Open main menu

General Sir John Lionel Kotelawala CH KBE KStJ PC (Sinhala: 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 Lionel Kotelawala

Sir John Lionel Kotelawala (1897-1980).jpg
3rd Prime Minister of Ceylon
In office
12 October 1953 – 12 April 1956
MonarchElizabeth II
Preceded byDudley Senanayake
Succeeded byS. W. R. D. Bandaranaike
Member of the Ceylon Parliament
for Dodangaslanda
In office
14 October 1947 – 05 December 1959
Succeeded byA.U. Romanis
Personal details
Born(1895-04-04)4 April 1895
British Ceylon
Died2 October 1980(1980-10-02) (aged 85)
Colombo, Sri Lanka
Political partyUnited National Party
Alma materChrist's College, Cambridge,
Royal College, Colombo
ProfessionPolitician, Soldier, Planter
Military service
Branch/serviceCeylon Defence Force,
Sri Lanka Army
RankGeneral (Sri Lanka Army),
Colonel (Ceylon Defence Force)
UnitCeylon Light Infantry


Family and early lifeEdit

Kotelawela's father, John Kotelawala Snr

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 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.[1]

Military careerEdit

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.[2]

Political careerEdit

The first Cabinet of Ministers of Ceylon

As early as 1915 Kotelawala had become involved with political leaders such as Don Stephen Senanayake and his brother F.R. Senanayake, who was married to Kotelawala's mother's sister. They criticized many of the actions of the British colonial officials.

He entered mainstream politics by being elected to the Legislative Council as the member of Kurunegala. Thereafter he entered the State Council as a backbencher and was re-elected in 1936. In his second term he was appointed Minister of Communications and Works and later as the Minister of Agriculture.

Post independenceEdit

When Ceylon received independence and dominion status in 1948, Kotelawala, was appointed to the Senate,he had become an important member of D. S. Senanayake's United National Party and served in several important positions in the cabinet, during Senanayake's tenure as prime minister (1948–1952), including being Minister of Communications, Minister of Public Works and Minister of Transport. When the prime minister died in 1952, many expected Kotelawala to succeed him, but D. S. Senanayake's son and Kotelawala's younger cousin, Dudley Senanayake was appointed instead by the Governor-general. By the following year, Kotelawala was elected to parliament was the Leader of the House in parliament, and was chosen as prime minister when Dudley resigned after the Hartal 1953.

Prime ministerEdit

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.[3]

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 lifeEdit

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.


In 1985 a national defence academy for training of officers for all three Sri Lankan defence services was established at his estate Kandawala, which he had left to the country in his will for this purpose. It has been named General Sir John Kotelawala Defence University (KDU) is a defence university offering undergraduate and post graduate study courses to officers of the defence services in Sri Lanka in various disciplines. Statues of Sir John Kotelawala have been erected in many parts of the island, including one at the Old Parliament Building, Colombo. Many schools, libraries and public buildings have been named in his honor.

Though he strongly criticized the racist attitudes of many westerners, particularly British colonial officials, he did support the continued military presence of the British in Ceylon. He advocated the adoption of some western customs in Sri Lanka. He was knighted and received several other honors from the Ceylonese/British monarch as well as other foreign governments.


Sir John Kotelawala's Coat of Arms
An Official Letter to Harry Kotelawala

His Orders, Decorations and Medals and other memorabilia are on display at the General Sir John Kotelawala Defence University.

Decorations and Medals
Foreign honours


Honorary military appointments

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ There are no record in the official French Database Léonore.[4]


  1. ^ How Kotelawala (Snr) got young brother-in-law killed
  2. ^ Commander Pays Tribute to Late Sir John Kotelawala Archived 11 April 2009 at the Wayback Machine
  3. ^ Parthasarathy, Gopalapuram (ed.). Jawaharlal Nehru: Letters to Chief Ministers 1957-1964. 4. Oxford University Press. pp. 159–171.
  4. ^
  5. ^
  6. ^ "Ceylon Today," December 1954

External linksEdit