1936 to 1947, he held the position of Minister of Communications and Public Works. With the introduction of the Soulbury Constitution in 1947, Sir John Kotelawala was appointed the Minister of Transport & Works as well as the Leader of the House in the first Parliament of Ceylon from 1947 to 1952. He went on to hold the same position from 1952 to 1953 in the second Parliament. On the day Hon Dudley Senanayake resigned from the Premiership, Sir John was called upon to form a government on 12 October 1953. He thus served as the Prime Minister of Ceylon whilst retaining the position of the Minister of Defence and External Affairs from 1953 till 1956. Sir John Kotelawala was privileged to receive several international honours. He was appointed as a Member of the Privy Council (PC) on 22 April 1954, the second and the last to receive this coveted honour from Her Majesty the Queen of Great Britain. Sir John further received a Doctor of Laws (LLD) from the University of Ceylon. Among other honours, he was appointed a Knight Guard Cross of the following Orders – Legion d’honneur (France) 1954, Order of Merit (Italy) 1954, Order of Merit (Federal Republic of Germany) 1955, Order of the White Elephant (Thailand) 1956, Order of the Netherlands Lion (Netherlands), appointed 1st Class, Order of the Rising Sun (Japan) 1954, and an Associate KStJ – Knight of the Order of St John – in 1965. He was made a Knight of the British Empire (KBE) on 10 June, 1948 and was appointed a Companion of Honour (CH) on 02 January, 1956. Sir John Kotelawala was also the recipient of the 1939-45 Defence and War Medals, Jubilee Medal 1935, Coronation Medals 1937 (C/G 18.6.1937) and 1953, Efficiency Medal (Ceylon) and a 1st clasp in 1949, Ceylon Armed Services Inauguration Medal in 1956, Ceylon Armed Service Long Service Medal in1968, Republic of Sri Lanka Armed Services Medal in 1972 and the Sri Lanka Army 25th Anniversary Medal in 1974. A proprietary planter, a mine owner and a Justice of the Peace (JP) for Ceylon, Kotelawala was the first Chairman of the CLI Association in 1974. Hailing from one of the pioneering families in the Graphite Industry in Sri Lanka, Sir John Kotelawala was well-known in the mining circles as he owned two extensive mines named ‘Kahatagaha’ and ‘Kolongaha’, situated in Dodangaslanda in the Kurunegala district, which he represented in the House during the latter part of his political career. Sir John was responsible for initiating the Colombo Conference in 1954 at which Asian powers discussed the Indo-China problem. Sir John played an active role in the historic 1955 Bandung Conference in which not only Asian but also African nations were present, and it was during his premiership that Sri Lanka received to the membership of the United Nations in 1955. One of General Sir John’s strongest personality traits was his unbridled dislike, and one might even say hatred, of anything and anyone that invoked racism. This was a topic of great controversy during his life, both during his adolescent years and adulthood, and for all intents and purposes, he seems to have fought tooth and nail against those who brought racism to the forefront in everyday life. The populace adored Sir John as he never lost the common touch though he regularly moved with the elite. He feared nobody and could be approached without any fear It is worth recording that Sir John seems to be the “most unforgettable Prime Minister” of Ceylon.