Numbers from Thin Air

The hosting of CHOGM (the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting) by Sri Lanka in Colombo from November 15 to 17 has given an opportunity for Sri Lanka’s human rights record to be condemned yet again. As part of this, Amnesty International has raised the issue of war crimes towards the end of the war against the LTTE Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam).

I have noticed some discussion of this on Facebook. As I have done a special study of the topic, I was particularly interested in what was said about  the number of civilians killed at war’s end.

As a specimen comment, I will take this one by one Nick Gilbert. Nick says:

“My understanding was…” “Forty thousand I picked out of thin air…”

It is always difficult to get a definitive figure in these situations.


Well Nick, you don’t need to just make figures up to suit your argument. Read the IDAG-S report.

I have had a very long telephone conversation with the author of the report and I am convinced that he is not a government shill. If you don’t want to take the trouble to read it, I will help you by mentioning a few salient points from the report:

Although Eelam War IV has been described as a war without witnesses, the authors of this report had managed, through thorough research, to assemble a logical and well-argued package, with convincing substantiating evidence, which casts doubt on some of the calculations being peddled.

After careful consideration, the IDAG-S concluded that the civilian death toll was probably between 15,000 and 18,000. This itself has been challenged by Professor Rajiva Wijesinha, who points out that “only 6000 injured were taken off by the ICRC ships over four months, along with bystanders, suggesting that the figure of the dead would have been less.” The 18,000 figure includes civilians killed by the LTTE, the IDAG-S says, although “it is probable that more were hit by government fire than by the LTTE, the latter’s ‘work’ in this sphere was not small”.

The IDAG-S estimate is, despite the ire of some critics, somewhat higher than some other calculations made by Tamils, who are by no means supporters of the government.

Dr Rajasingham Narendran talked to IDPs who had fled the last No-Fire Zone in April 2009 and later with IDPs at Menik Farm and elsewhere.  His estimate of deaths – “including LTTE cadres, forced labour and civilians — were very likely around 10,000 and did not exceed 15,000 at most”.

Dr Muttukrishna Sarvananthan of the Point Pedro Institute said “[approximately] 12,000 [without counting armed Tiger personnel] “.

Dr. Noel Nadesan: ““roughly 16,000 including LTTE, natural, and civilians”.

Data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal, data “primarily based on figures released by the pro-LTTE Website Tamil Net”, put the casualty figure for civilians inside Mullaithivu at 2,972 until 5 April 2009.

13 March 2009, UN Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay issued a press release saying “as many as 2,800 civilians may have been killed”.

There is a strong case for accountability and recognition of the loss of life. The current situation does not hold out much hope for genuine reconciliation. Naming and shaming on the basis of exaggerated numbers is not the way to persuade the Sinhalese community to recognise the loss of life amongst the Vanni Tamils.  Bludgeoning them with inflated numbers could lead to a backlash.

In Sri Lanka’s case, controversial estimates of civilian deaths were introduced not as irrefutable facts, but as circumstantial evidence to lay the foundation for an international investigation and ultimately regime change. For all its faults, which are legion, the regime was democratically elected, and, according to a Gallup poll, is supported by over 90% of the population (including Tamils).