After 9 years: War lessons for GOSL in 2018

Friday, 1 June 2018 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

We saw the agitation by certain quarters once again on 18 May wanting to commemorate war heroes from one side and from another the people who had died in the war victory. The controversial comments from the Cabinet Spokesperson added fuel to the fire with the country erupting to give their own opinions, which resulted in the President ultimately stepping in to set the record straight. 

Given that I was part of the larger team during the 2007-2009 ‘Eelam war 4’ I thought of capturing the lessons from the war for the current Government (GOSL), even though it’s almost nine years of the war coming to a close.

Dr. Palitha Kohona

I yet remember the year 2007, when I was selected to serve the country in the fight against terrorism by UN official Dr. Palith Kohona. I was initially in two minds but thereafter I decided that in my 17-year career of working in multinationals Unilever, ReckittBenckiser and Hindustan Lever winning awards, twice the ‘Marketer Achiever award’ and a ‘ Business Achiever’ award, it maybe good for my career to serve the country for two years.

The position I took was Director Economic Affairs of the Government Peace Secretariat (under the President’s Office) reporting directly Dr. Kohona. The salary for a month was 63,000 (all inclusive). I agreed, provided that I could have time to study for my doctoral studies too. 

Working under 

threat to life

If I track back in my life after almost nine years, it was one of the most interesting jobs I have done. 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 business exhibitions to connect the business entities of Colombo with Jaffna and defying the LTTE threats was always a way of life of living on the edge.

I remember once, when I was enjoying an ice cream in the popular restaurant in Jaffna, Rio, a Chamber of Commerce member in Jaffna pointed to a senior LTTE cadre who had just walked in. The next thing I knew was that I was whisked away by the Army. There were days I had to travel from the Palaly camp to Jaffna town in an armoured car or the unicorn, as the security forces did not want to take a risk, as we were seen as a catalyst in driving the Jaffna economy in the eyes of the LTTE.

$ 200 billion lost

The adrenaline flow was so strong, that I used to take time to pen articles on anti-terrorism that got me quoted in pro-LTTE websites and subsequently a blanket death threat surfaced. Even this did not deter any of us in our efforts as we believed in the motto ‘country before self’. The fact of the matter was that that LTTE was a banned terrorist organisation in over 35 countries and branded as the most ruthless and brutal force that invented the world’s first human suicide bomb.

On 17 May 2009 when the terror outfit LTTE was overrun by the Sri Lankan security forces on their own turf, it was a historic occasion for the country as we as a nation had lost over 70,000 people in the three decades of war and my estimates revealed that almost 200 billion dollars was the opportunity cost for the country. Incidentally, this figure was almost 10 times the average GDP of the country at that time. 

Whilst we can be proud of the victory, after nine years what see is that the nation is yet struggling to give a better life to an average Sri Lankan. I am sometimes wondering if the two years I dedicated to be serving on the larger team fighting the LTTE was a waste. Let me pick up the essence and link it to the political economy of 2018.

Lesson 1 – Ground reality 

Whilst the tide has turned on the relationship between the former Defence Secretary and the former Army Commander post 2009, the fact remains that they 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 and credibility he has to command troops whilst the former Defence Secretary also survived an assassination attempt at Piththala junction. 

At the outset of ‘Eelam War 4’ there was a situation where the security forces were up against earth bunds at the war zones that the LTTE had erected. The former Army Commander given his hands-on experience on the ground personally instructed the ground forces on where to breach it 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 GOSL – 2018

A lesson for the GOSL was when Sri Lanka went out of the stock of fuel in 2017 and the blanket ban of glyphosate that created many issues for the country. In fact it virtually shut the country and the tea industry. These were two clear situations that the policymakers had no sense of the ground reality. It also revealed that there was a gap in the strategy makers and the public sector bureaucrats, which did not augur well for the government in power. In my view this is the main issue the current Government has is the inability to mobilise and energise the public sector.

Lesson 2 – Attack 

the strengths

The great Sun Tzu advocates ‘attack the vulnerable points’. However Sri Lanka’s strategy was to attack the most difficult points. For example, it took the Army eight months to take Thambapanni which was just four km from the frontlines 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 implication 

to GOSL – 2018

The biggest strength for Sri Lanka post 2009 has been the tourism industry. Investment giant George Sorros and Harvard Professor Matt Andrews mentioned publicly that tourism was the major strength for Sri Lanka but sadly we are yet to launch the global marketing campaign. There was a professional attempt to launch this campaign in 2015, but three days before the proposals were to be submitted, it was cancelled and the Chairman and Board devolved. 

The private sector has continuously harped on this lapse but even after three years it looks like we will not see this happening in this Government’s life. What the policymarkes are forgetting is that if this hits the global media it will give life to brand Sri Lanka with a rub off effect on exports and FDIs. I guess the next 18 months will be crucial for the tourism industry where a new room stock is also coming into play and the industry under pressure financially. Let see how things evolve

Lesson 3 – Different actors

While the war on the LTTE was in progress, the President personally managed key stakeholders such as India, China and Japan so that global support was garnered. To my mind, this was pivotal to the overall victory. In contrast, between 1987 and 1990, the Sri Lankan Army was just closing its net on the LTTE head when there was foreign intervention and the LTTE got away.

The implication 

to GOSL – 2018

The lesson for GOSL is that whilst putting the fundamentals rights the key stakeholders like lobby groups, internal public, foreign governments and the media has to be managed. But sadly, we once again see how poor the current Government is on managing issues like the Kandy riots that hit the global media. It not only dented the image of the country but affected the tourism numbers that visit Kandy and the holiday season in Nuwara Eliya. The blanket blockage of FB and WhatsApp added fuel to fire. This also showed the weakness of the Government in handling global PR. Let’s see how the alleged cricket scam reported by Aljazeera TV channel gets handled in the next few months.

Lesson 4 – Pick your men, though unpopular

When the former Army Commander was asked by a reporter what the key to the success on ground was, he answered, “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.”

The implication 

to GOSL – 2018

The capability of the current Government can be evaluated with research findings of the Pathfinder Report 2018. It highlighted how in 2017 only 8% of the Budget proposals has been fully implemented, 22% substantial fulfilled and another 22% at partial fulfillment. This can be one of the reasons for the overall GDP growth of Sri Lanka to be at a 16-year low of 3.1%. 

Given that the new Cabinet reshuffle was based on a ‘scientific study’ let’s see if at least in 2018 the budgeted proposals happen. The indications on media is that people have not been selected on merit and yet the delivery is poor. Let’s see what happens in the next six months for the financial year 2018.

Lesson 5 – Single command 

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

The implication 

to GOSL – 2018

The implication to Sri Lanka is that we must be sensitive to the reality. As per the AC Nielsen tracking report, consumer end household consumption has contracted for the fifth quarter in succession with Q1-2018, on food, personal care. The current spike on fuel prices will sure drive the Q2-2018 inflation due to the spiral effects on transport, which means further pressure on the household consumption. What Sri Lanka now needs is a single command leadership. 

Post 10 February elections, which was a whitewash by the Opposition, there were moves for the economy to be handled by the President, but yet Sri Lanka is not sure who runs the economy. The speech the President made at the 76th commemoration of the late Ven. Sobitha Thera held at the Foundation Institute citing the making of the ‘100 day plan’ without his knowledge and the bond scam intimates the ‘single command’ leadership not in the system. Let’s see what happens in the next six months of 2018. 

Lesson 6 – Firepower

In 1983, Prabhakaran apparently had only 12 cadres with 20 shotguns but by 2006 the LTTE had aircrafts, tanks, submarines, missiles and a brigade of more than 20,000. In 2006 after the Mavil Aru anicut issue that the LTTE created, the Army first sharpened its human capital, bolstered the necessary machine power and developed an efficient supply chain efficiency that helped outsmart the enemy on all fronts.

The implication 

to GOSL – 2018

The best parallel is the bond scam. Even after Interpol has been alerted, the summons on the former Governor of the Central Bank has not netted the individual. Though the current Government was voted in for good governance, the bond scam backed by the removal of the Finance Minister has really dented the global reputation of Sri Lanka. Sadly we lack the firepower in the Government to correct this issue. Even the impeachment of the Prime Minister was a non-starter for correction for the country to take a new direction. Sri Lanka will watch the developments in the balance part of 2018.

Lesson 7 – Media 

When the war became intense, we saw the strategic moves where all media rallied around the security forces and got the nation’s support. It is called building a visionary community that came from the President downwards.

The implication 

to GOSL – 2018

The implication to the Government is that the recent statement by the Media Spokesperson in the war casualties went viral to all quartets of the country, including the UN. The clergy came out on this which just shows how away the current Government is with the media and general public. Some say that Sri Lankans do not have to watch movies for entertainment as the ‘news’ by the politicians does this service. Let’s see how the balance part of 2018 unfolds.

Lesson 8 – Intelligence 

It is a fact that one of the key points to the success of the war was accurate intelligence that 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 implication 

to GOSL – 2018

The aerial attack by the Sri Lankan air force that killed S.P. Thamilselvan is another classic example of the importance of intelligence, but the current GOSL is very thin on information gathering. For instance, even after three years none of those involved in the alleged scandals of the former regime has been brought to book. Leave alone a conviction, there is zero progress. A case in point is the Ruggerite Thajudeen death or the journalist Lasantha Wickrematunge. It just indicates the weakness of intelligence gathering and fulfilling an election promise made in 2015. The President at the 76th commemoration of late Ven. Sobitha Thero gave a new twist to the workings during the last three years. Let’s see if there will be progress in the next 18 months.

Lesson 9 – Finish 

to the kill

The final battle started in Villamulvaikkal at 2:57 a.m. when 250 LTTE cadres had formed a ring around Prabhakaran and top LTTE leaders. The Sri Lankan troops completed its task during that day and completed an initiative that started two years and 10 months earlier.

The implication 

to GOSL – 2018

The lesson for the current Government is the ongoing issue of SAITM and the piecemeal solution given to solve the issue. Every three months we see demonstrations and water cannon attacks that given fuel for the media to show how weak the Government is. Let›s see if at least this time around post KDA solutions will hold the country together. 

Lesson 10 – Simple life

At a recent interview General Sarath Fonseka said that post the 2009 war coming to an end, he has been living in the same house and the only satisfaction he attempts to get is from his job. He was not into eating in five-star hotels or living in large houses and he wants to continue that same simple life focused on achievement.

The implication 

to GOSL – 2018

Even with such talented and task-driven personalities in the current Government, the leadership fails to give such individuals responsibility or empower them with a task that can change the Government›s performance. It just shows that the current Government lacks the guts to go against the grain and focus on an achievement culture.

Lesson 11 – Young blood

At the saluting parade the Army Commander commented that the war was won by the soldiers on the ground and if not for the youngsters that joined the Army, this victory would have not been possible. Youngsters tend to have no inhibitions and past experience that may impede an’ impossible task’.

The implication 

to GOSL – 2018

The current Government has many youngsters who are very talented and absolute implementers with a private sector attitude. But the reality is that they are not given a chance to show their talent. Some are coming forward and voicing their displeasure but yet the leaders sadly do not heed their call. 

Lesson 12 – Top with you

In my view, one of the key points in defeating the LTTE was that the security force commanders had the backing of the Head of State and the Defence Secretary with a strong common understanding. This was the edge that tilted the coin as well and the whole nation coming together. It was one voice from the top.

The implication 

to GOSL – 2018

As at now there is a power struggle at the top post the defeated impeachment. In fact, media reports that most politicians are having an indirect link to the Opposition so that in the event there is a sudden change, one’s positions can be secured. This is against the grain of an achievement-driven leadership model. Let›s see how the cold war sees Sri Lanka through in the balance part of 2018 as we are stacked against a debt service bill of $ 4.2 billion and 3.8 billion in the next two years.

Lesson 13 – Political strength

Another key point that helped the country achieve freedom from terrorism is the management of political strength when there was so much external pressure. This was very cleverly managed by the President so as to not impact the security forces. The implication to business is that in reality, all organisations, be it small or big, have politicking and this has to be managed.

The implication 

to GOSL – 2018

Whilst the Prime Minister must be congratulated for managing difficult situations in his own party, the fact of the matter is that it has not done any good to the common man post the 10 February elections which was a disaster to the Coalition Government. Many are yet hopeful that there will be change in 2018 but I guess we will have to wait. 

As at now Q1-2018 has been a negative performance on profit for most listed companies with profits declining, whilst at the household end, the cost of living being a drag. Cheque returns in Q4-2017 had increased to 4.2% from 3.5% which are indications of the challenge to living. Let›s see how the next three quarters perform as most companies have put their shutters up on new investments.

Conclusion – 2018

Hence, we see that even after the war coming to a close in 2009, the lessons from the war are yet valid in 2018 in administering Sri Lanka. Some say that the GOSL did what was right when the enemy was real – Prabhakaran was alive, but in the absence of a true opposition has led to a breakdown of cutting-edge strategy. 

(The writer has a double degree in marketing, MBA and has a doctorate in business. He is an alumnus of Harvard Kennedy School. He has served 23 years in British and American multinationals including the UN.  He is currently the Country Director for Sri Lanka and Maldives for a top global organisation.)