27 November, 2022


Memories Of William Gopallawa

By Mano Ratwatte

Mano Ratwatte

Some random thoughts about the first Buddhist Governor-General and First non-executive President of Ceylon/Sri Lanka. These are clearlybiased thoughts about my own grandfather. Hopefully, there won’t be too many personal insults for sharing these thoughts about a couple of things I observed growing up around him.

So many serious/depressing articles in these columns, and I felt I should just go down memory lane to change the tone a bit. Everyone talks about good governance. Yet, like in the US, politics and governance in Sri Lanka has been far too driven by angry rhetoric. Hence some thoughts on a person who epitomized good governance.


I remember a politically significant event in 1965. When the government led by Mrs. Bandaranaike lost, and Dudley Senanayake’s UNP became the party to control the most number of seats, some of the coalition member parties of my aunt’s government did their best to find minority parties and other people to back the losing government party coalition to re-form a government. The UNP had commanded the majority in Parliament and was entitled to form the government as it commanded “the respect of the majority of the Parliament” as per constitutional tradition of the Westminster kind.

Some in the coalition government were asking him to delay inviting the UNP to form the government so they could find MPs to form a new government. But as Governor-General, he upheld the constitution as tradition deemed; he did not delay the process and invited the UNP to form the government according to the constitution. This great judgment call came up in some heated conversations in our family.
To date, I can say that he did the right thing; and did what was expected and required of him according to the constitution even though it was Mrs. B who appointed him GG in the aftermath of the 1962 coup which had dangerous links to some who were very high up in the government.

Innocent times

Another small note is about his personality: one time we were at Queen’s Cottage (as it was known before 1972) in Nuwara Eliya on vacation. He always walked everyday without fail no matter where he was. In Nuwara Eliya he was very fond of walking from President’s house, cut across St. Andrews Golf Course and take us to Cargill’s which was a landmark back then in old Nuwara Eliya. He dressed modestly in shirt, waist coat, jacket and had his walking stick. He was never a sloppy dresser but neither was he flashy and vulgar. He never wore bling.

Those were the peaceful days of Sri Lanka before JVP terrorism or Tiger terrorism. The bodyguard he had was a token CID sergeant who used to actually wrap his revolver in plastic and paper to prevent grease stains on his clothes. Well the reason to mention is, that while the police sergeant had a gun, no one could think of there being a need to use it. This was the era before gun violence and terrorism after all.

We loved going to Cargills with him because he would spoil us with treats. We are cutting across the Golf Links, very unobtrusively, also with an Arachchi who carried the umbrella, and suddenly a porter aka kankaani Golf caddy for a white foreigner yelled අඩෝ අයින් වෙයන් “Ado aiying weyang othaning” (get out of there) from there in a rude manner; apparently the white foreigner he was being a Caddy to was taking a shot which would have been in the direct path of the small bridge over a stream we were crossing. None of us had seen this foreigner taking his golf shot. I was outraged that a lowly Caddy would be shouting for the highest person in the land to move away so his white master could take his golf shot.

But the fact of the matter was that it was our fault in the sense we had not seen him taking the shot. I was riled, so was the kind police sergeant at what we saw was this affront to my grandfather. We were ready to go cut that ‘lowly’ coolie.

But my grandfather smiled, and moved away and said to me “the grace of power, is not using it but knowing when not to use it”.

He had an apologetic smile on his face. Waited patiently for the man to take his shot and we went along the way. I was barely a bit over 11-years-old. The Caddy was sweating profusely when he found out who he was being rude to; but he needn’t have feared at all.

The police sergeant, had two very successful wonderful sons who rose up very high in the Navy and Police, if I am not mistaken, and continued the traditions of providing protection to VVIPs who came much later.

But when I become impatient or arrogant, I remember this small incident. It helped me change my attitude.

Democratic regimes

Other is a key issue which had great ramifications for Sri Lanka. Before President JR Jayewardene changed the constitution and my grandfather retired in 1978, the UNP regime released the JVP leader Rohana Wijeweera.

Wijeweera was tried and found guilty and sentenced to a very long term under the old pre-1972 constitution as having waged war against Her Majesty’s government in Ceylon. He had a fair trial and he deserved to be in prison.

But President Jayewardene decided to release him because he was a master strategist; he wanted Wijeweera to split the left vote and block his arch rival Mrs. Bandaranaike from ever coming back to power. As per traditions, every PM would consult and update the GG; later President, in weekly meetings. My grandfather raised the issue of this pardon and released and cautioned Mr. Jayewardene about violent insurrections and terrorism again.

Now, at that point no one was aware of LTTE Tigers or what was to become of Sri Lanka later but everyone who appreciated democracy was afraid of the JVP’s brand of class envious politics and violent overthrow of democratic regimes. If I recall correctly, his arrogant response had been “oh my army has modern weapons and will crush them in 24 hours”. My grandfather was disappointed and stunned at this attitude.

The rest is history as the JVP (and the UNP regime) engaged in their gory mayhem. Imagine if people listened to my grandfather and left Wijeweera in prison; he had a fair trial; and was convicted of trying to use violent means to overthrow a democratic government and that conviction was upheld in London.

This is not hindsight; I believe my grandfather has a lot of wisdom and chose to advise an arrogant man who refused to listen to him for his own political gain. Rest as they say is history.

I cherish the time he was Chief Guest at my school prize giving and receiving my Class Prize for being first in class in my tenth grade. He started his life as a Proctor, and was also an educator, a diplomat and he dabbled in politics for a bit and lost in Matale. He excelled and exemplified in public service throughout his life; a little known fact is that he also was a teacher early in his career and he is an alumni of a great Buddhist School in Kandy: Dharmaraja. He was a simple genuine Buddhist, not a publicly pious fake one and he respected all religions.

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Latest comments

  • 0

    What I remember of him is that in order to accommodate the entry of his son into university, the old race course was converted into a second university which the bus conductors referred to as Ashwa Vidyalaya. The son of course got into Peradeniya as a result of this additional intake. I wonder what became of him. This was the origin of the University of Colombo. I hope someone more knowledgeable could give a better explanation.

  • 2

    Nice to remember him. I saw him at a wedding. His personality spoke many things. Great.

  • 0

    Is incest and in-breeding still as common among these few Brahmin families of Kanda Udarata? May be Mano can help us with this information.

    • 0

      That is funny Dude. No one in my family is or was and my parents were not related; they just happened to be in the same region of birth; which amounts to jackshit in my view. But I cannot speak for dead people and their views. All I can see is I was blessed with amazing parents and my old lady is still alive and leads a very simple real buddhist life. And none of her kids married relatives period. I do not usually respond to people who do not post their real identities because blogging allows people to insult and slander people with impunity. But I laughed out loud and showed it to my wife and my daughter this morning after my daughter made me my favorite breakfast for Father’s day. I am not sure about pena but I can tell you about the time some jealous relatives put ugly human ash Hooniyang. To that sort of people I say screw you and your unbuddhist irrational crapshit. Thanks. You made my day.

      • 1

        Mano Ratwatte

        When I read your response to Pena Kiyanna I was highly taken up and saw a class in you. You have hit hard and got the message through with your simple and polite reply. Certainly you have gone to a good school. You really made your day.

  • 1

    He was, obviously, a wonderful grand-father. But to suggest he was a model of democratic practice etc. is pushing the envelope, Mr. Ratwatte. Simply put, he wasn’t.

  • 1

    Long before Rohana Wijeyweera was released by JR after he came to power in ’77, Rohana Wijeyweera and a few JVP members were first arrested in 1969 just before the general elections in 1970. It was Sirima who released them after the UF victory in 1970 stating that innocent youth were incarcerated who still had the scent of milk in their breadth. Thereafter the innocent youth who helped her to achieve victory, rebelled against her very govt in 1971, soon after they were released. The rest of the innocent youth of the JVP who had not lost their scent of milk in their breadth were butchered down the line as they richly deserved for the mayhem they created.

  • 0


    Sadly for Sri Lanka , men of his calibre are long gone . I could’nt think of a single politician of the present mob – pun intended , that I would want to be even distantly acquainted with .

  • 0

    “This was the era before gun violence and terrorism after all.”
    How did uncle Solomon West Ridgway Dias get killed? With a water pistol?
    Mama Sinhalam
    The plan to shift all of the University to Peradeniya failed as parts of Science & Medicine stayed behind in Colombo even after the due date around 1963.
    Part of the Faculty of Arts was shifted to Colombo in 1961 (or 1962?) because of space issues in Peradeniya. The Race Course was used for a while, but then new buildings came up soon and the Engineering Faculty moved out in 1964. In fairness, the Colombo Arts Faculty did well for itself. Many things combined to keep the Colombo campus alive.
    Good old Monty Gopallawa was in politics, and an MP. He died in 2005

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