Estimates of the Tamil Civilian Death Toll during the Last Phase of Eelam War IV in 2009: Appendix I for “BBC Blind”

Michael Roberts

From January 2009 the LTTE fighters and the civilian mass (the latter regularly depleted by conscription as auxiliaries or fighters) were enveloped within a “furnace of war” within the Vanni Pocket (see Map 2). Quite a number of the Liberation Tiger personnel were not wearing uniforms[i] so it was not easy THEN to separate “civilian” from “Tiger” – as it is difficult NOW to do so in our assessments of the death toll. As the populace retreated, or were marshaled, into the “Last Redoubt” along the sea coast and sometimes moved at night, it is likely that a few who died from snake bite or shellfire were not buried so that their corpses rotted or were eaten by monitor lizards, jackals and other jungle creatures. Invariably, then, these civilians will join the category of Liberation Tiger soldiers who would be deemed MIA – Missing in Action – if the LTTE had survived the war.[ii]

84b-phoca_thumb_l_vanni12 85b-08_02_09_03 I was approached in 2011 by a Tamil lady of working class background who did not know the fate of her son (aged late 20s), a Liberation Tiger conscript. Given my vicarious knowledge of war I reckoned that he was one of the MIA, that is, the “disappeared” in the language of protest today; and that his corpse would never be found (see Roberts, “The Disappeared in Sri Lanka’s War in the Recent Past: What is missing in those “Missing”? 2012c). But I was not game enough to present that answer so baldly. By courtesy of the LTTE’s overall strategy the citizens of Thamilīlam forcibly entrapped within the Vanni Pocket were placed in more or less the same situation as the Liberation Tiger personnel. Those who were truly civilian, those who were Liberation Tiger personnel half-Tiger in spirit and those who were wholly Tiger in spirit would NOW have components of MIA or “disappeared.”

In such circumstances most estimates of Tiger dead and civilian dead for this phase of the war are necessarily guesstimates. Thus, any estimates (for e. g. Gunaratna 2011 and Weerasekera 2013) that provide precise numbers are simply fooling themselves. In providing a list of estimates (numbered for convenience) below I stress that I consider those by Narendran Rajasingham (2011) and Citizen Silva (in IDAG 2013) to be the most grounded and realistic. These two appraisals leave us with a range of 10,000 to 18,700 civilian dead (including natural deaths) as the best guess in the circumstances.

86b--19_02_09_01  K 117b-- May10Carnage_09   K 117a-- 12_05_09_hosp_attack_01

All Pics are from TamilNet during 2009

The total of 18,700 provided by Citizen Silva is my outer figure. Even this may be an overestimate because his calculations depend in part on the number of civilian and Tiger fighters detained in the government camps in mid-2009 – the figure of 295,873. However, we also know that a total of 13,794 people were evacuated southwards from the Last Redoubt between 10 February and 9 May by “medivac” operations mounted by the ICRC and the SL Navy working in combination. For eight trips at the start there are no details for those evacuated beyond a total figure namely 13,000). From the breakdown for the other 23 voyages totaling 10,103, we discover that there were 1,789 injured/sick males and 1,537 injured/sick females. There was a large component of children: 3,471. This means that there were also adults who were deemed “accompanying caregivers” (or “bystanders”) by the ICRC in its public documents. These bystanders numbered 3,783 in the partial total for which details are provided and amounted to 37.4% of that adult medivac cluster.

Thus an interesting issue arises: what happened to these “bystanders” once the sick and wounded were accepted by the Ministry of Health and/or military and lodged in the hospitals at Pulmoddai, Trinco, Padaviya, Vavuniya and Mannar over the weeks that followed? If they were not eventually sent to the detention centres at Mänik Farm but found their way to kinsmen, the death toll estimates that work backwards from a total figure (e. g. IDAG 2013) would have to be reduced by that (unknown) number. In brief, Citizen Silva’s figures of probable deaths would then be an overestimate.

I consider the estimates marked in RED to be the most significant.

1. Rohan Gunaratna … in November 2011     =   1,400 [1200 by GSL; 200 by LTTE]

2. UN office in Colombo ….  (A) = 17,810 unverified till 30 April

(B) = 7,721 till 30 April + 4400 in May      = 12,121

(C ) = 7,721 till 30 April + 13,000 in May = 20,721

3. Tamilnet  ….  regular figures  added up                                                = 7,398

4. Sarvananthan[iii] ….                                                  12,000 excl. “armed Tigers”

5. Noel Nadesan[iv] ….                                                    16,000 incl. Tigers

6. Naren Rajasingham[v] …                                                10-15,000 incl. Tigers

7. UN PANEL under Darusman[vi]…                                        40,000 …. “a number of credible sources have established that there could have been as many as 40,000 deaths”

8. UN Petrie Report[vii]                                                                       70,000

9. Gordon Weiss    (I)             in February 2010                                10,000

Weiss          (II)              in June 2011                                               30,000

Weiss               (III)                  in July 2011                                          40,000

9. Govt of Sri Lankaspecial census using its Tamil functionaries in relevant areas in 2011(?) … 7,432

10.CITIZEN SILVA [viii]                                                                      18,700 being constituted with breakdown of components: 15,000 killed within Vanni Pocket, 3,300 while escaping, 700 natural causes

Note the Ministry of  Defence graphic chart presented on 26 May 2009 covering data utilized in both this Appendix I above and in Appendix II.


[i] The term “personnel” is used deliberately here to encompass the new conscript fighters as well as civilians recruited for the military tasks of building fortifications or carrying supplies. It is probable that the hardcore fighters wore uniforms but I have seen pictures of dead bodies (e.g. after the battle of Anandapuram in early April) where some were wearing shorts or even sarongs over shorts/trousers. Again testimonies from escapees indicate that some LTTE fighters who died in the makeshift hospitals in January-February 2009 were being listed as “civilian” by the doctors [under orders]. That is one reason why the estimates of “civilian dead” by the UN Crisis Operations Group – see No 2 in Appendix I above — have to be viewed with caution. Read IDAG (2013) for a critical survey of the sources including the UTHR Report No. 34 [whose caveats are sometimes passed over by those who deploy their data].

[ii] If Wikipedia can be relied upon the US military had 19 per cent – n relation to numbers “Killed in Action”or KIA – during World War II; while during the Korean War the proportion was 15 per cent.

[vii] Report of the Secretary General’s Internal Review Panel on United Nations Action in Sri Lanka, November 2012.



Filed under accountability, atrocities, Eelam, gordon weiss, governance, historical interpretation, life stories, LTTE, martyrdom, military strategy, politIcal discourse, population, power politics, prabhakaran, propaganda, Rajapaksa regime, rehabilitation, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, slanted reportage, sri lankan society, suicide bombing, Tamil civilians, Tamil migration, tamil refugees, Tamil Tiger fighters, trauma, truth as casualty of war, war crimes, welfare & philanthophy, world events & processes, zealotry

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