Not surprisingly, what ought to have been an hour of great achievement and joy has been shrouded and clouded in mystery. The launch of the country’s first satellite into space on Tuesday is enveloped in controversy. The news of the launch of a satellite with the Sri Lankan national flag on it burst into the [...]


Satellites and astronomical deals


Not surprisingly, what ought to have been an hour of great achievement and joy has been shrouded and clouded in mystery. The launch of the country’s first satellite into space on Tuesday is enveloped in controversy.

The news of the launch of a satellite with the Sri Lankan national flag on it burst into the public domain rather dramatically. It seemed a well-kept secret. Only a select few were in the know. There was nary a word to the public of what should have been a momentous occasion for a country like Sri Lanka, for whom space exploration and the space age are largely beyond reach. The question is, why the silence.

The silence, however, was broken by a private, hitherto unknown company announcing the launch of the satellite – from China. If the silence was broken by the company’s ‘out-of-the-blues’ announcement, it was shattered by a statement from the Director General of the Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (TRC) of Sri Lanka. He quickly disowned the project saying the Government of Sri Lanka had nothing to do with this exercise.

What followed was a pantomime of charges and countercharges with the private company chairman having the audacity to ask who the devil an official of the Government was when none other than the President of the Republic had given the seal of approval for the project. Government Ministers and VIPs were already at the launch pad site.

Who paid for their visit to China is not known. The DG stood his guns and then, the President himself entered the fray with a statement saying that a satellite carrying the Sri Lanka flag was launched “into the new frontiers of space”, and that this was a great day for all Sri Lankans. The President simply took the side of the private company against his official.

The facts are still hazy. What is known is that this satellite – the ChinaSat -12 communication satellite — is not the property of Sri Lanka, or the Sri Lankan company. It is being shared with four others. Only a part of the payload has been leased to the Sri Lankan company and is co-branded as SupremeSat -1, after the company’s name. This was after the company had entered into a partnership agreement with China Great Wall Industry Corporation (CGWIC) and also to secure marketing facilities of many other satellites owned and operated by CGWIC and the China Satellite Corporation.

It is also known that this is a replacement for a French-built satellite that China launched in 1998. These satellites have only a 15-year lifespan and that satellite was to be non-operational in May 2013. SupremeSat-1 is to be operational in June 2013 for 15 years. It is at azimuth of 131.3 and an altitude of 78 degrees as seen from Moratuwa.

Fears that it will be used for spying on India due to its location at the longitude of the Andaman Islands is going literally too far, because at a distance of 23,000 miles up in space, the satellite is beyond spying range. This is China’s 18th orbit launch this year, and its 173rd altogether, which might explain India’s lack of concern.

What exactly is the Sri Lankan Government’s involvement in this operation? Apart from the President’s statement on what a great day it was for all Sri Lankans, and the TRC DG saying it does not have the Government’s concurrence, however contradictory the two positions are, no details have been given of the Government’s involvement. Coming as it does in the backdrop of announcements of a Space Academy in Pallekelle with the support of this company, and the company stating that it will inject an investment of more than US$ 350 million ((Rs. 48 billion), the seemingly un-official involvement of the President and his Government in all this is unclear, if it was a private project.

The private company is owned by a young businessman who claims he has made his millions — or should be billions — in the commodities business (Please see Page 8). About Rs. 48 billion to be invested by a company unheard of until now would naturally raise eyebrows.

According to information published on the Internet, the satellite will serve the demands of  ommunications, satellite broadcasting, data transmission, digital broadband, multimedia system and media streaming services from China to Australia, Africa, West Asia and South Asia covering quite a large footprint.
It is one matter if this is purely a commercial exercise by a private company, but an investment of Rs. 48 billion is quite a sum for any company. Did the Government invest in the project? Were public funds used? The Government is silent on this.

Dealings with China have often been below the radar. Parliament was told this week that the sum of what was called ‘development aid’ to Sri Lanka over the past seven years only from China was Rs. 480 billion. Yet, details of these transactions are hard to come by. The Opposition asks no questions, so the Government has to tell no lies either. How much of this is aid or grants or loans, no one seems to know. Communist China cleverly employs the capitalist system to mix dealings between the private sector and the state sector and Sri Lanka seems to be playing the same game.

The satellite project is a classic example of how business seems to be done by the Government of late, and particularly with China.

Transparency is the last thing the Government is interested in. Yet how often do such deals happen to boomerang? Take the case of the Central Bank’s controversial investment in property in New York as much as its misadventure in the investment of Greek bonds. Take the example of what is happening with Colombo’s prime real estate in the Colombo Fort, where an Indian private company that has not got clearance from its own mission in Sri Lanka has been given the go-ahead for a massive project. Take the case of the Colombo Stock Exchange where millionaires have been born overnight in shady deals with the Government’s know.

Who are these fly-by-night investors that are doing business with the Government of Sri Lanka, and vice-versa? The people are in the dark about so much of what is happening. When asked why the Central Bank’s property deal in New York is not recorded in its Annual Report, the answer given is that it will be recorded next year. Why next year and not this year? Because it is the first such overseas transaction by the Central Bank! Such are the answers trotted out to the country.

The Government is keen that the Right to Information Law is not in place, and the reasons are obvious considering the way it is doing business with the outside world. Eventually, however, it will be the Government that will have to carry the can of responsibility. It cannot escape from that fact of life.

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