News Features

29th Death Anniversary of Sir John Kotelawala: Commemoration at Kandawala today
Tribute to a Statesman, soldier and sportsman

By Lt. Gen. Denis Perera VSV
Sri Lanka’s third Prime Minister, General the Right Honorable Sir John Kotelawala, Companion of Honour; Knight Commander of the most Excellent Order of the British Empire (Imperial Honours bestowed on him by the British Sovereign) Doctor of Laws (Honoris Causa) bestowed on him at the first communication of the General Sir John Kotelawala Defence Academy, passed away on 2nd October 1980.
On 1st October 1980, President J.R. Jayewardene bestowed on him the Honorary Rank of General of the Volunteer Force of the Army, whilst Sir John was still conscious, though his doctors advised the President earlier that Sir John would not survive long. This honour was to be bestowed on him on 11th October 1980, the date on which the Defence Academy was to be formally established at Kandawala.
I was Commander of the Army and had made the recommendation to the President to bestow this honour on Sir John in recognition of his long service in the Volunteer Force of the Army. He was commissioned in 1922 in the Ceylon Light Infantry, the year the regiment was presented Colours by His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales (later King Edward the VIII), Sir John was Minister of Defence when he was Prime Minister (1952 – 1956) and was for many years therafter until his death, the President of the Sri Lanka Ex Servicemen’s Association. His donation of his home and its 50 acres at Ratmalana was his last gift to the Armed Forces for which he had a high regard and affection.
The President was accompanied to this bedside ceremony by Sir John’s nephew Lalith, his Attorney the late Dalton Wijeratne and myself. When the President handed over the parchment to Sir John and said he was making him a General, Sir John smiled and passed on the parchment to me saying something incoherently. Lalith then said “Uncle, you will be alright soon” – Sir John shook his head in disagreement. He passed away peacefully early on 2nd October 1980.
On 5th October, he was accorded a military funeral of a General. His remains were removed from Kandawala Walauwa to Parl1ament House at Galle Face and afterwards to Independence Square for the final rites. Although Sir John had been out of office for nearly 25 years and led a very private life, huge crowds paid their respects to him at Parliament House, lined the streets from Galle Face to Independence Square and at the square where the President. Parliamentarians, the Judiciary, the Diplomatic Corps and a vast gathering of the public were present when his remains were placed on a pyre and the “Last post was sounded” by Trumpetors as a final salute to this great Sri Lanka – Statesman, Soldier and Sportsman.
As previously planned with Sir John’s approval the Defence Academy was established at Kandawala on 11th October 1980.
When the government approved of a recommendation made by the Service Commanders in 1978 to establish a National Defence Academy, funds were not provided for its establishment and we had to make a search for a suitable place. When I visited Kandawela for the first time in 1979 to invite Sir John for an Army Tattoo I was impressed by the place as a suitable location for the Academy and Sri John made the mistake of showing me round the property, whilst feeding his pets, which was a daily routine.
I subsequently approached him with our plans for the Defence Academy and requested him for Kandawala. At first he showed reluctance but after much persuasion and study of our proposals, he had consulted his heirs and lawyers and in 1980 (about six months after my first request) he called me and said “You can have Kandawala, but after my death – Inform the President too.”
I expressed my gratitude, arranged for the “Deed of Gift” which was signed by Sir John and President Jayewardene as Commander in Chief at President’s House.
The Defence Academy was recognized by the University Grants Commission as a University and gazetted accordingly. To date over two thousand officer cadets of the Army, the Navy and Air Force have been awarded the 1st degree and about 100 officers have qualified for the Masters Degree.
The nation as a whole and the Armed Forces in particular should be grateful to this great patriot for his magnanimity. (The writer a former Army Commander is Chancellor of the General Sir John Kotelawala Defence Academy)