In response to a letter by President Chandrika Kumaratunga seeking clarification on the government permitting the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) to import FM transmission equipment, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe sent a letter on January 3, 2003. He wrote the LTTE has not imported VSAT equipment and the consignment was received by Norway, thoroughly checked and moved to Killinochchi under armed guard.
Presented below is the full text of letter
3rd January, 2003
Her Excellency Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga,
President of Sri Lanka,
FM Radio Transmission facilities for the use of the LTTE Peace Secretariat
I write with reference to your letter of December 30, 2002 on the above subject and the attached copy of your letter to the Prime Minister of Norway.
I presume you would have had the opportunity to see the Government’s statement on this matter, which was published in the media on the 28th of December, 2002. In case you have not, I am attaching a copy of this document for your information.
Since the Government’s statement contains much of the information regarding the concerns you have expressed in your letter to the Prime Minister of Norway, I shall only briefly elaborate on issues, which may require further clarification. I note too that we will have the opportunity of discussing this matter fully shortly.
In your enumeration of what you call “the relevant facts regarding this incident”, in your letter to the Prime Minister of Norway, you have taken up four specific matters.
1. The import in the consignment of a VSAT (Very Small Aperture Terminal) communication unit, which you say, even the Government of Sri Lanka does not possess.
2. The inclusion of a Radio Data System (RDS) capable of sending data from point to point.
3. The FM frequency range in the equipment imported by the LTTE, which appears to be wider than the frequencies allotted to other FM radio stations operating in Sri Lanka.
4. The consignment of radio broadcasting equipment to the Embassy of the Royal Norwegian Government in Sri Lanka, intended for the use of the LTTE which was received and cleared from the Port of Colombo without payment of customs duty.
Let me briefly recapitulate what has been more comprehensively explained in the Government’s statement.
On October 1, 2002 the Political Headquarters of the LTTE in Kilinochchi informed my Secretary that the LTTE were now engaging in a dissemination campaign about the peace process and that they had purchased a new FM radio transmitter which they would like to bring to the Wanni. They requested that the relevant authorities be informed to give customs clearance for the equipment and that it would be appreciated if they could receive the equipment without delay and on a tax-free basis.
The Government decision on this, in principle, was that FM transmitting facilities should be provided since dissemination of information regarding the peace process, particularly in the North and East was important. As regards the matter of duty free import, the LTTE were to be informed that this concession could not be granted as it was against Government policy to make any exceptions regarding customs duty and VAT.
Thereafter, the LTTE were informed that a formal application with prescribed information, regarding such matters as location of the station, expected area of coverage, the power for transmission, frequencies and other operational details, programme composition etc., should be sent into the Ministry of Mass Communication, so that the application could receive full consideration by the Ministry and the TRCSL, before arriving at a final decision.
In arriving at our decision in principle to consider the LTTE’s request, the following considerations were uppermost in mind:
* That even at present, the LTTE are operating an unauthorised radio transmission facility popularly known as the ‘Voice of the Tigers’ (VOT). This, Your Excellency, as you are well aware, has been in operation for several years and has been totally uncontrolled by any governmental authority;
* The request for a licence, for the first time in the history of the 20-year conflict in which the LTTE has been engaged in with the Government, indicated a welcome change of attitude. It signalled the LTTE’s acceptance and willingness to come within the ambit of Sri Lankan law and regulation. In fact the Government is pleased that through the grant of such a licence to the LTTE Peace Secretariat, radio transmissions by the LTTE are being brought, for the first time, under the laws of Sri Lanka.
The licence that was finally given by the Ministry of Mass Communication on November 11, 2002 in terms of Section 44 of the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Act No. 37 of 1966 subjects the holder of the licence, (that is the LTTE Peace Secretariat) to specific conditions regarding the content and manner of their future broadcasting.
The LTTE having a legal radio channel has to be placed in the context of the positive developments towards a permanent peace in Sri Lanka. You, yourself have referred at the commencement of your letter to the Prime Minister of Norway the efforts made during your period of nearly 3 years to enter into direct negotiations with the LTTE.
Finally, and no doubt assisted by the foundation that you laid, it was possible for the Government through the signing of the MoU with the LTTE on 22nd February, 2002 to give practical effect to the commencement of the transformation of the LTTE from being, as you have said “one of the world’s most ruthless and murderous organisations” into a political grouping within the mainstream of the Sri Lankan political system.
I believe this profound paradigm shift, which is now in effect, has been favourably recognised and commented on publicly by the international community as well. Making available community radio broadcasting facilities, under regulation by the Government was seen as one way of encouraging forward movement in this positive direction.
Let me now deal with your concerns.
1. VSAT Communication Unit – Although one unit of VSAT communication equipment of value US Dollars 25,000 was listed in the list of items to be imported by the LTTE, and although the Government statement of 28th December presumed that it had been brought in with the FM radio equipment consignment, I am now informed both by the customs and the LTTE Peace Secretariat, that this unit (for which clearance had been approved by the TRCSL) was NOT shipped from Singapore and has NOT in fact been brought into the country.
Since your letter to the Prime Minister of Norway says that even the Government of Sri Lanka does not have such equipment, let me inform you that the SLT certainly does have VSAT communication facilities. In addition there are apparently 16 other authorised VSAT operators in the country in addition to several unauthorised ones.
Even some foreign correspondents are known to be using VSAT communication units for filing their reports overseas, up-linking to the satellite without going through the SLT international switch. You may recall that as far back as 1996 a facility based data communication system was given to the Ceycom Global Communication Ltd., which has now some 42 VSAT earth terminals in their system.
In this regard you might remember that the National Communication Policy which was approved by the Cabinet on the 13th of November, 2002 refers to the liberalisation of VSAT transmissions in the future in view of the well known fact that information communication technology has been very rapidly evolving across the world.
This will mean that in future any person could import VSAT equipment with the approval of the Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (TRC). The up-linking frequency would of course need to be assigned by the TRC.
So in the light of what has been happening here and elsewhere your agitation in regard to VSAT equipment is unclear. Also you will undoubtedly be greatly relieved to know that the VSAT equipment has not been imported.
2. Radio Data System (audio)
The other question you have raised is that of the Radio Data System (RDS). This as Your Excellency may know is an essential part of a FM radio station and all private FM radio stations in Sri Lanka have this equipment. This cannot emit any radio frequency. The value of this equipment was only US Dollars 800.
3. FM frequency range
With reference to the FM frequency range, which you have also found suspicious, the explanation I believe is also quite simple. Different manufacturers evidently have different frequency bands in the FM radio system.
The English may manufacture within a certain frequency band and the US manufacturers in another. What is important is the spot frequency that is allocated by the TRCSL. In this case it is 98 Mhz which no existing operator has been assigned. The Regulatory Authority has the powers to monitor the frequency and the radiated power.
4. The role of the Norwegian Embassy
The major concern that you have referred in your letter to the Prime Minister of Norway is that of the involvement of the Norwegian Embassy in assisting in the importation of the radio transmission equipment.
My observation on this is as follows:
The Government had decided that the acquisition of a FM radio transmission facility would enhance the peace process.
With the intention of assisting in this endeavour, the Government sought to utilise the good offices of the Royal Norwegian government which had done so much to facilitate the peace process to assist in the clearance of the equipment through the Customs. One of the reasons for obtaining the assistance of Norway was that as the facilitator, if the consignment was found to contain anything other than what was intended, that is, radio transmission equipment, the Government was going to disallow import and send the consignment back.
It was in these circumstances that the Norwegian Embassy acted as the consignee with the objective of transmitting the security cleared consignment to the SCOPP (the Peace Secretariat), which would in turn transmit it to the LTTE Peace Secretariat.
However even before this clearance was done, the Government took the step of ensuring that the items would be subject to the strictest check. A 4-member expert team consisting of senior officials of the Rupavahini Corporation, Sri Lanka Air Force, Sri Lanka Army and the Ministry of Mass Communications thereupon went to the Customs warehouse and after opening the packages examined all the equipment.
They confirmed that the equipment was such that was needed for FM radio transmissions and also made some technical observations. These have been conveyed to the LTTE Peace Secretariat for compliance. It was this team, which confirmed that the VSAT equipment was not among the list of items which were imported.
You will appreciate that the FM radio transmission equipment after checking was sealed and finally sent to the LTTE Peace Secretariat under armed guard.
This was done to prevent any other material being introduced into the packages or any items being removed.
The question that awaits settlement is that of the duty payable since, after import by the Embassy the goods were passed on to SCOPP, in the first instance and SCOPP is an agency of the Government.
The Minister of Finance will determine in the next few days the manner in which the issue of duty payable will be resolved. While endorsing your assertion that the Norwegian Government and its Embassy here have been always fully supportive of our efforts to consolidate the peace process, I must urge a note of caution in your intended intervention with the Prime Minister of Norway.
The Norwegian peace support team of Deputy Minister Vidar Helgessen, Mr. Eric Solheim and H.E. Jon Westborg have, as you know, been extremely active in facilitating the peace process. H.E. Jon Westborg, the Norwegian Ambassador has been in service here for almost six years and has an unrivalled experience of the ground realities in Sri Lanka.
It is known that the credentials of his successor have been handed over to the Foreign Ministry in mid-November and that on completion of his assignment in Colombo he will be shortly returning to Norway.
Undoubtedly the Government of Norway will continue to utilise his expertise. I think therefore that as a Government we should exercise due care, at this critical stage in the peace process, to ensure that the enthusiasm of the Norwegian facilitation and the momentum thus far generated continues undiminished. I trust the above clarifies some of the concerns you have raised.
I look forward to our further discussion at an early meeting. Since you have released copies of your letters to the media, I am doing so myself since the public need to be kept fully informed.