Friday, May. 05, 1961

Sinhala Without Tears

During her first ten months in office as the world's first woman Prime Minister, Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike, 45, has a record of more trouble than accomplishment. She has alarmed foreign investors with continual threats to nationalize foreign oil companies, and foreign diplomats by her close relations with the Communists and Trotskyites who supported her election. She dismayed the island's 800,000 Roman Catholics by nationalizing their schools. Last week she had to call out the army before she could quell the latest wave of opposition.

One million Ceylonese Tamils, who migrated from the Indian mainland as long as two millennia ago, but who still speak their own language and practice the Hindu religion, were in a state of near rebellion over the government's proclamation of Sinhala, the language spoken by the 6,750,000-strong Buddhist majority, as the official tongue of the land. Although the controversial "Sinhala Only" law was passed in 1956 under the administration of the late Prime Minister Solomon West Ridgeway Bias Bandaranaike, it was his energetic widow Sirimavo who first set out to enforce it early this year. In the Northern and Eastern provinces where the Tamils are concentrated, government offices were picketed, government vehicles blocked by Tamils lying down in the roadways before them. With local administration paralyzed, the Tamils established their own postal service, defiantly prepared to form their own police force and even hinted at establishing their own autonomous state. Last week some 1,000,000 Tamil-speaking Indians, who provide the labor force for Ceylon's plantations, went out on strike in sympathy.

At this threat to the island's basic economy, Widow Bandaranaike acted swiftly. She went on the radio, declared that "the nation cannot be held to ransom by threats," ordered general mobilization of the armed forces, sent troop reinforcements scurrying up to the Tamil areas. She decreed a state of emergency, under which strikers could be jailed for up to five years, and imposed curfews on principal Tamil communities. She banned the Tamils' Federal Party, tossed into jail more than 70 of its leaders, including all but one of its Members of Parliament. Swiftly, the rebelliousness of the widow's opponents subsided. At week's end the Indian plantation laborers resumed work, and the government claimed that absolute quiet had returned to the Tamil areas.

Since Prime Minister Bandaranaike had also imposed total censorship on all news reports about the troubles, the claim was impossible to verify. But it was clear that the widow's chief concern was for the views of the Singhalese majority, whose votes had elected her, and who, through the years of British dominion, had been eclipsed by the better-educated Christians and the more industrious Tamils. And those who had mistaken the widow's campaigning tears for womanly weakness were having dry-eyed second thoughts.