Government maintained a deafening silence when the question of Sri Lanka’s first satellite was raised in Parliament yesterday during the vote on the Ministry of Economic Development. Opposition UNP MP Ruwan Wijewardena asked why both, the Ministry of External Affairs and Ministry of defence were silent on the impending launch of a satellite with the [...]


Sri Lanka shoots into orbit on Tuesday

Local partner of joint venture with China confirms Govt. support for satellite launch despite claims to
the contrary by TRCSL.

Government maintained a deafening silence when the question of Sri Lanka’s first satellite was raised in Parliament yesterday during the vote on the Ministry of Economic Development.

Opposition UNP MP Ruwan Wijewardena asked why both, the Ministry of External Affairs and Ministry of defence were silent on the impending launch of a satellite with the Sri Lankan flag and name by a private Sri Lankan company with a state owned Chinese company.

He asked if the Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (TRCSL) had given its approval for this project and added that such an exercise could have wide implications for Sri Lanka’s immediate neighbours.
The MP said that President Mahandia Rajapaksa’s son, Roshitha and Senior Minister (Science and Technology) Tissa Vitharana had both given their endorsement to the project even without the TRC’s approval.

The communication satellite, a joint venture by a private company with BOI (Board of Investment) status, SupremeSAT and Chinese state-owned institute China Great Wall Industry Corporation (CGWIC), was scheduled to be launched from Xichang launch centre in China last Thursday but was delayed due to “weather and technical issues.” The launch ceremony was attended by Scientific Affairs Minister Tissa Vitarana, Sri Lankan Ambassador to China and President’s youngest son Roshita Rajapaksa, SupremeSAT Group CEO Vijith Pieris said.

R.M. Manivannan, Chairman of SupremeSAT added that the (Sri Lanka) government has not distanced itself from the project.

“It was hurtful to see headlines like that on the very day of the launch,” Mr. Manivannan said, referring to newspaper articles quoting Telecommunications Regulatory Commission of Sri lanka (TRCSL) Director General Anusha Palpita claiming the Government was not involved in the launch.

“We have the full support of President Rajapaksa,” he added. “To us, the President is the government, not a public official appointed by him.”

The scheduled launch of the communication satellite, a joint venture of SupremeSAT (Pvt) Ltd and Chin’s state owned China Great Wall Industry Corporation CGWIC has been delayed till November 27 due to the weather condition

Government officials have maintained that the satellite launch, though called the “first Sri Lankan satellite” is only a commercial venture by two private companies. Director of Technology, Research and Development Unit of the Ministry of Technology and Research, Himali Athawudage said the project was initiated by a private company.

“They came here to inform us officially of the launch,” she said. “Other than that, the Government is not involved.”

Mr. Palpita reiterated to the Sunday Times that the satellite is not government-owned. “I cannot comment on whether or not it is a Lankan satellite but I can say it is not a government one,” he added, not helping with clearing the air on the matter.

Nevertheless, the SupremeSAT 1 satellite carries an emblem of the Sri Lankan flag, which Mr. Pieris said was because the satellite is being launched by a Sri Lankan company.

“The Chinese found us a worthy partner, and we convinced them to let us put our flag on the satellite,” he added.

“Whether or not to call the private satellite Sri Lankan is up to the government,” Ajey Lele, Research Fellow at Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses at New Delhi told the Sunday Times.

“This is like the Sunita Williams case,” he explained. “Williams is an American astronaut, whose father is an Indian, so people here say she is an Indian astronaut. A small country like Sri Lanka, without much visible advances in space technology, could call this a Sri Lankan satellite.”

The Government isn’t inhibited in calling the satellite Sri Lankan. A recent, related press release by the Ministry of Defence and Urban Development was titled “Sri Lanka launches satellite.”

“Sri Lanka is the third South Asian nation, after India and Pakistan, and the 45th in the world to possess space technology and own a communication satellite,” the press release further stated. ” …With the placing of ‘Supreme SAT I’ in Geo-Stationary orbit at 87.5 degrees East, Sri Lanka will enter the exclusive club of nations that own satellites.”

Confusion regarding Government involvement followed after Mr. Palpita commented that SupremeSAT doesn’t have TRCSL approval to use Sri Lankan satellite footprints, the ground area a satellite’s transponders can provide coverage. Mr. Palpita said, if the Government decides to occupy the two orbital slots earmarked by the country, Sri Lanka should seek approval from the International Telecommunications Union, in a time-consuming process that involves seeking permission from neighbouring countries.

“Because this satellite is not relevant to the Government, we didn’t apply for approval,” he said. “If Government decides, we can get the slot. This process takes about three or four years, in addition to the two years needed to launch the satellite.”

Currently, SupremeSAT is paying the Chinese government for using a Chinese orbital slot. “When we commenced this project about two years ago, we asked the TRCSL to let us use Lanka’s own orbital slots, but that application has been pending for one and a half years,” Mr. Manivannan said. “In order to go ahead with our project, we are reluctantly paying the Chinese government to use one of their orbital slots that covers Sri Lanka’s ground area. I understand it takes time, but we have huge investments at stake here, than to wait around for the TRCSL to come through.”

Mr. Palpita said SupremeSAT has only submitted an application to uplink and downlink to the country.
“That application is still pending Commission approval,” he said. “It’s a long process involving one month of newspaper advertisements, followed by a Presidential approval.”

Supreme Group, also chaired by Mr. Manivannan, fashions itself as a regional trader in mineral commodities and companies involved in “reinsurance, investments, oil exploration, mining and consultancy” and hopes to provide satellite television to the South Asian region with the geostationary communication satellite. Mr. Pieris said the company is focusing on doing business in the region as a whole, as Sri Lanka is only a small market. Mr. Manivannan added there’s a huge demand for satellite television in the region.

“The average Indian customer pays about US$ 3 for satellite television, while the average Sri Lankan pays about US$ 10, because service providers here use foreign satellites,” Mr. Manivannan said. “Whether we provide services to Sri Lanka or not, depends on the TRCSL, as we are still awaiting approval. As a business entity with investments at stake, we will begin our services abroad. If we get approval, we’ll start beaming to Sri Lanka too, as we want to benefit this country.”

“We faced many difficulties in initiating this project, as no one believed a Lankan businessman could do it,” he added. “I want this to be a case study of what Lankan businesses can achieve and give confidence to the country.”

Mr. Pieris said there will be a period between launch, “positioning technical aspects” and beaming, while the satellite is expected to be operational by June next year. There are plans under way for a “Space Academy” in Pallekele, Kandy, to serve as the satellite’s ground station, as well as to provide on-the-job training for Sri Lankans.

“SupremeSAT is a Board of Investment (BOI) enterprise built on land leased from the Board’s Pallekele Zone,” BOI’s Media and Publicity Director Dilip Samarasinghe said.

“It is a BOI project, as a BOI company enjoys certain concessions such as tax holidays to encourage investment,” Mr. Pieris added. Mr. Manivannan said the company would need permission from the TRCSL for the radio frequencies before the Space Academy becomes operational.

Mr. Pieris admitted that the project will be “initially dependent on the Chinese company.” China is one of the few countries in the world with satellite launch capacity, and engages in bilateral or commercial agreements with foreign countries to launch satellites, for diplomatic leverage,” Mr. Lele said.

“It’s the concept of ‘soft power’,” he said. “Basically, they try to engage a country in something such as technological transfer, and then later, they assert power in different ways. In a very hypothetical situation, they could sell you a satellite today, but later, if you want something, they could insist you employ a Chinese tech, or else you can’t get it.”

The newly appointed Presidential Spokesman, Mohan Samaranayake was not available for any comment yesterday.

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