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Monday, 17 September 2001  
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President William Gopallawa: A dignified symbol of the nation

by Leel Gunasekera CCS

z_willi.jpg (8961 bytes)The 104th birth anniversary of the late President William Gopallawa falls on September 17. He was respected for his exemplary leadership as a statesman who promoted good governance in our land, with malice to none. He inspired the young and old to maintain a better quality life with simplicity, considering humility as a sign of greatness. An attempt is made here to present some details of his life and discuss briefly some aspects of his socio-cultural and political contribution for which he is admired as sincere and virtuous person, who practised what he preached.

In the present times of controversies in our country it is opportune to bring to sharper focus the value and significance of the contribution of a national leader of William Gopallawa's calibre in the context of the social milieu to which he was born so that we may benefit from his experience to face the present day challenges.

William Gopallawa was born on September 17, 1897 at the Dullewa Maha Walauwa, Dullewa, a village near historic Aluvihare in the Matale District. His mother Tikiri Kumarihamy Dullewa was a descendent of the Dullewa Maha Adikaram who was a signatory on behalf of the Sinhalese to the Kandiyan Convention of 1815. His father was Tikiri Banda Gopallawa a scion of a distinguished family from Gokarella in the Kurunegala District Tikiri Banda Gopallawa died when William was about 3 years old soon after the birth of a younger sister.

He received his primary education at the Dullewa village school and at St. John's College, Getambe. In pursuit of education in the English medium he joined Dharmaraja College, Kandy in 1909. He completed his studies at St. Anthony's College, Katugastota which offered facilities to study science subjects. After having sat the Cambridge Senior Certificate Examination in 1917 he returned to Matale.

Upon his return to Matale after the completion of studies, William Gopallawa served as an English teacher at the Buddhist English School, Matale (now Vijaya College, Matale) and was also instrumental in setting up a library and a scout troop for the benefit of the students. During this time William Gopallawa was actively engaged in many social service projects and played a pivotal role in starting the Social Service League of Matale and extending the activities of Temperance Movement inaugurated by the late Anagarika Dharmapala, in the Matale area. It is heartening to note that these services are continued by the social service minded people in Matale.

Mr. William Gopallawa joined the Ceylon Law College, Colombo in 1920 and was enroled as a Proctor, SC, and Notary Public in 1924. He commenced his practice at the Chambers of the late Mr. Bernard Aluvihare at the Kandy Bar. He was in active practice at Matale, Dumbara and Kandy from 1924 until he took up duties as Municipal Commissioner, Kandy in 1939.

William Gopallawa successfully contested the Matale South Ward at the Matale Urban Council Elections in 1926 and served continuously in the council for a period of 13 years (1926-1939). During this time he had the distinction of being the youngest chairman to serve in a local Government authority. He functioned as the Chairman of the Matale Urban Council for a period of 5 years.

William Gopallawa's only excursion into national politics was in 1936 when he contested the Matale seat at the State Council Elections in 1936. He was defeated in a four cornered contest.

William Gopallawa married Miss Seelawathie Rambukwella, the daughter of L. B. Rambukwella of Kandy and Loku Kumarihamy, the niece of Bulankulame Dissawa of Anuradhapura on March 8, 1928. The marriage ceremony was held according to Kandyan customs at Amunugama Walauwa, the ancestral seat of the late Diyawadana Nilame T. B. Ratwatte, the uncle under whose tutelage Seelawathie Rumbukwella grew up after the early demise of her parents.

William and Seelawathie Gopallawa are parents of four children'; Iranganie Ratwatte. Asoka Punchi Banda Gopallawa, Chintha Silva, Moithra Cudabanda (Monty) Gopallawa and grand parents of thirteen. The tradition of the extended family system where affection of parents is reciprocated by their children with love respect and care especially in the evening of their lives is emulated by the Gopallawas. This fact is seen in an article 'A Devoted Father' by their son Monty Gopallawa (Minister of Cultural Affairs) in the William Gopallawa Centenary Volume edited by Mahen Gopallawa (grandson) who mentions with gratitude how his grandparents enriched his life.

When the Kandy Municipal Council was established in 1939, William Gopallawa was appointed as its first Municipal Commissioner and served in that capacity until his appointment as Colombo Municipal Commissioner in 1951. His tenure of office coincide with the outbreak of the Second World War which posed numerous problems in civil administration and the completion of the Getambe Scheme which was aimed at preventing the inundating of the Getambe area.

William Gopallawa functioned as Colombo Municipal Commissioner from 1951 until his retirement in 1957. When the city of Colombo was paralysed during the 1953 Hartal, the Municipal Council was suspended and William Gopallawa was made Special Commissioner entrusted with the sole authority in the administration of the city.

In recognition of his services William Gopallawa was appointed as Ceylon's Ambassador to the People's Republic of China by the then Prime Minister S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike when Sri Lanka had just established diplomatic relations and he presented his credentials to President Mao Tse-tung on June 18, 1958. He served in China and strengthened the relations between the two countries.

Later he was appointed as Ambassador to the United States of America by the then Prime Minister Sirimavo R. D. Bandaranaike. Ambassador Gopallawa presented his credentials to President John F. Kennedy on September 7, 1961. Whilst at Washington, he also functioned as Ambassador to the Republic of Mexico and Cuba. The crowning moment in Mr. Gopallawa's career was when he served as the Governor-General of Ceylon. He was recalled in February 1962 to be appointed Governor General.

Consequent to the abortive coup of 1962, the then Prime Minister Sirimavo R. D. Bandaranaike decided with the consent of Her Majesty, the Queen of England to appoint a new Governor General under the Soulbury Constitution. Accordingly, William Gopallawa was appointed as the Governor General with effect from March 2, 1962, succeeding the late Sir Oliver Gunatilake. Being the first Buddhist to hold this august office, he took his oath of office before a statue of Lord Buddha in the presence of the Prime Minister and the Chief Justice H. H. Basnayake at the auspicious time. One of his first acts as Head of State was to construct a shrine room at Queen's House. The Queen's House was transformed into an abode of mild manners with firm religious minded dignitary.

In 1962 it was in the immediate aftermath of a constitutional crisis when public confidence in the highest office of the land was at a very low ebb, he was invited to be Governor General. With great ability, integrity and confidence he showed an exemplary manner in his qualities of leadership and statesmanship in the performance of his duties.

William Gopallawa was appointed as the first President under the first Republican Constitution which was promulgated in 1972. He took oath of office before the Constituent Assembly at the Navarangahala, Colombo on May 22, 1972 as the first President of the Republic of Sri Lanka. Gopallawa held the highest office in the land for a period of over 16 years, until the promulgation of the Second Republican Constitution in 1978 when the late J. R. Jayewardene was sworn-in as the first Executive President of the Republic. Thus William Gopallawa became the last Governor General and first President, to the Republic of Sri Lanka. The last and the first link of a far-reaching dimension in the sovereignty of our people.

During his tenure of office as Governor General and President, successive Governments of different political hues and ideologies held office and 3 eminent political leaders i.e. Sirimavo R. D. Bandaranaike (21.7.60 - 25.3.65 and 29.5.70 - 23.7.77) Dudley Senanayake (25.3.65 - 28.5.70) and the late J. R. Jayewardene (23.7.77 - 03.02.78) served as Prime Ministers. Perhaps the greatest testimony to William Gopallawa's integrity, ability and leadership is borne by the fact that he was accepted without any reservations and with the fullest confidence as the Head of State by such Governments and their leadership.

In the public service and the non government sectors for nearly three decades the present writer was privileged to have been often in touch with William Gopallawa at the highest policy-making levels in Government as the Secretary to the Cabinet of Ministers of Madam Sirimavo Bandaranaike's United Front Government and at grass-roots levels in the district administration where His Excellency participated in promoting religious, cultural, literary, social services and humanitarian activities including the rehabilitation programs for those involved in the youth insurrection of 1971. It has been a rewarding experience to be with His Excellency whose amiable and cheerful qualities removed many a barrier that separates people in exalted positions from the other human beings. He was a dignified symbol of the nation practising the Dasaraja Dharma concept in Governance.

Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II decorated him to be a member of the British Empire (MBE) University of Ceylon (Peradeniya) accorded Hon. LLD, in 1962, Vidyalankara University also accorded Hon. LLD, while the Vidyodaya University accorded him Hon. D.Litt. in 1962. Above the people of our country as a true son of the soil who cherished their culture.

After retirement this Head of State returned to his family residence in Matale to be with the near and dear ones in the evening of his life. His life companion Lady Gopallawa had passed away in 1977. Having spent full life of 83 years this noble son of mother Lanka passed away on 30th January 1981. His ashes were interred at the family burial grounds in Dullewa village.

Mr. A. B. Elkaduwa CCS who was Secretary to the late William Gopallawa says "All in all, President Gopallawa's achievements were many faceted and wholly impressive. What stands out however the vital role he played by setting a fine example to the nation with his impeccable official and personal conduct. As a shining symbol of virtuous and exemplary conduct at the highest level, he became stabilizing and unifying force contributing immensely to good governance and national well-doing. Throughout a long period of sixteen years - ten years as Governor-General and six years as President, he served the nation with such distinction that he rendered himself worthy of being honoured and remembered as one of the greatest leaders and statesmen of our time."

The writer is a Former Regional Adviser Social Development

United Nations ESCAP and Advisor, Ministry of Cultural Affairs

Crescat Development Ltd.

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