The recent UNHCR resolution sponsored by USA and directed at the government of Sri Lanka was the culmination of a campaign that began during the last stages of Eelam War IV. Since 2010 articulate circles in the West have been convinced that there had been “40,000 civilian deaths” during this phase. In contrast Rohan Gunaratna asserted that there were 1400 civilian deaths, of which 200 were inflicted by the LTTE. Both calculations are erroneous. Estimates provided by three moderate Tamils who have had regular access to the Tamil personnel who were on the ground indicate that the death toll, inclusive of Tamil Tiger personnel, was in the range 10,000 to 16,000, in circumstances where it was impossible to differentiate in all cases between those Tiger, those recently conscripted as auxiliaries and those truly civilian.
It is towards the clarification of these specific circumstances and a criticism of the claims presented by a variety of human rights agencies, moral crusaders and media engines that this essay is directed. The campaign has been sustained by a mixture of lies and half-truths amidst truths, compounded further by a wilful blindness to the manner in which the LTTE utilised the Tamil populace in its domain as labour pool , protective shield and bargaining chip meant to induce a ”humanitarian intervention.” The massaging of death toll figures, therefore, is just one facet of a massive propaganda heist.
Death Toll, January-May 2009
As the SL Army advanced on three fronts, the LTTE lost control of the A9 arterial road and its administrative capital at Kilinochchi by 1 January 2009. Thereafter, its forces and the people they had herded together were trapped in the Vanni Pocket, namely, the north eastern corner of the island between the A9 and the coast, a district-size chunk of territory that shrank continuously as the government forces advanced till the Tigers and remaining civilians – roughly 200,000 in crude estimate — were sandwiched into 42 square kilometres in mid-April.
After the remaining Tiger terrain was captured by mid-May 2009, the first estimates of the numbers killed that were presented by Holmes, the UN representative in Colombo, was 7,721. Further down the track his former media officer at that time, Gordon Weiss appeared before the ABC and claimed that the death toll was between 10,000 and 40,000. Even as late as June 2011 the Times in London referred to 20,000 civilian dead in the course of a summary review of the Sri Lankan war.
However, the UN Panel of Experts appointed on his own initiative by Ban Ki-Moon presented their report (the Darusman Report) in March 2011 and stated that the original figure of 7,721 was at the lower end of the scale and there could have been “as many as 40,000 deaths.”
In next to no time this speculation became hard fact in news items from prestigious media chains. Thus, Kerry O’Brien of ABC asserted that “40,000 civilians were killed” and spoke of the “brutal slaughter of humans. The widespread acceptance of this type of claim was largely the product of the emotional appeal of the Channel 4 documentary called “Killing Fields.” Gordon Weiss chipped in by highlighting his position under the rubric “Sri Lanka’s “Srebenica Moment.”
The imagery associated with these two moments of state-organised genocide in Kampuchea and Serbia had the impact they were designed to arouse. Despite its weak evidential foundation and explicit surmise, the figure of 40,000 became an established fact in some minds. Also occluded was the character of the UN panel under Darusman and the appalling analytical capacities displayed within its report.
The Shortcomings of the Darusman Report
It is remarkable that Ban Ki-Moon selected three individuals from a legal background to undertake a survey of a military campaign in a land with which they had limited geographical knowledge and no cultural familiarity. The absence of military expertise and social science capacities are immediately apparent in its coverage.
Independent academics working with the Marga Research Institute in Colombo have shown that there was “a large lacuna [in this] information gathering exercise”; that many sources were not divulged and that significant omissions meant that the Panel relied “on a one-sided body of sources.” Indeed, the “adversarial stance” taken by the Darusman Panel resulted not only in findings marred by internal contradictions, but also revealed a failure to comprehend “the formidable challenge which the government faced.”
This was a failure of contextualization and proportionality. A balanced review cannot focus on death estimates without placing the figure beside the number of Tamils, both Tiger and genuine civilian, who survived. We now know that at around 280-290,000, including roughly 11,000 deemed Tiger, emerged alive from the crucible of the Vanni Pocket between January and mid-May 2009.
By mid-April 2009 about 60,000 had reached the safety of government territory by sneaking through on land or sea. On the 19-23 April the army breached the LTTE”s last redoubt in a remarkable operation. State media images on TV and print revealed streams of people, including Tigers who had downed arms, struggling across lagoon and dune to safety. As Reddy from India described the scene, “an international and local media team that visited the area on a military-conducted tour saw for itself the terror-stricken faces.” This mass has been variously estimated as 103,000, 106,000 and even 120,000, but it included many Tiger fighters and such leading LTTE functionaries as Daya Master and George Master.
The Darusman Report’s failure to give weight to such events is quite remarkable. This shortcoming is compounded by its refusal to give adequate weight to the character of the LTTE regime.
The LTTE War Machine
Prabhakaran has been described by former colleagues as well as Tamil dissidents as a person who believed in the pre-emptive strike and the killing of individuals who stood in his way. The LTTE had spurned the opportunity of self-determination via negotiation in both 1995 and 2006. Throughout the ceasefire-period 2002-06 it built up its military capacities. This preparation included paramilitary training for civilians.
When the LTTE initiated Eelam War IV in July 2006 it was confident of success. Matters turned out different. By late 2007 their military capacity in the Eastern Province had been reduced to nil. By January 2008 they lost control of the north western coastline which had enabled a supply of arms from India. Outgunned and outmanned, their troops were forced into a retreat that moved from west to east for the most part. They used landmines, bunds, trenches and booby traps to slow down the government forces.
The LTTE also increased its conscription of civilians to build these defences and replenish its troops. At the same time the civilian population were induced to retreat en masse ahead of the battle lines – moving from west to east. Though subject to multiple displacements, these people faced limited danger at the outset in 2008. But from January 2009 they were in increasing danger of being submerged in the crossfire.
This was the LTTE’s intent. The civilians were, now, not only a source of labour and conscripts; they were also hostages shielding the Tigers and providing a concern for humanitarian agencies which intervened and sought a ceasefire from the warring parties. Since the LTTE had no intention of releasing the Tamil people or respecting any ceasefire, such interventions were in fact a form of military aid for the LTTE. The humanitarian outcry raised by AI, HRW, ICG as well as some Western leaders was also a potential escape route that would have enabled the LTTE leadership to return to the fight another day.
The reasoning of the LTTE leadership was revealed subsequently by Kumaran Pathmanathan (their principal logistics man abroad): “when I reflect upon the past I think the LTTE leadership also had no choice. If they released the people first, then only the Tigers would be left there. Thereafter all of them could have been wiped out.”
The shielding capacity of the mass of civilians was all the more because, from 2008 if not earlier, most Tigers were fighting in check-shirts, trousers, shorts and sarongs. The SL army’s night operations and the success of their snipers as well as the exigencies of retreat encouraged such a policy. As General Fonseka told an investigator one aspect of the LTTE military tactics at this point was to mingle with fleeing Tamil civilians in order to infiltrate army lines and wreak havoc from within.
In a communiqué on the 9th March 2009, Blake, the US ambassador in Colombo, noted that “the LTTE maintains the fiction that civilians do not want to leave. All evidence points to the contrary: several civilians have been shot trying to escape, many others have escaped.” Anna Neistat of HRW was equally adamant on this point in March 2009 after meeting Tamils in refugee camps who had fled the war zone.
Though Weiss and the Darusman Report mention such facts, their overall reviews downplay the significance and focus largely on the government’s role in the injury of “civilians” through indiscriminate shelling. Their estimates of the civilian dead simply gloss over the difficulty of distinguishing civilian and Tiger; and attach little weight to the fact that the LTTE was the creator of this circumstance: the sandwich situation in which their own Tamil populace was placed and their use as so many sandbags.
Channel 4 went further in manufacturing a lie: they asserted that the Tamil “civilians were driven from their homes by government forces.” Amidst numerous sources, the writings of the Hindu correspondent as well as the Tamil journalist DBS Jeyaraj provide conclusive evidence against such calumny. In a passionate essay in April 2009 Jeyaraj, a senior Tamil journalist writing from Toronto, spoke of the situation of his Tamil people under the LTTE as “an open prison” and celebrated the escape “from bondage” of 103,000 “entrapped” people that was secured by an army operation between the 19th and 23rd April 2009. In noting that some civilians may have died in the course of the war, he contended that those who reached safety had gained that “most important human right, namely the right to life;” while adding that “it is a matter of record that soldiers involved in the evacuation have been deeply touched by the tragic situation of civilians.”
What we have seen in the last four years therefore is a tale of successful dissimulation that has built on half-truths by the addition of lies and the willful neglect of significant factors. The 40,000 figure on death toll is a surmise that has gained a definitiveness that it cannot bear; while disregarding the extent to which people died through natural causes exacerbated by the starvation diet forced upon them, the high incidence of death by snake bite during journeys through jungle (highlighted by Anandasangaree, the veteran Tamil politician); and failing to enumerate the 600 or so dissident Tamil prisoners executed by the LTTE once they found them a burden.
Such details have been conveniently forgotten by the media outlets. Since sensational news is their bread and butter this is not surprising. But the moral crusaders have no such excuse. It would seem that emotion and a tendency to evaluate complex scenarios in black and white terms have clouded their judgment. They have also tended to draw upon data provided by Sri Lankan Tamil expatriates who are driven by emotion of a different character: that of vengeance for the discrimination suffered by their people over the last forty years. Such individuals as Daran in England and Jegan Waran in Australia have supplied politicians and media agencies with one-sided and questionable data.
Revenge has likewise promoted the activities of Sinhalese journalists and other who have fled in the face of intimidation from the Rajapaksa government in recent years. Westerners such as Benjamin Dix who have worked in LTTE territory and developed ideological attachments towards the cause of Eelam also seem to have gone overboard in their testimonies.
Such combinations have revealed a capacity to mount an effective propaganda war that has captured the high ground. It is only “high ground” in terms of power exerted. As I have argued, its neglect of detail and its mixing of lies and exaggerations with elements of truth means that its heights are not those of elevated ethics.
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