By Krishna Kalaichelvan –
At first, the announcement of a “scientifically designed census” that will be conducted by the Department of Census and Statistics of Sri Lanka on “deaths/ injuries to persons and property damages during the period of the conflict as recommended by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC)”, was a pleasant surprise to me, then I am reminded of #HRC22 aka UN Human Rights Council regular session 22, an attempt to ease the US led pressure in Geneva. Still, I hope this will be a genuine attempt to count the civilian deaths and injuries (irrespective of ethnic and religious identities) during the conflict period in Sri Lanka.
According to this press release, a “steering committee” has been appointed to work under the secretary to Ministry of Public Administration and Home Affairs and the committee has devised a “centralized system of data collection at the national level integrating all information with regard to missing persons”.
There are few ‘issues’ I would like to raise regarding this census;
Though I recognize that the active conflict period can be defined as 1983 -2009, but it is important to record the deaths and injuries that happened during many of the anti-Tamil riots and pogroms since 1950s.
And it was mentioned in that press release that this project is part of the National Plan of Action for the implementation of the LLRC recommendations, hence confines to Sinhala-Tamil ethnic conflict only. It is equally important to carry out a similar “professionally designed house hold survey” to count the deaths and injuries happened during the two JVP insurrections in the south. Despite the work of few Presidential Commissions, there are no detailed recordings of deaths and disappearances; the recent discovery of mass grave in Matale proves again that the chapters on two JVP insurgencies are yet to be closed.
In terms of methodology, even though there is no shortage of competent statisticians and epidemiologists in Sri Lanka, there are non-political technological resources available internationally for Sri Lankan practitioners to seek in order to conduct this complex study. Especially a technical level interaction with organizations like the UK based Oxford Research Group is possible without the accusation of foreign interference. Therefore the Sri Lankan practitioners will enormously benefit by familiarising the experiences of their international colleagues’ in managing complex studies such as ‘Iraq Body Count’ and ‘The Bosnian Book of Dead’.
Because of thirty years of war and large-scale emigration, a territorial based census will not be an adequate-enough methodological approach in Sri Lankan context. Thus nearly a million strong Tamil diaspora must be included into the study population. In current political context it is unthinkable that the government or the Tamil diaspora will cooperate with each other on this issue. If we really wanted to count every civilian casualty that occurred during the ethnic conflict, it is possible only by adopting a non-territorial methodological approach, a transnational virtual field study. Such a project will be a logistical nightmare and needs huge resource input. That is why I am permanently-skeptic about any grandiose pronouncements of ‘counting’ the war dead in Sri Lanka.
I am hopeful that the Department of Census and Statistics of Sri Lanka will do a far better job than Frances Harrison’s claim of ‘counting’ the war dead during the last Vanni war.
I am not pretending that this study has no political implications; in fact if it is ‘properly done’, the outcome may be politically embarrassing for the incumbent and past Sri Lankan governments, especially when comparing with the figures provided by the infamous ‘Lanka Puvath’ in the past. But a genuine reconciliation process can take place in Sri Lanka only when there have robust measures been taken to address the issues of accountability and justice. Therefore the Sri Lankan practitioners have a huge moral and ethical responsibility in conducting this study in a professional manner without giving into political prejudices.
*Krishna Kalaichelvan (anapayan) is a UK based commentator on Sri Lankan and South-Asian politics, global health and international security, he is a medical doctor by training. His articles can be found at anapayan.wordpress.com