COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Construction here of a powerful new Voice of America transmitter--a key part of a planned $1.5-billion expansion of the U.S. overseas network--has been delayed because the government of Sri Lanka wants to change the site although ground has already been broken for the project.
U.S. officials here expressed confidence that the station, designed to beam shortwave radio programs to India, the Soviet Union, East Africa and China, will be completed at the new site. But according to other sources, the $100-million project is in trouble, mainly because of regional political considerations.
One source, a confidant of Sri Lankan President Junius R. Jayewardene, said, "I doubt the station will ever be built."
India, 20 miles from this island nation, strongly opposes the station, contending that it might be used as a covert listening post in South Asia.
For the last two years, the Indian government has sought to mediate differences between the government of Sri Lanka and Tamil separatist guerrilla groups, and Indian diplomats here said they have discussed the Voice of America project with Sri Lankan leaders. They said they are not insisting on cancellation of the project as a condition of their continuing to act as mediators.
"We had a chat about it," one Indian diplomat said, "but it is the Sri Lanka government that is playing games with the United States."
Shifted for Squatters
The Sri Lankan government announced late last month that the site for the radio station will be changed from Chilaw, about 40 miles north of Colombo, to Puttalam, 50 miles farther north, because about 200 squatters living on the Chilaw land would have to be relocated.
But the squatters, mostly fishermen and their families, have been living on the 1,000-acre site since negotiations on the project began five years ago.
The alternative site, at Puttalam, was rejected earlier because of a teak forest project in that area. Nonetheless, U.S. officials said they have been assured by the Sri Lankan government that the agreement on the new site will be honored.
"Things have stalled," one U.S. official said, "but they have not stalled as a project. The government ran into a people problem with 200 fishermen-squatters that was more than they could chew. They immediately came up with another acceptable site. The lease is being renegotiated."
U.S. and Sri Lankan officials agree that the new site will delay the project by as much as two years. According to testimony by Charles Z. Wick, director of the U.S. Information Agency, before the Senate Appropriations Committee in May, ground preparation and design work was then already under way at the Chilaw site.
Competition With Soviets
Wick, whose expansion program also includes new relay stations in Thailand, Morocco and Botswana, visited the site in March and took part in an official ground-breaking ceremony.
The expansion, which involves not only the Voice of America but Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, has been a favorite project of the Reagan Administration, which contends that the United States is being outspent and "outbroadcast" by Soviet propaganda stations.
"The Soviets' broadcast capability is far stronger than ours," Wick said in his Senate testimony. "Radio Moscow utilizes 37 powerful, state-of-the-art 500-kilowatt transmitters. We have paired six aging 250-kilowatt transmitters together to try to match that broadcasting strength."
If the planned transmitter is completed here--construction is expected to take four years--it will make the Voice of America signal in this region 25 times stronger than it is now.
6 Transmitters Planned
The plan calls for the station to have six transmitters with a total output of 2,500 kilowatts. At this level, it would join the main Voice of America station in Greenville, N.C., and another expanded station in Tangier, Morocco, as the most powerful units in the system.
U.S. officials say the increased power is necessary to improve the quality of shortwave signals in the South Asian region and to enable the United States to compete with powerful stations broadcasting from Tashkent in the Soviet Union.
In addition to objections from the Indian government, the Sri Lankan project has also been attacked by the main Sri Lankan opposition parties, including the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, which contends that the station jeopardizes the country's standing in the so-called nonaligned movement.
The weekly Guardian has expressed fear that the station would be used as a base for "ideological Reaganism." The Guardian editor, Mervyn de Silva, suggested that "the propaganda agencies of the superpowers battle it out on their own."