Funday Times - Our Heritage

Ceremonial head is changed
Gaveshaka discusses significant events in March after Independence

March 2 is a significant day in the history of Sri Lanka. It was on March 2, 1815 that the Kandyan Convention was signed by which the British took over the Kandyan kingdom. (This has been discussed by Gaveshaka on March 4, 2007). In recent history after Independence, March 2, 1962 saw a new Governor-General, William Gopallawa replacing a seasoned administrator / politician Sir Oliver Goonetilleka.

In colonial times when we were under the British, a Governor represented the monarch of Great Britain. There were 29 Governors during the period 1796 – 1948 when Sri Lanka was a Crown Colony forming part of the British Empire. The Governor acted on behalf of either the king or the queen of England whoever occupied the throne at the time.

Prime Minister
Sirimavo Bandaranaike
Sir Oliver Goonetilleke Governor-General
William Gopallawa

When Sri Lanka was granted Dominion Status in 1948 and became a member of the British Commonwealth of Nations, a Governor-General was appointed in place of the Governor. In fact, the Governor at the time we got Independence, Sir Henry Monk Mason Moore became the first Governor-General. Within one year, however, he was replaced by Lord Soulbury, the head of the Commission sent by the British Government in 1944 to recommend constitutional changes.

The first Sri Lankan Governor-General was appointed in 1954. He was Sir Oliver Goonetilleke, who had a distinguished career in the public service having joined the railway department as an auditor in 1921. He became Auditor General in 1931 and after the World War II broke out and there was a threat of a Japanese attack, he was picked to organize the country's civil defense and food supplies.

He was a member of the War Council and appointed Financial Secretary in 1945, a post exclusively held by British officials till then. A confidante of D. S. Senanayake, Sir Oliver was Minister of Home Affairs in the 1947 Senanayake Cabinet but was moved to London as Sri Lanka's first High Commissioner in Britain the following year. After his return in 1951, he was back as a minister holding different portfolios until his appointment as Governor-General in July 1954 on the recommendation of Prime Minister Sir John Kotelawela. (The Queen appointed the Governor-General on the advice of the country's Prime Minister). Though he was more the ceremonial head of state in a parliamentary democracy, Sir Oliver was called on by Prime Minister S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike to administer the country after a state of emergency was declared following ethnic riots in 1958.

Sir Oliver continued as Governor-General until 1962, when the then Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike preferred a change, when suspicion was cast on him in respect of the abortive coup d'etat organised by a group of senior police and armed services officers.

The Prime Minister obviously felt she would be comfortable with someone whom she could trust. So she chose a respected gentleman who had family connections with her. William Gopallawa had been Municipal Commissioner (chief administrative officer) in the Colombo Municipality and later was Sri Lanka's Ambassador in China (1961– 62) and in the United States (1962).

He was recalled to be head of state from July 2, 1962. For ten years, Gopallawa held the post after which he continued as constitutional head following the promulgation of the Republican Constitution provided for a non-executive President in place of the Governor-General.

In 1978, with the change in the constitution to have an Executive President elected by the people, he
relinquished office to make way for the then Prime Minister J. R. Jayewardene to continue in that office as the Head of State.

Always a simple unassuming man, Gopallawa retired to his ancestral home in Matale to lead a quiet retired life. He died on January 30, 1981.

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