Lessons from the war with LTTE after 8 years: Implications for the Government

Tuesday, 23 May 2017 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

 Untitled-2War and business have many similarities. The issue is to have marketing-oriented policies



On 19 May we celebrated eight years since the cessation of hostilities with the LTTE. My mind goes back to the time that I served the country as Director Economic Affairs for the Government’s Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process (SCOPP), which was set up for conducting peace talks, working with the monitoring missions and handling all economic affairs in the north east during the war time.

Personally, though I have held many senior positions in multinational top policymaking entities in Sri Lanka and in different parts of the world, the most memorable job that I have done was leading the Economic Division at SCOPP. The logic being it not only involved tracking the most ruthless terrorist organisations in the world but also countering the psychological war that was fuelled by the diaspora and neutralising it.

Separately, the economic development agenda in the north east was paramount to supporting the battlefront strategies at play. Twice the C130 aircraft that we were flying came under attack of the LTTE but we did not know until we landed in Palaly. The skill of the pilots that guided us was amazing specially taking down a flight from 15,000 to zero just over the Jaffna lagoon.

Tracking the LTTEUntitled-1

The challenge of tracking the LTTE on a daily basis on your work table was a very stimulating experience, knowing that the LTTE hierarchy was doing the same in Kilinochchi. 

Travelling on military aircraft became a way of life. Chartering vessels to carry essential goods to Jaffna after the closure of the A9 due to LTTE attacks, staging the business exhibitions and trade visits in Jaffna linking the private sector to the people of Jaffna was an interesting challenge. Facilitating the private sector to do business with Jaffna even with the raging war in the north, whilst the A9 road was permanently closed, were strategies that we pursued to keep the GDP growth at 6% plus at that time.

There were so many times we moved from the Palaly camp to the Jaffna town in armoured cars sometimes as late as 8:30 in the night, when many times there were attacks before or after the convoy passed. The adrenaline flow was so strong, that I used to take time to pen articles on anti-terrorism that got quoted in pro-LTTE websites and subsequently a blanket death threat surfaced. Even this did not deter any of us in our efforts at work as we believed in the motto ‘country before self’.

Our leader, the Secretary General of SCOPP Dr. Palitha Kohona, used to remind us on the fact that the LTTE being a banned terrorist organisation in over 35 countries in the world and being branded as the most ruthless and brutal force that invented the world’s first human suicide bomb was ample testimony for Sri Lanka to wipe the organisation from the surface of the earth.

Let me capture the key lessons that I picked up during my tenure of heading Economic Affairs for SCOPP and on how the current Government can use some of these pickups.

Lesson 1 – Stay in the game on ground

The then Defence Secretary and the Army Commander were proven battle-hardy soldiers. Both had survived a suicide attack by the LTTE. The Army Commander has been wounded twice in the field which explains the experience he had to direct the troops with authority. For instance when the forces were up against earth bunds that the LTTE had erected, he personally instructed the ground forces where to breach them and how to hold territory thereafter. This earned him the respect to lead not only at the strategic end but operationally too.

The implication to Sri Lanka today is that post 8 January 2015 we find that the top political hierarchy of Sri Lanka do not understand the issues of masses at the ground end. One of the biggest issues right now is dengue fever that has achieved epidemic proportions with almost 126 people dying in 2017. But there is no serious response from the Government. 

Parents are grappling with this in the backdrop of influenza A and B that is now being controlled due to the WHO vaccine that was introduced around three weeks back. H1N1 is also raising its head. The normal trend is that in the month of June flu-related diseases increase in Sri Lanka. It is time that we declare war on this if we are to eradicate this deadly menace just like the Singapore Government did on the SARS virus nationally; this is affecting productivity at school level and among the working population. 

Lesson 2 – Attack the strengths

The great Sun Tzu advocates ‘attack the vulnerable points’, however Sri Lanka’s strategy was attack the most difficult points. For instance it took the Army eight months to take Thambapanni which was just four km from the front lines and many were wondering at that time if the Army could actually win the unconventional war that the LTTE was waging. The Army leadership did not change course but kept its focus on the bigger plan. The troops finally broke through the lines and created a psychological advantage. The enemy on the other hand became weaker due to this strategic loss. 

The best case in point today is regaining GSP+ for Sri Lanka. The Yahapalana Government must be commended for the technical approach taken and how this facility was secured for Sri Lanka as the diaspora was responsible for attacking this strength of Sri Lanka and neutralising it. The previous regime fuelled the situation with the autocratic political rule of law that was in play at that time. Now the challenge is how the policies can be made friendly and thereby ensure the private sector export industry can be stimulated to capture the lost markets. Namely, fish exports where duties have come down from 16% to zero, the toy export industry and of course apparel that has got a break of 9.6%. 

Lesson 3 – Manage the different actors

Whilst the war on the LTTE was in progress in absolute focus with the nation as a whole behind the efforts, the then President personally managed the key stakeholders such as India, China and Japan so that global support was garnered. This to my mind was the key pivot to the overall victory as between 1987-1990, the Sri Lanka Army was on two occasions just closing its net around the LTTE’s head when there was foreign intervention and the LTTE got away.

The lesson for us in Sri Lanka is that whilst globally the thrust was aggressive in the last two years by the Yahapalanaya Government, the local stakeholders like lobby groups, internal public, the public sector technocrats, media and the opposition was not focused on. A classic example is the current SAITM issue which is creating a national issue with a cross-section of the public sector getting involved like railways and bus operators to name a few. 

Lesson 4 – Pick your men, though unpopular

When the then Army Commander was asked by a reporter what the key to the success on the ground was, his answer was: “I selected the task force and brigade commanders not on seniority but on past capabilities on the battle field because when I was at the battlefront I had the opportunity to observe the performances of the officers. I also selected those officers who had confidence in me.”

From the media reports that we see in the last six months there are many cracks in the men who have been selected to ministerial positions. Pick your team on merit and culture fit. Do not let go of a good man just because one does not give into corruption. The stance taken on the cabinet reshuffle is positive but the delay did not convey the Yahapalana leadership that was promised. The challenge is how the hierarchy monitors current leaders selected and their contribution to the country. We have to make the economy achieve 6% plus growth on a PPP business model. But for this there has to be strong governance which sadly we have not seen in the last two years. 

Lesson 5 – Single command concept

The then Army leadership practiced a clear single command leadership of all divisions and task forces that was created so that there was synergy. Separately it was mentioned by the leadership that no brigade, battalion or a division could win a war in isolation and the backup facilities were carefully planned under one leadership.

This is absolutely required today for Sri Lanka. I yet support the executive presidency given that Sri Lanka is essentially an island nation that needs strong leadership with a tilt to authoritative decision. If there is one sector that needs this strong leadership, it is the tourism industry to implement the global marketing campaign. If we single-minded in doing this task, we can make the tourism sector $ 6-8 billion. But this must be done with a research-based approach just like what Australia did.

Lesson 6 – Ruthless power

In 1983 Prabhakaran apparently had only 12 cadres with just 20 shotguns but by 2006 the LTTE had aircraft, tanks, submarines, missiles and a brigade of more than 20,000. In 2006 post the Marvil Aru anicut issue was created by the LTTE and the Government decided to go after the LTTE and eradicate the menace of terrorism from the face of the country, the Army first sharpened its human capital, bolstered the necessary machine power and developed supply chain efficiency that helped outsmart the enemy on all fronts.

Let’s accept it, a government is essentially run by an inner core of four to five people. We have seen this with a critical evaluation of Sri Lanka in the last three decades. It’s time that the current Government picks a few competent people to do this task rather than focusing on a club mentality approach that is in play now. Hope the spirit of the comment is picked up which is said in absolute sincerity. The core must have ruthless power. I truly support the super ministry structure but we must arm it with competent people rather than pulling all the friends into this structure which has been reported recently in the media.

Lesson 7 – Get the media behind you

When the war became intense with the LTTE we saw the strategic move where all media rallied round the security forces and got the nation’s support. It’s called building a visionary community that came from the then President downwards.

This is absolutely crucial today. Making statements like “Daily FT must be used for toilet paper” will not build a visionary community. At the end of the day brands like Daily FT are power brands in the business and opinion leader segments of the population in Sri Lanka. The Government must find ways to get the media around the country agenda. 

Lesson 8 – Strong intelligence gathering

It is a fact that one of the key pivots of success to the war was the accurate intelligence that the key decision-makers received. The Navy was able to sink almost 10 LTTE arms ships due to the information provided by the Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI). The aerial attack by the Sri Lanka Air Force that killed S.P. Thamilselvan is another classic example of the importance of intelligence.

A particular newspaper reported that today’s cabinet reshuffle was going be based on a national intelligence report. This is a very positive sign for Sri Lanka for research-based decision-making. I strongly recommend that an anti-corruption research unit be set up under the Presidential Secretariat so that the Yahapalana ethos can be practiced at the line ministry end.

Lesson 9 – Finish to the kill 

The final battle started in Vellamullivaikal at 2:57 a.m. with 250 LTTE cadres forming a ring around their leader Prabhakaran and its top LTTE leaders, which was broken by the Sri Lankan troops completing their task during that same day and concluding the initiative that started two years and 10 months earlier, which some called Eelam War 4.

On this front definitive action must be done to the close in the cases opened by the FCID, PRECIFAC, etc. To be honest the two-year lag has created a big dent in the very foundation of the Yahapalana Government, but the issue is that if similar financial mis-governance is being done by the current players, leadership becomes tough. I guess this is the challenge that the President is up against. The summary is that the Sri Lankan public is watching the progress on this front.

Lesson 10 – Lead a simple life

At a post-war interview General Fonseka said that in the last three years he had been living in the same place where he was, and the only satisfaction was the duties he performed. He was not into eating in five-star hotels or living in large houses and he wished to continue to live the same life like he did three years back.

The current Government hierarchy is absolutely above board on this front. This is where the private sector is yet having hope in the system. But the issue now is getting the team to score the runs and make Sri Lanka a 6% plus growth agenda. The PPP approach to business is a definitive positive strategy. In fact it is the only way forward. But the unit must be given teeth to drive the agenda. 

Lesson 11 – Young blood

At the saluting parade the Army Commander commented that at the end, the war was won by the soldiers on the ground and if not for the youngsters who joined the Army, the victory would not have been possible. Youngsters tend to have no inhibitions and past experience when it comes to the challenge of seemingly-impossible tasks.

This is a very important attribute where the current Government must use its resources. The fact of the matter is that young blood want to move forward in life and there is a very enterprising set of youngsters who want responsibility. Maybe the same must be extended to appointing chairmen. In the latter one must understand that space must be given to achieve the task set up by the President and Prime Minister and one must not be told to approve the agenda of the appointing minister. This is a very serious issue that needs to be addressed. 

Lesson 12 – Get the top behind 

In my view one of the key reasons to defeating the LTTE was that the security forces commanders had the backing of the Head of State and the then Defence Secretary with a strong mutual understanding. This was the edge that tilted the coin and the whole nation coming together. It was one voice from the top.

On this front we have seen synergy from the hierarchy but on contiguous issues like the bond scam and land grab issues there have been divergent views which I think needs to be addressed with a single-minded view right from the top. Currently the Government is attached on these two issues. 

Lesson 13 – Political stability

Another key pivot that helped the country achieve freedom from terrorism is the management of the political stability when there was so much pressure externally. This was very cleverly managed by the then President so that it would not have an impact on the thrust by the security forces.

This is a tough challenge in a coalition government but it has to be managed if we are to move to a progressive country focusing on the Hambantota development agenda, Kandy development initiative, Trinco drive on economic integration and the port project in Colombo. A tough one but the country must come together on this front.


Hence we see that there are many lessons from the war to the political hierarchy even today, after eight years. The key issue is implementation. I remember a very senior respected public sector official commented: “Even if Sri Lanka implements the plan set out in 1960 we can deliver 5-6% GDP growth.” May be true!

(The writer has the unique experience of working for the private sector, Government of Sri Lanka and the United Nations (UNOPS) at very senior level. He is an alumnus of Harvard University. The thoughts are strictly his personal views.)