31st December 2000

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A year's account

A government which was elected by somewhat questionable means, has at the conclusion of a long year, failed to legitimize by good governance a palpably dubious return to power.

Chandrika Kumaratunga, who has returned to see the year 2000 out in home - country, has been given more than a rap on the knuckles by the Aid Group, which if you ask all the President's men, consists of her admirers.

All the President's men say that the Chief has charmed the World Bank, and impressed the Aid Group in particular, with her approach to issues that involve economy and governance.

But, the Aid Group report doesn't seem to contain any compliments, either backhanded or otherwise.

The economic performance of the government speaks loud and clear on this aspect. For Christmas and as Seasons greetings, the government has given the people a diesel and gas price hike. This translates as a basic price escalation of most consumer items, particularly food, vegetables etc., whose prices are inevitably related to transport costs.

It can be argued by all the President's men, and even perhaps others that 2000 has not been a good year for world leaders, particularly Asian leaders. From the now seemingly hapless Estrada to Mahathir to Wahid, they have all had trouble, particularly from constituencies which previously invested much hope in these eccentric strongmen.

But, little of the troubles they faced seem to be related to the soaring World Oil prices. Though even the World Bank's regional czar had cautioned in a recent communiqué that "global oil prices are bound to affect Asian economies and strangle growth rates,'' it is clear that most of Asia's leaders face domestic problems that can be traced right onto the doorsteps of their mansions.

Estrada for instance, is facing an impeachment campaign for accepting kickbacks from Filipino business magnates who specialize in illegal lotteries. Wahid is facing all kinds of turmoil, partly because various disaffected groups are not happy with his style of leadership which has not been particularly sensitive to ethnic sentiments for instance. Mahathir has cracked down on his chief political opponent, and as a consequence almost crossed the public's tolerance threshold. A public that tolerated Mahathir because of his good economic management, now seems to be calling for his head because economic gains have not been matched by commensurate gains in the area of governance.

All of Asia seems to point to one obvious political verity, which is that good governance and economic stability are related concepts. The relationship between these two vital political elements may vary from country to country, but the vital consideration is that most polities cannot function with gains in just one area, and not the other.

In the case of Sri Lanka the economy is bad, and governance seems to be worse, which makes it probably a candidate for "worst case.'' But good better or worse, the fact is that civil liberties have come increasingly under assault, particularly in areas of media freedom and freedoms that relate to democratic franchise.

The government has had to face a war, but there is nothing new in the equation as far as this is concerned. However, South East Asia has offered brilliant examples of how profligate and insensitive lifestyles of the ruling cabals eventually led to discontent that resulted in the collapse of strongman regimes. This insensitivity is being mimicked here by the ruling cabal who are doing the grand in London and Paris, while the masses are facing regular almost routine commodity price hikes.

Electoral malpractice, clamping down on the press there is also a familiar ring to these political ways. Mahatir and Estrada will be familiar with these quasi - political institutions. You can bet that they are also familiar with the consequences.

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