The Tamil death toll in early 2009: challenging Rohan Gunaratna

Michael Roberts, courtesy of transcurrents where it appeared earlier …. with the repetition here including a few embellishments.

 Tamil civilians on banks of Nandikadal

Rohan Gunaratna presented a wide-ranging talk entitled “The Future of Sri Lanka’s Security: Countering the LTTE on the Western Soil” under the auspices of the British Scholars Association at the British Council in Colombo on the 16th November 2011.  In measured tone, he pinpointed several shortcomings in the government policies in meeting world-wide attention directed at the situation in Sri Lanka, such as the failure to present a White Paper on the last stage of the war and the failure to invite Ban Ki-moon’s Darusman Panel to visit the island as part of their investigation.

I focus here on his estimate of civilian deaths in the north east Vanni pocket during the last stages of the Eelam war in the first five months of 2009. He indicated that he had access to the 11,800 personnel Tiger held by the Government at the end of this struggle [and one presumes he met only some of them, not all]. As vitally, he had    interviewed all the Tamil coroners from the area and all the doctors, including those in Tiger employment. These are certainly useful sources of information.

   Tamil civilians reach army rear area      

 Army dead in an earlier phase of the war     

Reiterating a figure he has presented elsewhere in the public realm, he asserted that 1400 civilians had perished, 1200 by government cross-fire and 200 by LTTE gunfire. He stressed that these deaths were all unintentional [the implication being that they were not a war crime].

This is not only a contentious statistical estimate, but a flawed one. For one, we all know from UAV imagery as well as personal testimonies that the LTTE shot at people trying to break through the frontlines, while one female suicide bomber killed fellow IDPs on the run and some army personnel by blowing herself up at a reception point on one occasion – clearly as a deterrent signal to other Tamils still trapped.

That is a minor query. It is Gunaratna’s statistical estimate that I consider astounding and misleading. Two background factors immediately bring this figure of 1400 into question. For one, he did not allude to the fact that many Tiger personnel were not wearing uniforms and that this makes it difficult for anyone to identify who was civilian and whom not in some instances when the dead were buried. For another, the claim provides an impression of precision that is quite spurious. The conditions of battle and death in those last 4-5 months in Kili and Mullaitivu Districts and along the shores of Nandikadal Lagoon were such that statistical estimates by any-self-respecting reporter would deploy a range between number X and number Y or speak in terms of an “approximate” death toll. Thus Gunaratna’s exactness of count is a sleight of hand for public consumption.

As Rajasingham Narendran responded in some astonishment:  “how many coroners were available during the war in the area for recording deaths?  It was utter chaos. Many yet living were left for dead. There was no one to help them, unless the armed forces had stepped in.”[i] He then added: “many talked about stepping over dead bodies and having to leave the sick and injured loved ones behind to their fate. The latter was the most traumatic aspect of their experience. They had to choose between a sick father and a young child or a child and an injured husband. I am sure they are yet tormented by the choice they made, although the choice had to be made for one to survive.”

This sceptical reading is derived from his conversations with IDPs who had fled the last No-Fire Zone in April 2009 and subsequent interaction with IDPs at Menik Farm and elsewhere.  Thus, in the turbulent conditions that prevailed some corpses would have rotted in the jungle or been submerged in blasted bunkers. Individuals should read his patient response to blog comments on the transcurrents site where my article first appeared to comprehend the depth of suffering he himself endured (in 1987 at IPKF hands) and the common sense with which he deciphers the end-game situation in the Vanni pocket – a form of pragmatic analysis which seems beyond the thinking of so many Tamil readers writing from the cloistered attics of an urban world without any awareness of the many missing personnel (combatants as well as others) that are the outcome of intense warfare.

Gunaratna’s figure is definitely an underestimate. I immediately contacted Tamil moderates who have been talking to Tamils in the northern reaches over the last thirty months and collating probable figures. Their investigations have embraced Tamil government servants though some anonymity must necessarily shroud details relating to these sources. Let me present their summary estimates as a preliminary to elaborations that underline the difficulty of reaching an exact figure.

  • “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” — Rajasingham Narendran.[ii]
  • [approximately] 12,000  [without counting armed Tiger personnel] – Dr. Muttukrishna Sarvananthan.[iii]
  • “roughly 16,000 including LTTE , natural , and civilians” —  Dr. Noel Nadesan.[iv]

Only Sarvananthan is trained in the social sciences, while Nadesan is a veterinary surgeon in Australia and Narendran a vet who has been working as a professional food consultant abroad. Sarvananthan lives in Point Pedro and Colombo, while the other two have been visiting the north regularly because of their passionate commitment to the people residing in the island. They have met IDPs at Menik Farm and elsewhere. They have also been tapping their networks of acquaintances.

Thus, in overview, the three rough estimates indicate a total ranging from 10,000 to 16,000, inclusive of Tiger personnel. They also tell us that all estimates must disaggregate the cause of death besides differentiating LTTE personnel from those who were “strictly civilian” – a category that will be clarified below.

Nadesan inserts a critical process that has to be factored into any count: that of natural death. The point is that in any population of, say 100,000 people a number would die from natural causes of ill health or medical misadventure at child birth or operation. I am subject to correction, but believe that in Sri Lanka the death rate “has hovered around 5.8 to 6 per thousand of the
mid-year population for all these years, inclusive of all deaths.”[v] Thus, in a total population of roughly 300,000 one could anticipate that roughly1800 people would die over 12 months. Divide that figure by three to cover one-third the year and one could anticipate 600 deaths.

In this instance the Tamil people held as labour pool, protective shield and bargaining chip — some willingly, some under duress – also suffered from shortage of food and went through severe stress. Thus, one can speculate that death from old age and natural causes doubled, if not trebled. To this one must add a few deaths by snake bite in a region where the incidence of such loses is not uncommon and where a large mass retreating through bush and jungle, sometimes at night, would have been subject to greater snake threats.

The significant fact is that all three, Nadesan, Narendran and Sarvananthan, are fully aware that we are groping in the dark.  As Narendran informed me, “everything is a guestimate.  Rohan’s figure is an extreme underestimation.  You are right. It will be impossible to separate the cadres, the conscripted civilians and the innocent civilians.”

Sarvanathan’s guestimate is explicitly essayed in gross terms:

“[The] bulk of the civilian casualties would have been during the final 120 days of the conflict beginning couple of weeks after the fall of Kilinochchi town (i.e. third week of January 2009). I would guess-estimate AT MOST average deaths of 100 per day during the 120-day period, which works out to be 12,000 (120 days X 100 per day).”

In a follow-up email he indicated that this conjectural estimate excluded “Tiger combatants but includes unarmed civilian conscripts/volunteers.” In his categorical scheme “Tiger combatants” refer to “any person carrying a lethal weapon … whatever dress s/he was wearing (military uniform, sarong, shorts, salwar kameeze, etc).” Thus, in his schema “by the same token, people building bunkers, erecting bunds, or any other auxiliary duties for the LTTE (as volunteers OR conscripts / forced labour) [are considered] CIVILIANS as long as they were not armed (with a gun, grenade, etc).”

Within these terms Sarvananthan reckoned that of the 12,000 “civilian deaths” the death toll of those working as conscripts or volunteers for the LTTE in an unarmed capacity “would not [have] exceed[ed] two thousand.” For the moment let me term this latter category “Tiger auxiliaries.”

In summary, therefore, his estimate for the last 120 days amounts to 10,000 strictly civilian and 2000 Tiger auxiliaries, topped off by a further 3000 Tiger combatants.

The importance of these readings by concerned and knowledgeable Tamils of moderate political disposition is that they are alive to the presence of civilian auxiliaries and the fact that LTTE combatants did not wear uniforms. This awareness is a striking contrast to the statistics peddled by some local NGOs and human rights crusaders abroad. They emphasise a statistical figure that seems to include Tiger combatants as well. Gordon Weiss’s initial estimate of 15,000 to 40,000 had this undifferentiated sweep. It was further distorted when such an august TV compere as Kerry O’Brien in Australia[vi] as well as a whole range of media outlets, including BBC and NDTV, fixed on 40,000 as a probable estimate.[vii] This was a combination of shoddy journalism and cheap sensationalism at its worst.

One of the problems bedevilling reportage was the fact that both the Sri Lankan Government spokespersons and HR advocacy groups stomped the moral high ground by castigating the LTTE’s policy of child recruitment within a tale of their “forced coercion” of Tamil people for the war effort. The phrase “forced coercion” was used at times as a synonym for “conscription,” but at other times as if it differed.

Anyone with any historical knowledge would know that national conscription was introduced by the French Revolutionary forces in the 1790s and became a world-wide phenomenon thereafter. By definition “conscription” is compulsory recruitment. Bureaucratic demand is a force. The LTTE”s methods may have been more direct, but this is a difference within one definitional umbrella.

From the 1790s onwards the national armies in most nation states were constituted of both volunteers and conscripts who were thereafter assigned to various line-departments that were required for a huge organisation. These departments included the supply corps, the engineering corps and the catering corps. No army can survive without its cooks. Thus, I insist that all those assigned to auxiliary duties for the LTTE are not civilians simply because they are conscripts. I am alive to the fact that many of these Tamils may have thought  that they were civilians because they were not wearing uniforms and because it was volunteer or conscripted work in a situation of exigency and thus implicitly short-term in duration. However, building bunkers for the LTTE frontlines and carrying supplies places them in the engineering and supply corps respectively. So, my analytic fiat locates all such personnel within the category “Tiger personnel.” This means that those referred to above as “auxiliaries” were part of the LTTE army defending Thamilīlam (a shrinking space).

Read in these strict terms, if one assumes the LTTE death toll in 2009 to have been circa 5,000, the rough estimates for “strictly civilian” deaths provided by Sarvananthan, Nadesan and Narendran work out respectively as

* 10,000 – Sarvananthan

* 6000-10,000 – Narendran

* 11,000 – Nadesan.

Within their attentiveness to the approximate character of any assessment, there is a striking agreement in their computations. Their evaluations also dismantle Rohan Gunaratna’s estimate on the one hand and, on the other, reveal the exaggerated character of the figures peddled by the Darusman Report, Channel Four and HR bodies abroad. In the latter instance it is both travesty and paradox that moral fundamentalism has encouraged extremism in factual claim in ways that serve the goals espoused by these organisations.

[i] R. Narendran to Roberts, email, Nov 22 Nov, 2011, commenting on the first draft of my article.

[ii] R. Narendran to Roberts, email, Nov 20 Nov, 2011.

[iii] M. Sarvananthan to Roberts, email 19 Nov. 2011.

[iv] Noel Nadesan to Roberts, email, 19 Nov, 2011

[v] Quoting Dr. Susiri Weerasekera, email, 22 Nov. 2011. Confirmed by the data in

[vi] O’Brien on the ABC Four Corners Programme on 4 July 2011 – see Harshula 2011a Media Reaction to the Darusman Report

[vii] See Harshula Media Reaction to the Darusman Report and Harshula “Channel 4 “Killing Fields”: Journalism, Advocacy or Propaganda?”


Filed under accountability, atrocities, IDP camps, LTTE, military strategy, politIcal discourse, propaganda, Rajapaksa regime, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, Tamil civilians, tamil refugees, terrorism, truth as casualty of war, world events & processes

3 responses to “The Tamil death toll in early 2009: challenging Rohan Gunaratna

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