Numbers Game reviewed by Kath Noble: the full monty

kathnoble Kath Noble

Part 1: Published in The Island on July 3rd

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.08_05_09_mullivaykkaal_0201_05_09_vanni_04 Pics from Tamilnet-May 2009 60c-april 2009 exodus 60b-Tamil stram refugees-Island

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.


Part 2: Published in The Island on July 10th

Last week, I discussed a report on civilian deaths in the final phase of the war called ‘The Numbers Game’. As I said, it shows how the most popular method of estimating the body count – calculating the discrepancy between the population figures given by local officials at various times from October 2008 and the number of IDPs registered in June 2009 – falls apart when one compares the population figures. They simply can’t all be accurate or even vaguely close to the mark.

But this approach opens up the possibility of much higher totals, so people like Frances Harrison are still perfectly happy to describe its results as ‘credible’.

The author notes that there may well be good reason to doubt the credibility of the other method – based on specific reports of casualties as recorded by the network of informants set up by the United Nations – since at least some people may have died without being seen or without their death being recorded. Not all bodies would have been transported to medical facilities. The author says that this was most likely to have been the case in January and February, when the population was still quite dispersed, and also in May, as fighting became very intense.

To get over this problem, the report works from data on the number of injuries, on the basis that the injured would have all sought help.

The calculation is not straightforward, and readers interested in making their own assessment of the assumptions made should refer to the full document, which is available online. However, since going through a 150 page report with its numerous linked references is not likely to be everybody’s idea of a day well spent, I shall attempt to summarise.

The author starts by estimating ratios of the number of deaths to the number of injuries during the various stages of the final phase. The calculations begin from January 20th, when the Government first declared a No Fire Zone, and it is assumed that the situation became worse as time went on until the end of the conflict on May 19th, in particular with the Army’s incursion into the No Fire Zone on April 20th and from May 9th as the operation to capture the No Fire Zone commenced. The author uses a ratio of dead to injured from serious injuries of between 40% and 50% – worse than the 33% to 50% range that was accepted by the Panel of Experts appointed by the United Nations Secretary General – and a ratio of between 20% and 40% for lesser injuries, based on the findings of the University Teachers for Human Rights from their interviews with eyewitnesses.

The resulting average ratios of dead to injured range from 60% in January to 90% in May. These estimates are then combined with another conclusion of the University Teachers for Human Rights, that at least 50% of the injured were shipped by the ICRC between February 10th and May 9th, to give the totals shown in the following table.

Period Injuries Deaths
January 20th   – 31st 2,100 1,300
February 1st   – 28th 4,000 2,500
March 1st   – 31st 3,800 2,400
April 1st   – 19th 3,100 2,000
April 20th   – 30th 2,500 1,900
May 1st   – 8th 900 800
May 9th   – 14th 2,000 1,800
May 15th   – 16th 1,000 900
May 17th   – 18th 2,100 1,900
Total 21,500 15,500

Figures for the periods up to February 10th and after May 9th were calculated by comparing eyewitness accounts from various sources.

The author checks this approach with three case studies – a report by the head of the TRO about shelling on March 9th and 10th, the Army’s incursion into the No Fire Zone on April 20th as described by the TamilNet correspondent and staff of the ICRC, and interviews by the international media of local doctors when a mortar hit the admissions ward of a makeshift hospital on May 12th.

In all of them, calculating the number of deaths from the number of injuries results in overestimation. When compared to other estimates of the total body count at various points in the final phase, this method also comes up with higher figures. As the author notes, this makes sense because we are now including people who died unobserved.

The total body count is around 15,000.

Although the report does not attempt a breakdown according to perpetrator, it reminds us that both sides were responsible.

It points out that this does not mean that both sides had equally noble intentions, and its other important contribution to the debate on the final phase of the war is what it has to say about the targeting of civilians. The LTTE did it openly and is condemned for it by all other than its most ardent supporters in the diaspora, but what about the Army? The Panel of Experts appointed by the United Nations Secretary General did not give much credence to the Government’s claims of a ‘humanitarian operation’, which is not very surprising given that they were accompanied by efforts to persuade the world that not even a single civilian had died at the hands of the military. But that does not mean that its intention was to kill as many people as possible, or even that it was absolutely careless of how many deaths occurred.

Everybody accepts that individual soldiers risked their lives to help civilians to escape. It is also commonly acknowledged that more than 100,000 people got out of the No Fire Zone because of the Army’s incursion on April 20th, which cost numerous military lives yet need not have been attempted if the objective was purely to finish off the LTTE.

Still, following intensive campaigning about ‘genocide’, the United Nations has now decided that evidence from satellite images suggests that civilians were indeed targeted. The report claims that this is not honest.

It analyses the available satellite images to arrive at a number of very interesting conclusions. It says that the vast majority of craters in the No Fire Zone that appeared in the final days of the conflict are from mortars, which are not classified as heavy weapons, requiring the Army to get closer to the fighting and well within range of the artillery and other munitions of the LTTE – it reported the deaths of 40 to 60 soldiers a day from such attacks. At the same time, the number of casualties from mortar attacks is generally expected to be lower, since the explosive yield and barrel velocities of the shells are lower. The author also draws attention to the clear difference between the state of the No Fire Zone and that of the area surrounding Anandapuram, where the last major engagement between the Army and the LTTE took place, resulting in the deaths of many of its senior leaders. This demonstrates what ‘carpet bombing’ really looks like.

The analysis shows that contrary to the assertion that the Army continually adjusted its batteries to target the No Fire Zone, what it was actually doing was supporting its advancing forward defence lines, while the vast majority of its fire bearings missed concentrated pockets of IDPs.

It also notes the way in which research commissioned by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch from the American Association for the Advancement of Science following the initiation of the operation to capture the No Fire Zone on May 9th, in which there was talk of indiscriminate shelling, is now completely ignored because it did not support this conclusion.

Unfortunately, this is almost certain to be the fate of ‘The Numbers Game’ too.

                 Kath Noble may be contacted at

For the first presentation of Part One of this REVIEW with a series of pictorial illustrations and an ADDENDUM about the aerial images from a low elevation taken by a Times  of London cameraman on 24 May 2009 see


Filed under accountability, historical interpretation, LTTE, mass conscription, news fabrication, population, power politics, Rajapaksa regime, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, sri lankan society, Tamil civilians, tamil refugees, Tamil Tiger fighters, war crimes, world events & processes

58 responses to “Numbers Game reviewed by Kath Noble: the full monty

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  2. nuwan

    A good insight.. I wish the Lankan media and Sri Lankan expats especially of the academic field will highly publicize such information, and the Lankan UN reps in several Languages publicize these information.. Today we only see the LTTE emigre sponsored good old fashion propaganda with highly sensationalized false information.. The Third front against the Lankan nation. As argued by Kate those so called Double standard democracy know as the USA well based on their past track record would rather go on false information than FACTS. and the Bullying tactics they use in the Defunct UNHCR…As we saw them forcing their puppets in the EU to ground a presidential search for a whistle blower cum Traitor to them.

  3. nuwan

    one wonders why the so called Vickremabahu’s and the dbs jeyaraj’s the self proclaimed moderates don’t even bother to read let alone acknowledge such meaningful information.. Well that well go against the One-sided everything is Bad in sri lanka narrative they have built their carriers on.

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