Friday, Aug. 03, 1962

Miss Willis Regrets

Ceylon, which is famed for such exotic birds as the grey-headed babbler, red-faced malkoha and Legge's flowerpecker, also boasts two even rarer aves: the world's only female Prime Minister and the only female U.S. ambassador currently on duty.

Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike, 46, has headed Ceylon's government for two years, since the assassination of her Prime Minister husband, Solomon West Ridgeway Dias Bandaranaike. Tough-minded, multilingual Frances Elizabeth Willis, 63, first career woman diplomat in the U.S. to achieve ambassadorial rank, was serving in the Oslo embassy when President Kennedy decided last year that the lady Prime Minister and the lady diplomat might get along famously.

Their relations instead have been as cool as Ceylon's breezeswept uplands. Miss Willis, a cordial onetime (1924-27) Vassar assistant professor in political science, believes that the "basis of diplomacy is to be tactful and sincere at the same time." Mrs. Bandaranaike, who confides that Ceylon's fortunes are in the hands of "angels and my late husband," has vigorously assisted the heavenly host by nationalizing Roman Catholic schools, the Bank of Ceylon, transport services, life insurance and the Port of Colombo. Last week the Prime Minister touched off one of the biggest government crises since she took office by announcing a 25% cut in the rice ration. In yet another attempt to ease Ceylon's formidable economic woes, her government last April seized almost 200 gas stations and oil depots owned by a trio of U.S. and British firms (Esso, Caltex, Burmah-Shell). Total value of expropriated properties: $20 million.

Though the Ceylon government agreed to compensate the companies, it let three months pass without even appointing a tribunal to settle the claim. Finally, Miss Willis last month reminded Ceylon's Finance Minister, who also happens to be Mrs. Bandaranaike's nephew, that the U.S. President is specifically empowered to suspend aid to any country that has seized U.S. property without providing compensation in six months. The Prime Minister's response was to draft a waspish letter to the ambassador, retorting that "the best form of foreign aid the U.S. can give to small countries is to abstain from interfering in their affairs."

The letter was also leaked to Ceylon's tightly controlled press, though on reflection a government ministry later denied that the letter had ever been written. Tactful and sincere at the same time, Miss Willis last week pointedly said nothing. Mere men agreed that such a display of patience in quick-tempered Ceylon was as rare as a yellow-eared bulbul—or, for that matter, a lady Prime Minister.