Dynasty gives Asia another woman leader

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WITH Chandrika Kumara tunga's swearing-in yesterday as Sri Lanka's Prime Minister, she joins the expanding club of women who have risen to power, usually through a family tragedy, in male-dominated Asian countries.

Pakistan, Bangladesh, India and now Sri Lanka are or were ruled by forceful women prime ministers. And in neighbouring Burma, another woman, Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel peace-prize winner, is leader of the opposition - under house arrest - against the military regime.

None of them are self-made politicians, like Baroness Thatcher. But that is not to belittle their achievement, for all have had to survive in treacherous political currents where succession is often settled by an assassin's bullet or a noose. It was considered normal during the Sri Lankan election for Mrs Kumara tunga secretly to fly her two young children to London for safety.

Today's prime ministers, all women in their forties, belong to the political dynasties that cropped up after these South Asian countries were freed from British colonialism. In these young democracies, ideology mattered less than a politician's charm.

Pakistan's Benazir Bhutto, Bangladesh's Begum Khaled Zia, Burma's Aung San Suu Kyi and Mrs Kumaratunga are all either the widows or daughters of political leaders who met violent deaths; it is these woman who became the flame-keepers for the fallen leaders - and their heirs. Among them, only the late Indira Gandhi's father, Jawaharlal Nehru, died in office of disease instead of murder or execution. It is more than a sympathy vote; Asians are steeped in sagas of family deceit and honour such as Hinduism's Ramayana, and for them a ballot is a way of involving themselves in these mesmeric modern epics.

This elite Asian women's club was started by Mrs Ku maratunga's mother, Sirimavo Bandaranaike. Her husband, who was Sri Lanka's prime minister, was shot by a crazed Buddhist monk. It was she who carried on. Mrs Bandaranaike in 1960 became the world's first woman prime minister. Nor is the mother's political career over; although 78 years old, elderly and lame, she was appointed minister without portfolio yesterday in her daughter's cabinet. Despite her frailty and a voice that rarely rises above a whisper, Mrs Bandaranaike covets the Sri Lankan presidency, which falls open in three months.

Not only Mrs Kumaratun ga's father slain, but so was her husband, who was also a rising politician.

'There's an advantage - unfortunately - in belonging to a dynasty, but what can I do?' Mrs Kumaratunga said days before her election. 'I was pushed into this . . . by a popular wave.'