5 December, 2020

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This Is No Game

By Kath Noble

Kath Noble

Some months ago, my attention was drawn to a report on civilian deaths in the final phase of the war. The author – as yet unnamed – claimed to have something important to add to the debate that began in 2009 as the Army closed in on the LTTE in Mullaitivu.

I must admit that I didn’t feel very inclined to read it. Of course it is disturbing that estimates of the number of people killed between January and May that year vary from almost zero to 147,000. But there are many things to be disturbed about in Sri Lanka – the Government is pursuing a thoroughly regressive agenda on just about every front. Should we ignore its failure to tackle extremist groups, even if only for a moment? What about its effort to roll back the 13th Amendment? How could we justify focusing on a subject that is clearly no longer urgent? In 2009, the LTTE had surrounded itself with an unknown number of people, and the question of how the Army was responding was of obvious importance – lives were at risk.

Today, taking time to uncover the truth of that painful episode seems like a luxury. That alone is a tragedy.

When the report is called ‘The Numbers Game’, it is even more difficult to persuade oneself to proceed. Whatever the body count, we are talking about the violent end of somebody’s relatives.

Still, history is being made, with or without our participation.

In the last four years, global certainty about mass killings by the Government has increased substantially. Soon after the end of the war, the US Ambassador at Large for War Crimes Issues was quoted as saying, ‘The Army could have won the military battle faster with higher civilian casualties, yet chose a slower approach which led to a greater number of Sri Lankan military deaths.’ (Unlike our policy, he obviously didn’t add.) It would be almost unimaginable for an official from the United States to make such a statement today. Yet what new evidence has actually emerged?

Isn’t it the case that we don’t know anything more now than we did then, as regards civilian deaths?

Of course the United States is not generally very concerned about proof. If it has decided on a course of action – for whatever reason – it will find a way of justifying it. But that’s the United States.

One of the key contributions of the report is its explanation of where the various estimates come from.

The author shows that in essence two different methodologies have been applied. The first works on the basis of specific casualty reports, as recorded by people who were present in the Vanni, while the second calculates the discrepancy between the size of the population in the Vanni before the final phase and the number who were registered as IDPs afterwards.

Initially, more attention was paid to the first method.

The United Nations had a network of informants to monitor civilian deaths from January 2009. This included more than 200 of its local staff and the local staff of international NGOs – who had been prevented by the LTTE from leaving with their foreign colleagues in October 2008 – plus various medical officers, government agents, clergy, education department staff and community leaders.

While the conflict was going on, they compiled reports from around the Vanni for the purpose of keeping the international community informed of the ground situation. These figures were leaked to the media at the time – 17,810 civilian deaths up to May 13th, of which 7,737 had been verified by more than one source. (Verification was considered important to account for the pressure that was being brought to bear on the informants by the LTTE, which was keen to present as appalling a picture as possible so as to provoke an R2P intervention.) After May 13th, this monitoring became impossible due to the intensity of the fighting. At this point, the United Nations extrapolated on the basis of what it believed to be the daily body count to reach around 11,400 civilian deaths in five months.

Later, on the basis of information about a single incident, the United Nations decided to increase their daily body count for May, bringing the total to 20,000.

At the time, the United States was careful to add a caveat to these figures. The State Department said in its Report to Congress on Incidents during the Recent Conflict in Sri Lanka, ‘The UN did not rigorously seek to exclude the deaths of possible LTTE conscripts.’

In other words, it suspected that the number of civilian deaths was lower.

However, with the Government ignoring calls for a comprehensive survey listing who died and how – which could also have attempted to separate civilian deaths at the hands of the Army from civilian deaths at the hands of the LTTE – space opened up for this conclusion to be questioned using a far more doubtful methodology.

It was the University Teachers for Human Rights who first came up with the figure of 40,000, in December 2009.

This and all subsequent estimates, up to and including 147,000 – suggested by the Bishop of Mannar in his evidence to the LLRC in January 2011 – were based on the number of people supposedly unaccounted for in the Vanni. The figure of 40,000 corresponded to 330,000 minus 290,000, or the population in the No Fire Zone at the end of February 2009 according to an Assistant Government Agent by the name of Parthipan minus the number of IDPs who had been registered by the Government in collaboration with the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs by the end of May 2009. That of 147,000 corresponded to 429,000 minus 282,000, or the population of the Vanni in October 2008 according to the Kachcheris of Mullaitivu and Kilinochchi minus the number of IDPs in July 2009.

The figure of 70,000 – currently preferred by the United Nations – corresponds to 360,000 minus 290,000, or the number of people in the Vanni in January 2009 according to Government Agent for Mullaitivu Imelda Sukumar minus the number of IDPs at the end of the conflict.

The report questions these calculations from both angles.

It points out that the 290,000 IDPs were not the only people to come out of the Vanni. In May 2009, another 12,000 people were being held by the Government on suspicion of being LTTE cadres, while an unknown number paid to escape the camps.

More crucially, it exposes serious discrepancies in the population figures.

They all come from the same source, essentially speaking – they were provided by government officials. What happens when we compare them?

The report notes that there is a very obvious problem with the figure for October 2008. If it is accurate, 69,000 people had vanished into thin air by January 2009.

Also, the same Assistant Government Agent Parthipan who estimated the population in the No Fire Zone at the end of February 2009 as 330,000 said that it was 305,000 at the end of March 2009 and 150,000 at the end of April 2009. Meanwhile, the number of registered IDPs had increased from 36,000 to 57,000 and 172,000, implying that 4,000 people went missing in March and 40,000 in April.

If such huge numbers had been killed, this would have been captured by the informants.

Even TamilNet – the mouthpiece of the LTTE – claimed only 2,600 civilian deaths in April and 1,700 in March.

The report notes that the population figures were put together from lists maintained by Grama Sevakas, whose involvement in inflating the numbers for their own private gain or to serve the LTTE agenda had long been accepted.

It also points out that while the University Teachers for Human Rights stated that even if the counts had been conducted in good faith, they definitely included LTTE cadres, none of the other individuals or agencies who have used this second method have taken this fact into account. The University Teachers for Human Rights claimed that the LTTE maintained a strength of 15,000 until the very end by means of absolutely ruthless conscription. They said, ‘They were conscripted and used briefly like disposable objects, were brought by the dozens, about 50 a day on average, on trailers of tractors and buried unceremoniously, about three in the same hole, one above the other, covered and forgotten.’

Exactly how many people were killed in this way, nobody has bothered to ask.

Regular readers of this column would be familiar with my opinion of the LTTE. In particular, they would know that I regard its decision to fight to the very end – from behind a human shield – as by far the biggest crime of the final phase.

Next week, I will discuss the contribution that the report makes to the discussion on the intentions of the Army as it tried to deal with this situation.

I will also explain the author’s own estimate of civilian deaths, based on a third method.

Meanwhile, it is for those who use the various numbers to study the report and respond to its criticisms of their positions. The author makes particular reference to Frances Harrison – perhaps because of her industrious marketing of her book, ‘Still counting the dead’. Without reading it, I would refrain from comment, except to say that she has a responsibility to engage with information that would appear to contradict her conclusions. For example, the report says that if she had looked at the available satellite images, she would have understood that her story of the doctor – who talked of indiscriminate bombing of the hospital in which he worked by 2,000 shells in a matter of just ten days – could not possibly be true.

What else can be seen in the available satellite images will also have to wait for next week.

*Kath Noble may be contacted at kathnoble99@gmail.com

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Latest comments

  • 0
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    This is just another “number” from the “expert”

    If I remember correctly, the Bishop of Mannar never gave the 147000 figure as killed, he simply said they were “missing” -sloppy journalism if you ask me !

    • 0
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      Kath darling the Govt will not tackle extremist groups, because the Rajapassa brothers – particularly the killer psychopath Gota the goon – the are the founders and funders of the extremist groups.
      Just look at Balu Sena!

    • 0
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      Kath Noble . Please read “Dangerous Accountancy ” by Padrig Colman . You will get a better understanding of the numbers game.

  • 0
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    This is absolute rubbish – mere speculations and prejudices! This is a shame on journalism sans facts.

    GO, see the “No Fire Zones: Killing Fields of Sri Lanka” by a serious journalist, Callum Macrae for some of the scenes of indiscriminate killing of civilians by the Military shelling and bombing, and the daily rates of killing.

    It appears that you are embedded to a vested interest.

    • 0
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      Dear Dev,

      I am sorry I typed by mistake your name into the Name box instead of clicking your name to reply to you with my earlier post carrying your name. I apologize for the error.

      My post was:

      “This is absolute rubbish – mere speculations and prejudices! This is a shame on journalism sans facts.

      GO, see the “No Fire Zones: Killing Fields of Sri Lanka” by a serious journalist, Callum Macrae for some of the scenes of indiscriminate killing of civilians by the Military shelling and bombing, and the daily rates of killing.

      It appears that you are embedded to a vested interest.”

      Thiru

      • 0
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        Dev,
        Sorry for the error in the name coming up again.
        I hope it is corrected this time.

        Thiru

    • 0
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      I’ve seen The Killing Fields. All it shows is that civilians die during war. It does not argue or try to calculate how many civilians died.

  • 0
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    Kath, you correctly deduced the culprit in this whole sorry debacle as the LTTE when they chose to go down fighting despite the writing on the wall. That was a disaster foretold a very long time ago when saner members of the community abandoned the fight and ran away, for one reason or another. Prabhakaran and those that fought beside him had no compunction when they pressed women and children to fight their lost cause. Alas, even the school bully would have known when to settle for the possible rather than incur the wrath of a state who could have at anytime chosen to say enough is enough.

    The elected GOSL had a duty to its citizens to put an end to the indiscriminate terror that they had endured for all those years. In the end it was ‘let’s close the doors and sort this out man-to-man’ and sadly there was much collateral damage. In the end it was six-of-one-half-a-dozen-of-the-other.

    The shortcomings of the GOSL public relations, frankly, did not help one little bit in presenting to those concerned the events of the concluding phase of the war. The numbers of the security forces had ballooned in the run-up to the final phase and there was simply no time to inculcate the finer points of the Geneva convention to the fighting men and women who came forward to lay down their lives for the peace we now seek to enjoy. That’s war! What to do? Let the historians work on the numbers. But let not their extrapolations delay and distract from the more pressing work at hand ie the reconciliation and rehabilitation of a still sizeable part of our citizenry.

    From my perch, I see a fractured and hurting community, sadly seen as hopeless losers by the majority of the land but, thankfully, I also see much striving by increasing numbers to bring a brighter future to all who have suffered. One hopes that those in the tamil diaspora make up their minds; come home and help the rebuilding of their community or stop their nonsensical bleating on foreign soil for a cause they failed to stand and fight for.

  • 0
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    This may be Kath Noble’s most important article yet, which is saying quite a bit.

    A non-Sri Lankan, Oxford-trained mathematician, Kath’s lucidly critical exegesis of ‘The Numbers Game’ dis-aggregation promises to get us closer to the empirical truth than we have ever been. I eagerly await the next part, and Kath’s own estimate of the figures.

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      ” A non-Sri Lankan, Oxford-trained mathematician, Kath’s lucidly critical exegesis of ‘The Numbers Game’ dis-aggregation promises to get us closer to the empirical truth than we have ever been”

      how come she (Kath) got facts wrong , initially it was Imelda sukumar’s censors data revealed that magic number 147000 !

    • 0
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      So if this “A non-Sri Lankan, Oxford-trained mathematician” gives a number it is acceptable but if Cambridge educated Frances Harrison with MBA from Imperial College gives a number its unacceptable? LOL LOL

      I am not saying either is right but just wanted to show how silly your comment is !

      • 0
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        Dev , Basically DJ loves to hear & read what he thinks is right, every thing else LTTE ,INGO ,Opposition parties cheap propaganda !

    • 0
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      What a coincidence this number. The acclaimed world authors of the decimal points and zero are the Tamils across the Palk Straits which she knows only too well so she is temporary resident of India.
      Oxford Cambridge Leuven is the politics of the commonwealth etc. There is still Sakuntala Devi of Tamil Nadu who handles real numbers not politics.

  • 0
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    There have been stories and more stories with some facts and more fiction. Reiterating this phenomena will do no good.

  • 0
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    Methinks Dev doth protest too much!

  • 0
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    Numbers is only a part of the accusation against the Sri Lankan military and the government. The other major accusation is how the Sri Lankan military indiscriminately massacred the civilians and the torture, rape and murder of surrendered LTTE fighters. These are crimes against humanity that have been forgotten in the debate about the numbers killed. The Killing Field videos are not about numbers but about the indiscriminate killing of civilians and the brutality, rapes and summary executions of surrendered LTTE fighters.

    The government’s refusal to identify and bring to trial the perpetrators of these heinous crimes is something the Tamils all over the world and the HR community and the UN should highlight in order to ensure justice for the victims and their relatives. These are war crimes and the perpetrators have gone free.

  • 0
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    Lanka Lover Cathy’s PM gave arms to hired guns to kill Syrian President.

    The death toll is 95,000 to end of June and mounting.

    All victims are innocent ,poor mainly Shiite Muslims,

    Nearly two Million have become refugees living in Lebonon, Jordan, and Turkey.

    Now his buddy the US Boss is going more advanced weapons, although some of the hired guns are avowed Al Queida militants.

    Does Cathy earn more working for us?.

    • 0
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      well we dont know what she earns working for anyone but K A Sumanasekera (Leela of Lee Potter fame) but it must be peanuts compared to the rofit of the LEE POTTER SCAM isnt it?

  • 0
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    Best method in finding the reliable numbers of the missing people we must focus on the numbers of the people living those areas after the war is over. To gather information at primary level, best method would be to introduce an electronic system as a storage system of the people and their information that are now in northern areas. This kind of a project should be made successful within 6-8 months. Politicians (if ruling politicians are wholehearted) can assign regional universities to do the great job properly under professional guidance of university academic staff. Putting off the task from month to month can help nobody in this regard. Available information can then further be used as data banks for the demographic calculations. Now or later, country will have to take all these information countrywide in an electronic form for the population statistics. This kind of projects can partly be funded by sinhala Diaspora for without doubts if govt could assure the diaspora people of their transparency and accountability.

  • 0
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    everybody knows that those numbers are bogus . if there was even an inkling of truth the big brother in the USA would really be firing up the hauge . They probably watched eveny inch of the battle filed and tapped even phone and electronic communication of all the major actors in the war .

    That is not to say there were no civillians killed in the crossfire . but mostlikely no more or no less than in any war given the circumstances .

    Next topic please !!!

    • 0
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      With all the heavy artillery of the LTTE buried and out of their strong hold Kilinochchi, the LTTE were exposed without bunkers to hide on the Beach front. Imagine VP doing this if he had no firm assurances for them to be annihilated? It is also strange how the Americans providing protection and shielding the man responsible for the massacre, Shavendra Silva in the UN Office itself? Is this possible without the help of the Americans for MR to do it alone?

  • 0
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    Congrats on your article which appeared today in the Island News Paper on civilian deaths during the last months of the war which is credible and informative.
    Few comments on it,
    1. The population statistics given by the Assistant Government Agent and the Government Agent would have as usual would have originated with the Grama Sevaka. It is well known that the poor Grama Sevakas and the AGA would have been instructed by the LTTE to inflate the figures so as to secure more supplies from the Govt and the INGOs.

    2. It is unlikely that the so called field observers of the UN were able to get first hand information on casualties which occurred in the battle field. The best credible figures were reported on a daily basis by the Tamilnet. While Tamilnet was a voice of the LTTE and did not report on LTTE deaths, the maximum number of deaths including those of the LTTE can be estimated from their reports.Tamilnet figure of civilian deaths during 2009 does not exceed 8000. This is open for verification from the archives of the Tamilnet.

  • 0
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    Ultimately the justice and humanity was murdered at the last phase of civil war.Unfortunately people use to decide the seriousness of such brutalities on the basis of numbers.The Government may happy about the number of “Terrorists” and supporters of “Terrorists”( The ordinary civilians)killed but people who value and respect human lives cannot.

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