Ludicrous Science. Huge Error Margins in Death Toll Figures

Chandre Dharmagunawrdena, in Island, 26 July 2019, where the title isGenocide Claims, Number Games and their margins of error”

June 23, 1983  known as “Black July” was a day of shame for Sri Lanka where a government calling itself a “Dharmista Rajya” (a Righteous Regime)  permitted, aided and abetted armed mobs to attack a section of its defenseless citizens — civilian Tamils.  The fact that there were looters, or the possibility that other forces  fished in  troubled waters (,  or that most DIG’s of the time were Tamils (, etc.,  are irrelevant to the very clear-cut  main issue. That state-aided  terror  happened in the CAPITAL itself  is a FACT and not some allegation based on a numbers game of guessing how  many Tamils  lived in the Metropolis before and after the event.

On the other hand, the claim of Genocide during the last days of the Eelam wars,  adopted as resolutions in the Northern Provincial Council of Sri Lanka, ( and in three municipalities in Canada (, as well as in various rallies sponsored by Tamil Diaspora groups in many countries is a very different matter. Lumping this alleged genocide with Black July is to lower  Black July itself and diminish it to the level of the alleged but unproven genocide.

The authors of the Darusman report ( that came up with the figure of 40,000 were not scientists or statisticians  who routinely deal with quantitative measures and their interpretation. In fact, any such person would note the lack of  “error bars” stated  in the Darusman analysis, or in most such studies.

If we determine the speed of light in an undergraduate laboratory experiment, the result usually comes to about 299000 km per second plus or minus 3.7%. That is, the actual speed of light may be anything between  287000km/sec and 310000 km/sec. So the measurement has a margin of error of plus or minus 11100 km/sec., while the most probable estimated value is 299000 km/sec. That kind of caution is not exercised when people talk of the 299000 IDPs rescued from the LTTE cordon during the first three weeks of May, 2009.

In the upper and lower estimates of the speed of light, namely, 287,000 and 310,000, only three significant figures are given, while the others are rounded to zeros. Since our error is 3.7%,  strictly speaking, one should give the lower and upper values as 290,000 and 310,000 km/sec., keeping just two significant figures.

However, France Harrison, writing on the death toll  in the Huffington Post (17. Dec. 2012) naively gives a figure of 101,748, i.e., a  number with six significant figures! Such accuracy calls for one part in a million precision! Clearly, Harrison has no idea of error bars or significant numbers in giving a probable estimate. If this number had been given as 102,000 we may at least assume that France Harrison is numerically educated, although that does not make the figure correct.

Unlike measurements in physics, measurements of populations, numbers dead, etc., are open to large errors, not repeatable, and not credible unless corroborated by several independent sources. The numbers must also be internally consistent. For instance, when a population is shelled,  for every person killed, some 3-4  persons are also injured. If Harrison’s figure of 102,000 killed were used, we should expect some  300,000 injured among those rescued from  the war zone in May 2009.

And yet, these claims are used to even refuse visas to members of the military or Police who may attempt to visit friends and family in western countries like Canada and Australia where diaspora groups have substantial electoral power. These claims  have been enshrined in judgments at Kangaroo courts in Ireland and Bremen, run by morally militant men and clerics  combating “evil” with righteous indignation.

from Mango in Colombo Telegraph =

Estimates of the probable number killed (death toll)

The claim of 40,000 dead given in  the first Darusman report (2011) to Secy. General Ban Ki-Moon was followed by a second UN report (2012) which claimed a final-phase death toll of 70,000. This implies that even the most probable estimate given in 2011 was in  error by 20,000, and the error bars are even bigger.

One of the best analyses of the available data is found in the report by the Marga Institute (2013 – The Numbers Game; Politics of Retributive Justice, The four-part article in the Island Newspaper (4-Feb-2014 to 8-Feb-2014) by Prof. G. H. Peiris can also be mentioned where the difficulties of estimating errors, injured-to-death ratio etc., let alone giving a death toll are succinctly  examined.

Given these difficulties, the  death-toll figures  given by various organizations are destined to differ by wide margins. We have:  US state department 7000-8000, UN-internal estimate 7737, University Teachers for Human Rights, Jaffna (UTHR-J) 20000-40000, The International  Crisis Group (ICG) 35000. The Marga institute study in 2013 proposed a death toll of 15,000  while the recent British House of Lords study led by Lord Naseby in 2017 used information from previously unavailable British  diplomatic cables as well, and estimated a figure close to 7000.  The Sri Lankan Dept. of census and statistics, using a field survey in 2011-2012 released a death toll figure of 7400 for the last phase of the war.

War crimes are those perpetrated on unarmed civilians by armed warring groups, be they government soldiers  or those who wage war against the state. If attacks on civilians are part of a deliberate policy of eliminating one ethnic group, that becomes genocide. The UN itself has not claimed that there was a genocide of Tamils during the last days of the Eelam war.

Serious difficulties arise in defining “civilians” in the context of the Eelam wars as  the LTTE recruited civilians and even children by force or coercion and gave military training creating “Makkal Padai” (people’s armies). The Makkal Padai consisted of “Eelappadai” and “Gramappadai”, each consisting of some 5000, i.e., a total of 10,000 conscripted civilians (Defence Ministry figures). The LTTE’s deliberate use of civilians as well as protected facilities like hospitals, schools, churches and administrative buildings, as a cover for its military operation is also well established. Furthermore, using a “human shield” and also creating a humanitarian catastrophe were part of the tactics of the LTTE in its end game. In resonance, strident street demonstrations by pro-LTTE diaspora groups in the West pushed  for “Right to protect” (R2P) interventions in Sri Lanka.

In fact, the Darusman report acknowledges some of these difficulties, and states (in its paragraph 239) the following. “… International humanitarian law prohibits the location of military objectives near densely populated civilian areas,….Credible allegations point to a violation of this provision … that the LTTE deliberately located or used mortar pieces, other light artillery, military vehicles, mortar pits, bunkers, and trenches in proximity to civilian areas. These locations included hospitals and concentrations of IDPs, including in each of the No-Fire-Zones”.

Error Bars for the data  used by the Darusman report

The Marge Institute study points out that the Darusman report used the material gathered by the UTHR-J as the database for arriving at the 40,000 death toll in their first report. The number was increased to 70,000 using more subjective considerations and projections based on what were assumed to be reported numbers of injured arriving at hospitals in the war zone. However, most analysts  give little credence to the 70,000 estimate and instead quoted the 40,000 death toll.

The Darusman report depends crucially on the accuracy of two numbers. These are: (i)  probable number of people in the second No-Fire-Zone in February 2009; This number N1 may be anything from 300,000 to 330,000; (ii) the actual number N2 of IDPs rescued by the army on breaching the LTTE cordon in the second and third week of May 2009. A probable value of  N2 is given as 299,000. It is the difference between these two numbers, i.e., N1-N2,  that is the core quantity used to claim that some 40,000 people are unaccounted for, and allegedly willfully massacred,  entirely by the army with no killings ascribed to the LTTE, in the last days of the Eelam war.

The first number N1 used in the Darusman report depends on an estimate given by a single individual, Mr. K. Parthipan, the Assistant Government Agent (AGA) of Mullativu. He informed (in a ‘Situation Report’, 2009)  that “Almost the entire people from all AGA Divisions of the District are displaced. The IDPs of Mullaitivu and Kilinochchi and parts of Vavuniya, Mannar and Jaffna Districts are now staying in Mullaitivu District, …,  The population of Mullaitivu District at present is about 81,000 families, consisting of about 330,000 persons”. This number was not based on a head count, but an estimate given by a few grama-sevakas (village officers).

The number was used to ask for an increase in the food and other commodities sent to the Vanni through the UN World Food Program (WFP) and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).  I n fact, the Darusman report accuses the government of not providing adequate food to the Vanni during the time of the conflict.

The government had issued the ICRC 534,227 metric tons of food and medicine to the conflict zone. There were also UN/WFP convoys providing food and medicine, and the UN-Darusman report mentions 7,435 metric tons of food delivered over 5 months, but omits the 534,227 tons from ICRC. By ignoring these facts, the Darusman-report gives the wrong picture (  A measure of food needs accepted by the UN can be obtained from thr UN-run Dadaab and Kakuma refugee camps in northern Kenya: It has ~535,000 refugees, and was supplied 10,000 metric tons/month by UN/WFP.  This was prior to a 20% cut in November 2013 ( This suggests that the 300,000-hostage population held by the LTTE would need 5610 tons/month, or about 28,400 tons for 5 months. Hence, using typical UN/WFP food-supply rates, it it clear that roughly four times the needed amount of supplies have been provided by the Sri Lankan government via the ICRC, and the UN/WFP combined. The LTTE conscripted and horded the food.

Given that the purpose of the number 330,000 was for obtaining more food,  the number is open to  exaggeration. For instance, the AGA can easily ignore the fact that some 26,000 to 36,000  IDPs were already in camps outside the LTTE cordon in February 2009. This suggests that there were probably 294,000 to 304,000 people within the LTTE cordon. To this uncertainty, we should also add the fact that some 5000-10,000 people were included in “Makkal Padai”, and hence the “civilian count”  is likely to fluctuate by at least 5000, in addition to the uncertainty introduced by the likely exaggeration of the initial number N1. We may conclude that N1 is uncertain by at least plus or minus 15,000.

The number of IDPs who received sanctuary in May 2009, N2,  is  about 299,000. This figure does not include IDPs who had arrived earlier and had been care for  and  moved to make place for new arrivals. Furthermore,  many new  “IDPs” were  LTTE cadre or members of Makkal Padai and not civilians. There were also many who escaped, or paid their way out and even emigrated. So, N2 itself may be in error by several thousands.

A stupid way is to find the weight of the crew of an ocean liner is to weigh  the ship with all the crew, and then without the crew. The difference between two such large numbers is subject to gross errors. The 40,000 unaccounted for in the Darusman report is a consequence of  taking the difference between two large numbers N1 and N2, already subject to significant uncertainties. The method used by the UN panel does NOT provide a reliable estimate of the death toll what so ever.

The estimate has not been backed up by the demonstration of any mass graves and other circumstantial evidence, even after 5 years of control of the North by a Tamil-Nationalist provincial council  that resolved that there has been a Genocide of the Tamils, not just during the last days of the Eelam war, but ever since independence. These ardent Tamil nationalists ignored the fact that the Tamil population had grown by a factor of at least 3.5 since independence. Thus the demographics  go contrary to the genocide claim.

The righteous indignation of ‘good people’

It is well known that a number of religious fathers and theologians, and “good men” working with NGOs and Diaspora groups  have been at the helm of the claim that a genocide has happened in Sri Lanka during the last days of the Eelam wars. It is less well known that Christopher Hitchens, known for his atheist public discourse was one who  questioned the  Tamil genocide claim and raised strong doubts about it  ( see Michael Roberts:

The Colombian theologian  Rev.  Fr.  Javier Giraldo Moreno came to  Sri Lanka to take part in the tenth “Tamil Genocide” commemoration, held at Mullivaaykkaal on 18 May 2019, and found in it “a spiritually transforming experience”. Fr. Moreno was one of the eleven judges of the so-called Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal (PPT) sittings on “Tamil Genocide” held in Ireland, and in Bremen Germany. These sittings were arranged under the leadership of Dr. Jude Fernando, an Irish-Sri Lankan Catholic and Dublin Academic who takes the death toll to be 70,000.

Righteous indignation against “evil” has been the force used against heresy, be it the Pelagian heresy which claimed that men who follow a good and holy life will go to heaven, or the gnostic heresy of the Cathers, and many others who were massacred en masse. The tradition of having witch hunts, tribunals and inquisitions is well entrenched in Western History. Imperialism as a “civilizing force”,  “the Manifest Destiny” of the US, or the emergence of the R2P program, and the Human-Rights commissions directed at smaller  nations are the modern manifestation of one aspect of that  tradition. The men and women who come to judge, often highly traditional men of the faith who have little training in numbers but rely on their “conscience”, have never had any difficulty in pointing the finger at the “guilty”. They always indict the sinner with the bigger crime – 70,000 according to Dr. Jude Fernando, and  double that, 140,000, according to Rev. Father Rayuppu Joseph who took away the Maddona of the Madu Shrine into LTTE territory for safe keeping!

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Filed under accountability, asylum-seekers, communal relations, doctoring evidence, historical interpretation, landscape wondrous, life stories, LTTE, mass conscription, military strategy, politIcal discourse, power politics, propaganda, self-reflexivity, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, slanted reportage, sri lankan society, Tamil civilians, Tamil migration, tamil refugees, Tamil Tiger fighters, the imaginary and the real, truth as casualty of war, UN reports, unusual people, vengeance, war reportage, world events & processes

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