CBK raises more
questions on VoT
decision yet on VoT customs duty
By Ayesha R. Rafiq
One month after Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe issued
a statement that the question of the unpaid customs duty on
communications equipment imported for the use of the Voice
of Tiger (VoT) radio station operated by the LTTE would be
determined in what he called 'a matter of days', the issue
still remains unresolved.
statement on January 3, the Prime Minister explaining the
circumstances that led to the LTTE importing equipment for
an FM radio station without the payment of duty, said "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".
Minister K.N. Choksy however admitted this week that the government
had not yet worked out the customs duty. "The issue is
being studied by the Finance Ministry in conjunction with
the Customs',," he said.
communication equipment controversially imported on behalf
of the LTTE by the Norwegian Embassy in Colombo without customs
duty being paid, is now fully operational. Customs Director
General S.C. Jayathillake refused to comment on the progress
of the ongoing investigations on the basis that it is a high
level and sensitive investigation.
Bandaranaike Kumaratunga has told Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe
that in future both she and the Cabinet should be consulted on "sensitive
matters" like allowing broadcasting equipment to the LTTE.
of State, I have to keep in mind at all times, the totality of all
the elements that constitute the national interest - the interest
of all our peoples - on any particular issue," she has said
in a letter sent to Premier Wickremesinghe dated January 29.
the subject of "Radio and other Equipment consigned to the
Norwegian Embassy for use of the LTTE," President Kumaratunga
has emphasized that "in the name of the peace process, I cannot
allow preferential treatment to be accorded to the LTTE, which is
denied to others, and could prove harmful to national security and
to peace in the long term".
has sent a copy of the six-page letter to Norwegian Prime Minister
Kjell Magne Bondevik. Acknowledging a letter dated January 6 (in
response to one she wrote), President Kumaratunga has said: "Your
Excellency has stated that with regard to the issue of a licence
by my Government to the LTTE Peace Secretariat to operate a radio
transmission facility, and the role of the Norwegian Embassy in
that matter, my Government's statement on the 28th ultimo has clarified
letter she has sent to Premier Wickremesinghe, President Kumaratunga
has said, "my letter to my Prime Minister dated 29th January
2003 raises a number of questions relating to the manner in which
my Government has dealt with the matter in issue."
letter to Premier Wickremesinghe states: "I refer to the report
you sent me on the 03rd instant as requested in my letter of 30th
"I am constrained
to say that on a comparison of the Government's published statement
of the 28th ultimo with your report to me on the 03rd instant, several
unsatisfactory features relating to the above mentioned matter emerge.
to the issue of licence to the LTTE I have to remind you that neither
I nor the Cabinet was informed of the LTTE's application, although
the issue of a radio licence involves sensitive, legal, technical
and security elements. There could also arise political considerations
such as questions of discrimination in respect of persons and institutions
that might unjustifiably be refused a licence.
I am unable
to agree with you that "the acquisition of an FM radio transmission
facility would enhance the peace process." In fact, it may
well have the opposite effect as widespread public agitation over
the whole episode reveals. I understand that the LTTE transmissions
which commenced on January 16th include LTTE songs and music, and
eulogies of the LTTE''s martial history. This could have a disturbing
effect on the public mood for peace. We must also be sensitive to
the legitimate concerns of our neighbours.
3. I note from
the terms of the licence that the location of the broadcasting station
is to be Kilinochchi and that the coverage area is to be a 20 km
radius. I understand that transmissions are being heard in Mannar,
Jaffna and other places beyond the stipulated radius. Technical
experts say that the broadcasting range of this equipment could
be enhanced with the use of "boosters," to a distance
of several hundreds of kilometres i.e. beyond Colombo and far into
India, for instance.
You say that
the issue of a licence is subject to regulatory control. Who will
exercise that control? Will the LTTE permit them to access the relevant
sites in order that they exercise the regulatory control?
In the circumstances,
please inform the Minister of Mass Communications that I wish to
have fortnightly reports on the content and the radius of the LTTE's
radio transmissions, and whether all the terms of the licence are
being complied with.I
refrain from expressing any view on the legality of the licence
as that question is sub judice.
In your report
you state that "on October 1, 2002 the political headquarters
of the LTTE in Kilinochchi informed (your) Secretary that the LTTE
was 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. According to the Government statement
"the equipment was purchased by the LTTE in Singapore, to be
sent by sea on vessel MV Kota Tegop due to arrive in Colombo on
was issued on 11th November 2002. In other words, the LTTE purchased
broadcasting equipment worth some 118,000 US dollars without having
obtained a broadcasting licence, but confident in the belief that
it would have no difficulty in obtaining one. This is, to say the
least, an unusual procedure.
5. There are
several blatantly contradictory statements issued by the Government
after the vessel arrived in Colombo. The container holding the equipment
was examined by a team of officials appointed by the Secretary,
Ministry of Defence. This team noticed, and recorded the fact, that
the VSAT equipment was not in the container. However, in the Government
statement it is said that "the consignment also contained VSAT
telecommunications equipment which had been cleared earlier under
licence by the TRCSL. This is not a presumption, it is a statement
of fact. Which statement of fact is correct - that of the team of
officials or that of the Government?
6. In your report
you say: "although the Government statement presumed that it
(the VSAT equipment) 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."
are confusing. Are we to believe that the LTTE, having purchased
a VSAT equipment unit in Singapore after obtaining approval from
the TRCSL, did not bring it to Sri Lanka? That is, notwithstanding
the assertion in the Government statement that "the VSAT equipment
in the consignment received by the LTTE Secretariat in Singapore
(sic) is connected to the FM transmission equipment and relates
to LTTE's expressed need for data and voice communications abroad.
This is apparently necessitated due to peace talks being mostly
need" for the equipment seems suddenly to have disappeared
or, perhaps, it may have been fulfilled in some way, other than
by its entry through the port of Colombo.
7. There is
another source of confusion. In the Government statement it is said
that "given the interest of the Government, the Norwegian Embassy
agreed to act as the consignee for the equipment. This was done
on the understanding that the goods would immediately be taken over
by the SCOPP." The reference to an "existing agreement"
was somewhat obscure. What is this agreement? That apart, there
is your statement 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 package or any items being removed." The
report of the team of officials also gives the clear impression
that the consignment was sent directly from the port to the LTTE
Once again there
are clear contradictions between your report to me and the Government
statement. If one is to believe your report to me, SCOPP has had
no part in the whole transaction. Then why was it cleared in the
name of the Ambassador of the Royal Norwegian Government? And how
could the consignment qualify for duty waiver if a Foreign Ministry
or the Agent - in this case SCOPP, have not come into it other than
to sign some documents at the request of the Prime Minister's office.
8. On the question
of duty - yet another serious contradiction of facts appear at this
point. The Government statement says that "after consideration
by the Ministry of Finance the LTTE Peace Secretariat was informed
that this request (for duty free concessions) could not be granted
since no exemption on duty or VAT were being permitted by the Government
in any instance."
in your report at one point, that the radio equipment was sent directly
to the LTTE under armed guard of the security forces of the Government
of Sri Lanka, you state at another point of the said report that
the "goods were passed on to SCOPP" and that the Minister
of Finance will determine "the manner in which the issue of
duty payable will be resolved." Having said that SCOPP was
not involved, you thereafter say it was. Is this a method of making
an exception waiving the duty and VAT payable for the benefit of
9. With regard
to the role of Norway in this episode, you say that "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, which would in turn transmit to
the LTTE Peace Secretariat." I cannot accept that line of reasoning,
In the first
place, delving through your numerous contradictory statements of
fact, it becomes evident that SCOPP played no role in the transaction.
Secondly, I cannot see why the equipment could not have been consigned
directly to SCOPP or even perhaps to the LTTE itself, to be cleared
in the normal way, with duty exemption the evaluation and payment
of appropriate duty or be sent back if the equipment was not in
I do not see
why the Norwegians should have been brought into this matter, unless
it was to provide a cloak of secrecy, so that the public would never
get to know that such equipment for the LTTE had been allowed secretly
into the country by you.
10. By requesting
the Norwegian Embassy, the Government has placed the Norwegian Government
in considerable difficulty - the difficulty of deciding whether
to comply with your request made under dubious circumstances or
not to comply. I would have preferred the Royal Norwegian Government
to have taken the latter course.
11. But it is
primarily your conduct in this matter, Prime Minister, that gives
me, and I can assure you large sections of our people, cause for
concern. It becomes clear that the consignment of radio equipment
for the LTTE was brought in with your specific approval and that
your Secretary, Mr. Bradman Weerakoon, requested the Norwegian Ambassador
to put the seal of his Embassy to the transaction at the last minute
for reasons known only to you.
12. I must make
it clear, therefore, that in future I wish to be consulted specifically,
and I think the Cabinet should also be consulted, on sensitive matters
of this nature. As Head of State, I have to keep in mind at all
times, the totality of all the elements that constitute the national
interest - the interest of all our peoples - on any particular issue.
In the name of the peace process, I cannot allow preferential treatment
to be accorded to the LTTE, which is denied to others, and could
prove harmful to national security and to peace in the long term.
I hope you will comply with the above.