Sinhalese in the WW II Japanese Army


Tissa Devendra

This account is fully based on S.N. Arsecularatne’s fascinating book "Sinhalese Immigrants in Malaysia and Singapore 1860-1990". I had been planning to write

on this little known topic ever since I read this book. What galvanized me into action was the recent obituary of Mrs. Muriel Kotelawala, widow of the charismatic Gladwin Kotelawela , founder of the Lanka Unit of Subhas Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army in Singapore,which fought alongside the Japanese against the British forces in WW II.

All quotations are from Arsecularatne’s book.

Pre-war Malaya and Singapore had a sizable population of Sinhalese immigrants. ``The Sinhalese migrants from Ceylon to the Malay peninsula in the late 19th and first half of the 20th century, constitute ….people who ventured out in search of new prospects in alien lands….. Over the decades, several thousands from Ceylon made use of factors such as the proximity of Malaya, the ease of travel between the two countries [as both were British possessions], the use of English in the affairs of government, a similarity of the styles of administration and perhaps above all the similarity of the physical environment ….and some cultural affinities between their people."

"Despite their relatively small numbers – approximately 4,000 of a total population of 6.25 million in Malaya in the 1950s according to one estimate – the Sinhalese who migrated to Malaya have left their imprint in their adopted country. Their contributions have ranged over a wide variety of fields such as arts and crafts, trade and commerce, administration and the professions and no less in sports."


The Japanese invasion of the Malay Peninsula in 1941 ended their hopes for a peaceful future under a ‘benign’ British government. The myth of British invincibility was shattered. All people living in Malaya and Singapore had to adjust themselves to life under the harsh, and frequently brutal, Japanese military administration. Those suspected of pro-British activities, or even sympathies, were shown no mercy – tortured or executed. The Sinhalese community, in spite of internal divisions, seems to have worked out a ‘modus vivendi’ with the country’s new masters. They continued with their customary vocations, worked in their civil administration, socialized with them – albeit with great caution. The fact that most Sinhalese were Buddhists led the Japanese, as co-religionists [of sorts] to treat them more leniently. The Buddhist temple and its resident bhikku were untouched and he often interceded with the Japanese on behalf of his ‘dayakas’, as well as other Sinhalese in sticky situations.


Gladwin Kotelawala now enters the scene as a sort of saviour of the Sinhalese. He was the son of a wealthy Sinhalese ‘aristocrat’ Sir Henry Kotelawala, knighted as a pillar of the colonial government in Ceylon. Young Gladwin sought his fortune in Malaya where he was in business. "During the Japanese occupation he served as a price control inspector in Malacca before he enlisted in the Indian Independence League [I .I. L]…..Kotelawala had heard about Subhas Chandra Bose who had visited Malaya even before the war. Subsequently Kotelawala met and associated with Bose and was appointed Secretary of the Ceylon Department of the I.I.L."

His wife Muriel stated his reasons for joining Bose -

"‘If I should die it will be for a good cause’. Gladwin felt that if India got her Independence then Ceylon too would have got hers. He’d visit the homes of the Sinhalese and urge the young boys and girls to enlist in the I.I.L., few did".

"Kotelawala’s dominant role in the Ceylon Department and Lanka Unit of the Indian Independence League is controversial. On the one hand a pre-emptive stance against harassment by the Japanese……may have prompted his active participation with other Ceylonese in ostensible support of the Japanese. On the other hand, a prospect of authority with the envisaged liberation of Ceylonese from the British may have been a motivating factor…..that he would lead Ceylon after liberation."

Bose was a charismatic and commanding figure who had a tremendous impact on the Indian and Sinhalese residents. "An Indian member oh the I I L remembered a meeting addressed by Bose at the Selangor Padang in Kuala Lumpur.

The roads were covered with people……it was a sea of heads. Bose spoke forforty-five minutes and replied questions from the crowd. Registration of members started immediately after. His speech was moving, and with suchfeeling created by him, wives freely donated their jewellery and the menhanded over money to the cause."

Kotelawela was fortunate in his friendship with Bose. This friendship stood his Ceylonese compatriots in good stead. Lionel Dodampe summarized their predicament and Gladwin’s role.

The two Ceylonese communities in Malaya [Ceylon Tamils and Sinhalese] had kept aloof from the activities of the Indian Independence League as they rightly considered themselves not Indians. The Japanese kept a close watch on these two communities…….apparently hostile to the Indian Independence Movement and steps were being contemplated to round up the Ceylonese and confine them to internment camps …….Finally as a last resort Gladwin Kotelawela approached Subhas Chandra Bose, whom he happened to know personally. Bose was very sympathetic on the plight of the Ceylonese in Malaya…..and suggested the formation of a Ceylon Department in the Indian Independence League"

Naturally, Gladwin headed this Department and proudly flaunted his uniform, tailored a la Bose, with jaunty forage cap, jodhpur breeches and top boots.


While most Sinhalese cautiously carried on their civilian duties under a severe Japanese administration, it was a very different scenario for the young and adventurous who joined the INA. "Life was exciting, [said] Gunapala [who] ‘was always in uniform on training in the morning. We had INA badges but no separate ones for the Lanka Unit’ [LU] Indrasoma too enjoyed life in the LU.

‘Mr. Upadhyaya taught us map-reading and Hindustani. I learnt Kendo and Japanese martial art. We were trained in handling seven arms including pistols, rifles, grenades." Uncle Sara" [Manicam Saravanaamuttu] lectured to us and so did Francis Cooray on Ceylon and patriotism. We had drill in the morning, route marches and horse play. We generally had a good time’

They were exempted from the servility expected of civilians. In the Lanka Unit (Gunapala’s) instructions were not to bow to the Japanese but to salute them. They had social events and dramas for relaxation and these opportunities were not missed for propaganda; the programme notes were sprinkled with snippets of patriotic exhortation ‘Long live the Indo-Nippon Alliance’….

"A few Sinhalese were recruited to other roles ….directly by the INA…before the Lanka Unit was formed….. Ariyapala joined the Kikan….ostensibly a business firm but really it was a Unit for intelligence gathering which worked in league with the INA…..Ariyapala found the INA a better setting to express his musical talents than to wage war and he entertained the INA soldiers for a year ‘We had a tamasha rathree(entertainment night) on the first Saturday of every month…"


"Participation in the Japanese-sponsored units of the Indian Independence League was of cosmetic value and survival for some Sinhalese, for others it pampered their youthful desire for action and adventure. The Japanese, however, had more sinister aims for the Lanka Unit, their training programmes in espionage and sabotage were to prepare the ground for their invasion of India and Ceylon and for wrecking the British administration if it recaptured Japanese occupied territories."

"Some members were trained in Penang in sabotage and were to be dropped by submarine on the East coast of Ceylon; Battcaloa was one selected place. The aim of this training was action behind the enemy lines in Ceylon in the vanguard of the invading Japanese and to help as interpreters after ‘liberation’…..and later to partake of the administration.

"The Japanese also set up ‘kikans’ (units or agencies) to facilitate these aims. Some of the Sinhalaese who volunteered for espionage were recruited directly by the Japanese to the units, outside the Lanka Unit, the ill-fated Jayakody brothers were prominent amongst them.

After their training in espionage and transmission both young Jayakody brothers, who had volunteered to go to Ceylon by submarine, were first taken to Guam and then sent by submarine on their spy mission. What happened next is shrouded in mystery "Gunapala of the L.U recalled the Jayakody brothers……They were sent to Ceylon in espionage transmission work to the jungles of Kirinda in south Ceylon, but were caught and shot by the British….Their landing was celebrated by the INA in Malaya but there was no further news about them. It was presumed…..that they were dead."

"After the war George Ranatunga heard of the shooting of some Sinhalese who had enlisted in spy training in the INA. The two Jayakody brothers….went with two Fernando brothers to Ceylon by submarine. They were caught but did not surrender."

Indrasoma’s story is rather different "The Jayakody brothers volunteered to go to Ceylon by submarine. They were off-loaded near Madras and were caught by the British.[after the war] my brother [a govt. officer in Colombo] remembered seeing an official despatch

From Madras, during the early days of the war, that two Sinhalese boys had been arrested near Madras and were executed by the British military as they were Japanese agents." [The two Jayakody brothers were the only Sinhalese who laid down their lives for ‘Dai Nippon’]

Another group of Sinhalese spies seem to have had better luck. It is reported that "a group of Buddhists [Sinhalese] were sent by submarine to Ceylon in September 1942. These men converged on the important naval base of Trincomalee and carried out minor acts of sabotage. An Indian officer sent with the group to Ceylon later reported that they rendezvoused at the port of Trincomalee and contacting a group of priests, successfully carried out sabotage activities,"

[A few months ago I met a Japanese researcher who gave me an intriguing postscript to this reference to bhikkus in East coast temples who were in contact with the Japanese. His story is that one of the Japanese planes which bombed Trincomalee in 1942 was hit by anti-aircraft fire and was ditched in the sea. Fortunately, the two crewmen swam ashore and were given refuge by bhikkus in a Buddhist temple. After lying low for some time, disguised in yellow robes, they were smuggled out to Thailand. They spent the rest of their lives as Buddhist monks in a Thai monastery. I wonder whether the temple was the Seruwila Vihara, on the Eastern coast south of Trincomalee. When I was Govt. Agent Trincomalee (1971-76) the Venerable Bhikku showed me a gyroscope and other odd instruments he had recovered from a Japanese plane that had crashed in the vicinity (TD)]

Japan surrendered in 1945. The Lanka Unit of the INA disappeared into thin air as advised by Subhas Chandra Bose himself in his farewell address to them in Penang. "For heaven’s sake don’t get caught to the British. You boys are at liberty to go anywhere."

That intriguing figure Gladwin Kotelawela was briefly arrested by the British, but released after a few days. The reason for this kid-glove treatment became apparent when, not long after his return to Ceylon, he was awarded the British honour of Member of the British Empire [MBE] to the amazement of his father, Sir Henry. It is now obvious Gladwin had long been a deeply embedded British secret agent. Be that as it may, his intrigues saved Malaya’s Sinhalese community from the worst excesses of Japanese occupation.

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