Friday, Jan. 17, 1964

Leftward Lurch

"Nothing happens," a British governor of Ceylon once complained: "The sun shines in the morning, and sometimes it rains in the evening." Those days are gone forever. Currently, a lot is happening in Ceylon, most of it ruinous. Declared a top government economist: "We've always lived well and without worry. Even the more humble people could pick a pineapple or coconut and catch a few fish. But now we're in real trouble."

No Sarongs. Responsible for the mess is the floundering leftist regime of Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike, 47, who became the world's first elected female chief of government in 1960 after the assassination of her Prime Minister husband, Solomon West Ridgeway Dias Bandaranaike. Swept into office on a tide of emotion, the widow is quickly depleting an inheritance of good will.

Campaigning in a parliamentary by-election, Mrs. Bandaranaike ventured into the countryside, where she had once been a virtual mother image. Now, angered by the acute textile shortage that grips the nation, villagers greeted her by appearing in plain breechcloth instead of their usual sarongs and saris. When the votes were counted last week, the government candidate ran a poor third, reducing her bitterly divided Sri Lanka Freedom Party to 77 seats in the 157-member Parliament. To stay in power, the Prime Minister—who is also her own Minister of Defense, Foreign Affairs and Information—has increasingly relied on the votes of assorted Marxists, Trotskyites and Communists.

Pressure from the radical left has forced Ceylon closer to the Red trade orbit, caused economic chaos. The severe textile shortage is largely the result of a policy that limits most imports of cloth to Russia, Poland and Red China. Other restrictions have boosted the price of potatoes, dhal (a tropical pea) and cabbage by 50% to 100%.

Cash Shortage. The most serious crisis is a three-month strike for higher wages by 1,500 clerks on the Colombo docks, which has mushroomed into a sympathy walkout by more than 13,000 other white-collar workers. Warehouses bulge with millions of pounds of unsold rubber and tea. Many of the vast plantations cannot meet their weekly payrolls because they are short of cash. Foreign trade is at a virtual standstill. As the Cabinet leveled a back-to-work ultimatum at the strikers last week, Colombo buzzed with rumors that Mrs. Bandaranaike could only remain in office by declaring a state of national emergency.

Meanwhile, the leftward lurch continues. The island's new chief source of oil is the Soviet bloc, following the seizure of three U.S. and British firms (Esso, Caltex, Burmah-Shell) and the creation of a government oil combine. The Western companies have not been paid a cent for their properties worth $29.5 million; as a result, the U.S. has canceled further economic aid to Ceylon after doling out a yearly average of $7.5 million over the last decade.

Keep It Flying. The frenzy of socialization has spawned 15 government-operated enterprises; only one, the cement trust, is earning a clear profit. Air Ceylon consists of a single DC-3, employs dozens of executives to keep it flying. The national salt corporation was so mismanaged that although the island is washed by the salt-rich Indian Ocean, it has had to import salt from abroad. Even Ceylon's Communists are complaining. While carefully exempting Mrs. Bandaranaike from criticism ("the only man in the Cabinet"), Cambridge-educated, pro-Soviet Red Leader Pieter Keuneman lamented: "This government is not going any place."

In addition to economic and political turmoil, Mrs. Bandaranaike has touched off religious bitterness. The government nationalized 700 Roman Catholic schools, refused to issue building permits for any more. Climaxing a long campaign against the English-speaking government elite and the Tamil-speaking Hindu minority (almost one-quarter of Ceylon's 10.6 million people), Mrs. Bandaranaike ordered that all official business must be conducted in Sinhala, the language of the Buddhist majority.

The Tamil Federal Party declared a day of mourning. Hundreds of registered letters piled up in post offices because registry slips were addressed in English. Some 2,300 civil servants quit without waiting for the switch to Sinhala to become official; remaining bureaucrats are already evading the language decree by circulating memos in English with the notation in the margin: "Sinhala version to follow." It rarely does.