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NOVEMBER 3, 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 43 | SEARCH ASIAWEEK


Edwin Tuyay for Asiaweek.
Media Sleuth - Sheila Coronel, Philippines.

Their Mission: Busting Graft
Many are determined to end the bad old ways

ALSO
Struggle: Why Asia's battle against cronyism is taking forever
Connections: Li Ka-shing has got them
Fall: Suharto's buddies are fighting their way back
Fighter: Sabri Zain on the new Malaysia
Cronyism in Asia: A primer

Meet the graftbusters — men and women who are dedicated to seeing that corruption, cronyism and dark financial deeds are swept from the Asian scene. Their politics, backgrounds and beliefs may be different, so often too are their methods and their ability to make a real difference. But they are bonded in their belief that if Asia is to experience genuine economic and social growth, there must be an end to the bad old ways. There are tens of thousands of these people. Here are six
.

Media Sleuth
Sheila Coronel Philippines
By ANTONIO LOPEZ Manila

She is slight of frame and soft of voice. But anybody who thinks Sheila Coronel is a lightweight would be making a serious miscalculation. The executive director of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) gives nightmares to the most powerful in the land — including, these days, President Joseph Estrada. In the latest in a series of revelations that have shaken the top levels of the political establishment, Coronel and her colleagues on Oct. 22 accused business friends of the president of accumulating fabulous Manila properties for him and his mistress, Laarni Enriquez. Earlier, PCIJ embarrassed the president by revealing the activities of a so-called midnight cabinet and drinking sessions with wealthy cronies that went on into the early hours of the morning.

If Estrada is feeling picked on, he shouldn't. His predecessor, Fidel Ramos, was similarly roasted when in office. In 1993, the center for investigative journalism (Pcij.org) bared the undue influence on the government of Ramos's former mistress, Rosemarie "Baby" Arenas. Other reports during the Ramos years revealed the plunder of health funds, shady loans to the powerful, justice for sale in the Supreme Court, kickbacks to government officials over land deals and a multi-billion-peso scam involving a theme park (now idle) inside the former U.S. air base at Clark — all in all, a damning litany of venality in one of the most corrupt political systems in Asia.

Coronel, who is in her 40s, founded the PCIJ in 1989 with a few thousand pesos, one staffer, a second-hand typewriter and a few rickety chairs and desks. Today it employs 14 staff, attracts tens of thousands of dollars in funds each year from international foundations and has trained hundreds of local and ASEAN journalists. Of her work, the crusader says: "We invest our time, talent and resources so that we can bring about real change." And that, say many, is precisely what is needed in the Philippines.

Attack Lawyer
Lee Seog Hyun South Korea
By LAXMI NAKARMI Seoul

A bone-chilling winter could lie ahead for South Korean graft-fighter Lee Seog Hyun. The secretary-general of the Citizens' Coalition for Economic Justice (CCEJ) says he and an army of supporters will camp out in the grounds of the National Assembly later this year if lawmakers fail to pass a bill to set up a special body to tackle corruption. "I'm passionate about this," says Lee. "I am convinced that we must have new laws to prevent the rampant corruption that has been the root cause of all our social evils and economic problems."

Strong words, but 46-year-old Lee is no firebrand. Formerly a junior judge in the Constitution Court — a position at the heart of the establishment — he believes that the way to root out the evils of cronyism, corruption and the abuse of power is to give the country better laws. "I am trying to change the CCEJ from a radical anti-establishment NGO to an organization that uses legal means to bring about change," he says. One of those reforms, he hopes, will be legislation that introduces greater transparency in public life. "Rather than emotional appeals, we are going to put pressure on the political parties and the government to close the loopholes and increase transparency of the system." Until that happens, he believes, politicians, businessmen and vested interests will continue to amass illicit wealth at the expense of the common good.

As head for the past 15 months of the CCEJ, Lee has 70,000 supporters and 54 chapters behind him, as well as the services, free of charge, of 1,000 lawyers, accountants and other professionals. He says: "I am going to use the vast knowledge base we have to bring about legal and institutional changes to fight corruption." Is he making progress? Not yet, he acknowledges. "I am sorry to say that corruption has increased in the past few years." But he believes things will improve. "We need more time."

Campaigning Editor
Lasantha Wickrematunge Sri Lanka
By KSHAMA RANASINGHE Colombo

It was about 11 at night when Lasantha Wickrematunge heard the first bangs. Initially, he thought it was someone letting off fireworks in the neighborhood. But then a domestic helper rushed in to warn him his house was under attack from gunmen. No one was hurt in that June 1998 incident, though two vehicles parked in the compound were destroyed. Wickrematunge, editor-in-chief of Sri Lanka's The Sunday Leader newspaper, gave the police the names of those he thought responsible, but never heard any more about the matter — even though President Chandrika Kumaratunga had personally ordered an investigation.

That wasn't the first time the campaigning journalist had been subjected to violence. Three years earlier, The Leader, as his paper is known, published allegations of corruption at the national airline, Air Lanka. Then, when Wickrematunge and his wife were driving home one evening, they came across a car that appeared to have broken down. When they stopped to offer help, they were set up upon by masked men. Wickrematunge was hospitalized with injuries caused by a pole with nails driven through it. His journalist wife was also hurt.

The father-of-three is undaunted. "I consider these incidents an occupational hazard," he says. "They only strengthen my resolve to continue with my work." He says that when The Sunday Leader was launched in 1994, he was assured there would be no management interference. "Investigative reporting naturally followed," he explains. But in six years of exposures of illicit arms deals, graft and bribery, only once has the political establishment blushed enough to take action. That was in 1996, when Wickrematunge revealed that a senior bureaucrat who was holding the posts of secretary in a ministry, chairman of a publishing house and director of the national airline had altered his date of birth. He lost all three jobs. The government's failure to act on any of Wickrematunge's other revelations says more about the arrogance of the political elite than it does about The Leader.

Occasionally, he has had victories of a different kind. Irritated by what he saw as double standards in censorship of coverage of the war against the Tamil Tigers, Wickrematunge in May introduced "reverse reporting" to the pages of The Leader. Under the headline "Palaly Not Under Attack," the paper gave an account of the military action, but with everything delivered in the negative. The authorities were incensed. The Leader was banned for six months. The penalty was later reduced to three months on appeal, but the real victory came when the Supreme Court overruled the ban altogether.

Then in September Wickrematunge received an award from Berlin-based Transparency International for his efforts to expose graft in public life. "We have international attention focused on Sri Lanka," he says. How many more exposEs will it take before Sri Lankan authorities focus on the country's problems?

E-list of Shame
N. Vittal India
By RITU SARIN Delhi

No one wants to be on N. Vittal's list. The head of India's Central Vigilance Commission has put up on the CVC website (Cvc.nic.in) the names of some 800 bureaucrats involved in corruption cases. Since Vittal, 62, took over two years ago, the commission has sprung to life. Besides posting the e-list of shame, the career bureaucrat has disseminated complaints boxes prominently displayed outside government offices.

Earlier this year, Defense Minister George Fernandes asked the CVC to examine all contracts since 1985 and vet new ones — a breakthrough in military procurement. Vittal has begun looking into banks and companies. Frequently invited to speak at gatherings, including a recent one in Harvard, he has made corruption and transparency hot topics in Delhi.

Vittal got his no-nonsense reputation as chair of the Telecom Commission, where he formulated the national communications policy. In his speeches, he quotes Sanskrit shalokas (verses) as often as English poetry. With the recent convictions of top officials like Narasimha Rao and Jayalalitha Jayaram, Vittal is inspired: "Fighting corruption is an idea whose time has come. My destiny has put me here."

The graftbuster deplores money laundering. "The entire political system revolves around black money," he laments. "There is also a very tolerant attitude to corruption, and the Hindu concept of the ruler not doing wrong is still in place" But thanks to Vittal, even that is changing.

The Graftbusters
Independent Commission Against Corruption Hong Kong
By ALEXANDRA A. SENO and ANTHONY SABINE

It is Hong Kong's bulwark against sleaze: the Independent Commission Against Corruption. In 1983 the ICAC hauled in George Tan, then head of the high-flying Carrian Group, on charges of making false business statements. In 1998 it questioned magnate Sally Aw on allegations that her newspaper padded circulation figures (she was not prosecuted for lack of evidence). Last month deputy tax chief Sin Law Yuk-lin was brought in for suspected housing allowance anomalies. "The ICAC has a fantastic reputation around the world," says legislator Lau Kong-wah.

Set up in 1974 to fight police graft, the ICAC has almost single-handedly cleaned up Hong Kong's name. "We investigate every allegation irrespective of the people involved," says commission spokesperson Francis Li Kwok-kay. Today, the territory consistently receives high marks for transparency in international surveys. Besides chasing offenders, the commission conducts anti-corruption publicity and recommends procedure changes in government offices and private companies to reduce opportunities for corruption.

From January to August this year, ICAC operations led to 214 convictions out of 2,657 reports from the public via a hotline number, the Internet or in person. Confidence in the ICAC, headed by career civil servant Alan Lai, is high: almost 70% of informants give their names. Reports are up about 18% from last year. "In the Asian financial turmoil, the collapse of companies and increased vigilance have revealed corruption and fraud," says Li.

Sonny Lo, associate professor of politics at the University of Hong Kong, frets, however: "The most daunting task is educating the public. People can become complacent and easily forget." Another looming concern: mainlanders trying some sleaze in Hong Kong. Luckily, the ICAC itself is not letting up. It is beefing up its capabilities in electronic investigation and cross-border operations. In mid-November it is hosting its first symposium for law enforcers around the world.

Can the ICAC model, so successful in a city, be replicated in a large country? In some respects. One is the sweeping powers of investigation, arrest and seizure of evidence — as long as due process is guaranteed. Another is freedom from interference by other officials. But most important is the ICAC's dedication to a relentless pursuit of corruption. There is no rest for the wicked — and those who hunt them.

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