SUNDAY OBSERVER Sunday Observer - Magazine
Sunday, 4 August 2002  
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Multilateralism

Even though the large number of Government ministers found gallivanting abroad at any given time smacks sadly of undesirable past practices, at least some of them are on missions with an important purpose and impressive results.

The Premier himself has been abroad on several occasions in the several months that his United National Front Government has been in power, but every single trip has either brought results or has been crucial in terms of cementing vital international ties. Similarly, Ministers Milinda Moragoda, Tilak Marapana, Tyronne Fernando and Karu Jayasuriya, among others, have undertaken useful missions and have been received well at their destinations - in some cases, multiple destinations.

What is most remarkable is the careful spread of international overtures by the new government. No longer is there a dogmatic tilt either Westward or Eastward. The death of classical non-alignment has not seen the rise of a single, dominant power bloc, as some may have fondly hoped. While the United States of America has become the world's sole remaining superpower and Europe has largely linked its geo-political interests with Washington, other regional centres of power have emerged and seem set to gain further eminence in what is rapidly becoming a multi-polar world.

The new UNF Government's overseas overtures has been correspondingly multi-lateral as Colombo adapted creatively to the new global environment. In doing so, however, priorities in accordance with geo-political realities have been observed.

Pragmatism and not dogmatism seems to guide our strategy for international relations, at least, at present. Even the thirst for foreign travel, especially to socially prestigious destinations, among some politicians, does not seem to have unduly disturbed the careful balance in our new diplomatic outreach.

While Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe correctly made Delhi his very first destination abroad, both he and his key ministers have already travelled to other capitals that are equally important on the new global power map: Beijing, Tokyo, Washington, and London among others. And now, with the state visit here by President Pervez Musharraf, leader of a country that has militarily helped Sri Lanka much in its secessionist war, the circle of international friendship is complete. Other close friends too will, hopefully, receive diplomatic attention soon, such as those in West Asia and around the Persian Gulf.

VAT

The Value Added Tax (VAT) has arrived, at long last. Successive governments have considered and, in the past, timorously decided to postpone its regime. The UNF Government has taken the bull by the horns and, after an initial hesitation, has now imposed the VAT.

The reason for the nervousness is possibility, if not probability, that the impact of the new tax regime will add further economic and social burdens on the poor. At present, millions of poor Sri Lankans are in such a state as to need some form of free dole-out of food, school clothing and books, and transport subsidies, in the form of a fuel cost subsidy. These measures are what are known as the 'safety net' without which Sri Lankan society may be threatened with further socio-political upheavals due to extreme social conditions.

Previous Governments have been all too aware of this social danger and have always opted for caution in economic and social policy even in the face of pressure by international aid agencies for the strict observation of funding conditions.

In imposing the VAT regime the Government must ensure that every single measure that can be taken to soften its economic adverse impact is taken so that an already volatile situation is not worsened.

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