The numbers game and reconciliation in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka’s bitter and brutal thirty year conflict ended in May 2009. The government’s victory over the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam was decisive and there have been no terrorist incidents in the four years since the end of the war. In spite of all this, the government has come under unrelenting criticism, mainly by members of the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora, who supported the cause of a separate Tamil state in Sri Lanka.

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Conflict Background


By Padraig Colman

An End to Terror in Sri Lanka?

Sri Lanka’s bitter and brutal thirty year conflict ended in May 2009. The government’s victory over the separatist LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) was decisive and the rebel leaders , including Vellupillai Prabhakaran, were killed or co-opted. There have been no terrorist incidents in Sri Lanka in the four years since the end of the war. The formerly war-torn Northern province has been enjoying an economic growth rate of over 28%.

In spite of all this, the government has come under unrelenting criticism, mainly orchestrated by members of the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora who supported the cause of a separate Tamil state in Sri Lanka, Tamil Eelam.

Counting the Dead

Critics of the government say that civilians were deliberately targeted in the final months of the war and some say that this amounted to planned genocide. Fatality estimates have been wildly different, the highest being 147,000 put forward by Alan Keenan and Frances Harrison.

On May 16, a seminar was held at the Marga Institute (a Colombo civil society think-tank) to launch a publication by the Independent Diaspora Analysis Group – Sri Lanka (IDAG-S) – The Numbers Game: Politics of Restorative Justice.

Dr Godfrey Gunatilleke, Chairman Emeritus of the Marga Institute, opened the proceedings by answering the question: “Do numbers matter”.  He acknowledged that, while even a low number of civilian casualties was cause for anguish, citing large and inaccurate figures could only inhibit the healing process.

Independent Diaspora Analysis Group – Sri Lanka

Dr Gunatilleke said that the provenance of the IDAG-S report encouraged confidence in its impartiality and competence. The IDAG-S is a think tank of academics, professionals and analysts from the Sri Lankan diaspora in Europe, North America and Australia. The lead author is an aerospace engineer who was able to bring a wide range of multidisciplinary skills to the task. The Marga Institute had taken up the IDAG-S report because it seemed authoritative enough to provide ammunition to persuade the UN to revisit its position on the numbers of civilian casualties in the final months of Eelam War IV. A report (known in Sri Lanka as the Darusman Report) produced by a panel appointed by UN General Secretary Ban Ki-Moon is still being cited by some as authoritative but many critics have questioned its validity.

Although Eelam War IV has been described as a war without witnesses, the IDAG-S had managed, through thorough research, to assemble a logical and well-argued package which casts doubt on some of the calculations being peddled. Dr Gunatilleke found the high-resolution satellite images included in the report impressive. These had not been published so comprehensively elsewhere. These satellite images show that shells fired by the SLA from February to May mostly avoided concentrations of civilians and in the final weeks the SLA had used hardly any artillery.


The IADG-S report says: “that civilian deaths and injuries from Government Forces firing did occur is indubitable, but one has to be cautious in concluding intentionality from such a result without having studied each incident in detail and taken into account issues like: (a) the conditions ruling at the time of the attacks; (b) whether the commander ordering the attack believed his actions would cause clearly excessive levels of civilian harm in relation to the anticipated military advantage gained; (c) the reasons behind the choice of weapon used in a vast majority of the attacks – mortar as against artillery, rockets and airstrikes; (d) considered the military advantage gained as being part of the overall military objective of which the attack was a part.”

Identifying Civilians

Conclusions are confused by the fact that the LTTE killed civilians on several occasions when they sought flight. Computing statistics of fatalities caused by SLA action is complicated by the fact that many LTTE fighters did not wear fatigues and thus deliberately contravened the protocols of war.

There was a strong theme at the seminar of the need to acknowledge the size of the catastrophe. Those who are citing inflated figures are making a demand for reckoning based on the assumption that Sri Lankans did not care. That exaggeration in turn prompted a bunker mentality among the victors who were reluctant to admit to a figure of civilian dead for fear of a litigious reaction. 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 Tamils’ calculations.

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. He said : “My estimate is that the deaths — cadres, forced labour and civilians — were very likely around 10,000 and did not exceed 15,000 at most”. 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”. Note that Nadesan includes fighters and natural deaths. In any population, a number would die from natural causes of ill health or medical misadventure at child birth or operation. On 13 March 2009, UN Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay issued a press release saying that as many as 2,800 civilians “may have been killed”. 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.

IADG-S consider that Frances Harrison and Alan Keenan have moved “into the realms of statistical fantasy in ways that raise questions about their integrity / morality”. “It would seem that such spokespersons are motivated by moral rage and retributive justice. They seek regime change in Sri Lanka – a form of 21st century evangelism that is imperialist in character and effect.”

Remembering and Forgiving

Ernest Renan observed that nation-building requires amnesia as well as invention. In some countries memorials and commemorative days are seen as part of the healing process. Elsewhere, remembering is felt to be dangerous. In Rwanda, political parties are prohibited from appealing to group identity, and public statements promoting “divisionism” are forbidden. The authorities have used these limitations to imprison critics. Remembering might inflame old hatreds. Cambodia celebrates a Day of Remembrance on May 20 each year. It used to be called the National Day of Hatred.

How do we strike a balance between remembering and the infantile abuse that too depressingly often passes for comment on the websites of newspapers? How do we contrive a discourse that notes the mistakes of the past without allowing the armchair conflict junkies to encourage further mistakes to be made?

Triumphalism of the Defeated

Victory parades are not a helpful form of commemoration despite government claims that that there are no longer any minorities, only Sri Lankans. Michael Roberts warns against “hegemonic incorporation” of this nature. “Constitutional fiat cannot transform minds, especially entrenched mindsets. Multiple strategies are required. Political imagination is called for, both from President Rajapaksa and his advisors as well as eminent minds attached to this their land.”

When I wrote about the Marga seminar on Groundviews the first comment came from Usha S Sri-Skanda-Rajah. Dr Sri-Skanda-Rajah has long lived in Toronto but claims to speak for those Tamils who lived in Sri Lanka under the brutal rule of Prabhakaran. She continues to campaign for a separate Tamil state in Sri Lanka. In her many articles she describes herself as “Senator Transnational Government of Tamil Eelam”. Her Groundviews comment was highly critical of my article and of the IDAG-S report, although she later admitted that she had not actually read it. In her first comment she said: “Numbers don’t matter, it is the truth that matters”.


In a conciliatory spirit, Amar Gunatilleke of the Marga Institute responded to the senator: “I accept the fact that terrorism in Sri Lanka was born because of grievances of the Tamil people. There is no debate on that. I don’t want to debate on what became of the LTTE later and how it ended. We all have to accept our faults if we are interested in reconciliation…. My personal view on this whole matter is that one cannot have lasting peace and reconciliation unless there is collective atonement, admission of guilt, confession, repentance, forgiveness. Forget the state, the Rajapaksas. Can you and I do this together? Are you interested?”

The senator’s response was: “there are gaping holes in your offer”. Amar responded: “Even if a small group of civil society, private sector organizations and NGOs involved in humanitarian work can make a difference in the lives of some of the people who were affected by the war, I will find peace and joy in my life by being involved with such group.”

Does the Diaspora Speak for Tamils in Sri Lanka?

In an exchange with me Amar said: “It will be interesting for the Tamil diaspora to hear what some Tamils in the North actually have to say. I can arrange that if they are interested. I will leave it at that. As a starting point maybe we should arrange that.” Throughout the comment thread, Dr Sri-Skanda-Rajah’s position was challenged. It was particularly telling when she was challenged by Tamils who had lived in Sri Lanka throughout the war.

Here is one: “I am really fed up, as a Tamil, to be told by those of you who live in the west in your comfy postcodes that you represent me. None of you do, because during the war when you all left, it was the poor Tamils without exit options who died…and it was their sons and daughters, who were either conscripted by force or went willingly, who died. During the final days of the war, in the west, it was quite the rage to walk around with wrist bands and banners saying ‘free Tamil Eelam’ …but no one among them sent their children back to fight…oh no, it was all OK for some poor mother’s son to die, but not their precious offspring…. Let us turn away from calls for separation, but instead look for ways to ensure equal rights for Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims and Burghers and please help us celebrate our diversity instead of going behind pipe dreams.”

Moving Forward in Peace

At the conclusion of the seminar, the question was posed: “How can we engage in the international debate and how can civil society encourage the implementation of LLRC (the government’s Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission) recommendations on issues relating to humanitarian law and civilian casualties?”

Pradeep Jaganathan stressed the need to raise public consciousness and make people realise that we are all responsible and accountable for what took place during the last 30 years – through sins of commission and omission, hate, apathy, failure to speak up.

Dr. Dayan Jayetilleka (Sri Lanka’s former ambassador to Geneva, Paris and UNESCO) proposed establishing a group to review the IDAG-S study and make necessary recommendations to the Sri Lanka government which could be used in the international debate. Dr Godfrey Gunatilleke thought it important that we address the moral responsibility and accountability of all actors in the conflict, including the TNA (the Tamil National Alliance, the LTTE’s parliamentary proxy), and not solely the state. What is the universalist framework for an understanding of this whole tragedy of war and human suffering?

I will let the Tamil who calls himself “Fed Up” have the last word: “Please understand Usha, that I would love to see Tamil activists committed to ensuring our rights within a unified country. My concerns for this separate state is that even if you get it, how will Tamils treat fellow Tamils, let alone those of other ethnicities? The caste system is alive and well in the north, so will low caste people be allowed into top positions? If you are fighting against racism, will you allow a Muslim or Sinhalese into top positions in Tamil Eelam? Usha, practically speaking, why don’t the TGTE conduct a survey amongst the Tamils who live in Sri Lanka, to find out what we really want….don’t claim that you speak for all of us without finding out what we who live here, really want.”

The Marga Institute plans to undertake research to enable the views of Tamils living in Sri Lanka to be heard. Watch this space.

Padraig Colman is an Irish citizen who has been living in an ethnically diverse community in Uva province,  Sri Lanka,  for over ten years. He writes prolifically about various aspects of Sri Lanka and his work is regularly published in Sri Lankan magazines and newspapers. He  has also done work for the Centre for Poverty Analysis, the Public Interest Law Foundation, the Marga Institute and the Kandy Association for Community Protection through Animal Welfare.

What are the principles of conflict transformation?



21 Responses

  1. Pingback : Reconciliation in Sri Lanka: Evaluating the “Numbers Game” | Thuppahi's Blog

  2. Joe Ladislaus

    If Padraig had introduced the subject of ‘numbers and reconciliation’ thus, “In spite of all this, the government has come under unrelenting criticism, mainly by members of the Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora, who supported the cause of a separate Tamil state in Sri Lanka, because they were given a good hiding every time they protested against the un-equal treatment meted out by successive Sinhala majority governments as expressed by independent observers”, he would have been packed off to where he came from just as the British Channel 4 crew and others who fled involuntarily for striving to speak the truth.

    The ‘Sri Lanka- A Mounting Tragedy of Errors’ authored by Paul Seighart and published by the International Commission of Jurists on the 1983 anti-Tamil violence noted, “Communal riots in which Tamils are killed, maimed, robbed and rendered homeless are no longer isolated episodes; they are beginning to become a pernicious habit……One of the most striking features of the episodes of communal violence, for instance has been the lack of retaliation by Tamils against the Sinhalese in their midst, with the result that virtually all the victims on each of these occasions have been Tamils’ ISBN 0907247040 P.15

    The Tamils did take up a defence strategy later to defend themsleves in the way Nelson Mandela of South Africa and Menachi Begin of Israel did- both becoming leaders of their respective countries

    The subject of a study captioned- ‘Sinhala Buddhist Nationalist Ideology ‘-published in 2007 by the East-West Centre in Washington said,

    “This study argues that political Buddhism and Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism have contributed to a nationalist ideology that has been used to expand and perpetuate Sinhalese Buddhist supremacy within a unitary Sri Lankan state; create laws, rules, and structures that institutionalize such supremacy; and attack those who disagree with this agenda as enemies of the state.

    “The nationalist ideology is influenced by Sinhalese Buddhist mytho-history that was deployed by monks and politicians in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries to assert that Sri Lanka is the designated sanctuary for Theravada Buddhism, belongs to Sinhalese Buddhists, and Tamils and others live there only due to Sinhalese Buddhist sufferance. This ideology has enabled majority super-ordination, minority subordination, and a separatist war waged by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).” ,

    The lengthy estimate he quotes from different sources is as unreliable as the figures quoted by the so called Diaspora- Darusman- Rayappu figures. The best way to settle this controversy is for Sri Lanka to agree for an impartial and independent investigation which obviously cannot come from Sri Lanka as the crime took place under the watch of the government itself with the judiciary in tatters.

  3. Thank you for your contribution, Joe.

    You quote Paul Sieghart:“Communal riots in which Tamils are killed, maimed, robbed and rendered homeless are no longer isolated episodes; they are beginning to become a pernicious habit”. Are communal riots a problem in Sri Lanka today? You do not need to convince me of what a horror July 1983 was. I don’t need to read Sieghart’s book. I have spoken to eye-witnesses. I have written at length about the grievances of Sri Lankan Tamils. For this I was accused of “regurgitating terrorist propaganda”. I received an e-mail (the writer used a Muslim name but that could have been a bluff) saying, “You Irish monkey you should be in a zoo or an asylum. No wonder the LTTE are strong in your area with IRA fugitives like yourself living there”. I was not aware of any pressure from the government, even though the writer threatened to report me to “the authorities”. I have never had any difficulty renewing my visa but who knows what might happen in the future?

    I am aware of your views about Sinhala Buddhist chauvinism. I find any kind of chauvinism distasteful. This article was prompted by the Marga seminar. There was no expression of Sinhala Buddhist chauvinism on the day. Everyone I spoke to (including a Dominican monk in plain clothes) was a Catholic.

    As a non-Tamil with many Tamil froends, I find references to “The Tamils” somewhat distasteful. Political correctness taught us not to refer to “the disabled”. It was thought that less offence would be caused by using the term “disabled people” which evolved into “people with disabilities”. By saying “the Tamils” you are shoe-horning a very diverse population into one rigid category. What you refer to as a “Tamil” defence strategy could be seen as the brutal efforts of an unelected group, the LTTE, to impose its will on all Tamils, and on territory it claimed as its homeland, by murder, intimidation and ethnic cleansing.

    Most people would be surprised by your comparison of Nelson Mandela with Prabhakaran! Begin would be a better thuggish fit.

    I am not a fan of mytho history and nationalism whether it be Sinhalese, Tamil, Irish or English.


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