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CBK raises more questions on VoT

No 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.

In his 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".

Finance 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.

The satellite 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.

President Chandrika 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.

"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," she has said in a letter sent to Premier Wickremesinghe dated January 29.

Dealing with 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".

President Kumaratunga 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 the matter."

Enclosing the 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."

The President's letter to Premier Wickremesinghe states: "I refer to the report you sent me on the 03rd instant as requested in my letter of 30th ultimo.

"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.

With regard 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 17th October."

The licence 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."

These statements 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 conducted abroad."

The "expressed 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 Secretariat.

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."

Having stated 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 the LTTE?

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 order.

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.”

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