In addition to straightforward rebuttals of the allegations in the Darusman Report, government should also have taken steps to refute what was the mainspring of criticism, namely the number of civilians who it was claimed had been killed. The figure grew exponentially during 2009, with even 140,000 being alleged by the most extreme critics.
When the game started, with the Times in London alleging 20,000 in May 2009, I had dealt with the reasoning they gave. They seemed to respond to this by changing the rationale, ending up by claiming that they based the figure on the increase in the number of graves. I believe some of those who made these claims were sincere, for a couple of years later they made much of a report that was to be issued by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), assessing the evidence of satellite imagery taken during the height of the war.
But when the report came out, there was a stunning silence from those who had claimed, it would provide conclusive evidence of the crimes of the Sri Lankan Government. Very simply, this was because the report said the opposite. It said that there had been hardly any increase in the size of the three graveyards that had been recorded, except that there was some increase in the one they identified as a graveyard used by the LTTE for its cadres.
It should be noted too, that the report indicated, that the missing roofs of dwelling places were due not to shelling but to the material having been removed to provide shelter further south, when the LTTE forced the people to move into a yet more restricted space.
Unfortunately, government failed to issue a statement based on the evidence of the AAAS Report. My own arguments appeared in the local papers but of course I had no official status – and this was the time at which the Minister of External Affairs had called up the Editor of the government newspaper, the Daily News, to say that they were giving me too much prominence.
In 2012 I tried to get government to engage in a process of casualty recording.
This had been suggested to me by the Oxford Research Group, which had noticed the stress on the need for accurate casualty recording in the Reconciliation Policy my office had prepared. They spoke to me and then wrote very circumspectly as follows –
“We imagine it as a small gathering of relevant participants, based on information sharing and building relationships. The purpose of the workshop would be to brief the attendees on the benefits of casualty
recording and the research we have recently completed on best practice.
I believe that this briefing would be very helpful before beginning a structured and institutional casualty recording effort. The attendance of a practising casualty recorder (a member of our International Practitioner Network) would assist with discussions on challenges and practicalities also.
A strategy on casualty recording could be an outcome of the workshop. Identifying partners on the ground who would potentially carry out the work is important at this stage – as you rightly say. The Ministry of Health are potential practitioners, as are the staff of the Department of Census and Statistics.
I know that your National Policy on Reconciliation expressly mentions the importance of casualty recording in a systematic manner and I wonder how you envisage that it would be practically implemented? Are there other potential partners in Sri Lanka besides those mentioned?
Identifying and working with these partners would be fantastic. I feel we could impart a lot of useful knowledge to begin the process.
We will of course go through the proper channels in seeking official permission to hold the workshop and your guidance in this regard would be greatly appreciated.”
I then got in touch with the two bodies mentioned, suggesting that the Ministry of Health organize a workshop on the subject. But the then Secretary, who saw himself as a political appointee, and had resisted my efforts at increasing psycho-social support, did not bother to respond.
Instructively, expatriate Sri Lankans who understood how serious the matter was also trying to help. After a request from one of them, I wrote to the Army Commander in 2012
General Jagath Jayasuriya
I have been talking to the Census Department about the work they have been doing, and I believe that the different agencies of government working together on the matter would be able to finally lay to rest the ridiculous claims about civilian casualties that hostile individuals are circulating.
To this end, I wonder if you might be able to send me figures for the numbers of LTTE cadres the forces identified as killed in action during the period from January to May 2009 ?
I realized when spokesmen were able to conclusively rebut the story of Issipriya that you had such figures and I believe collating them against both LTTE propagandist claims in those days, as well as census statistics, would present a clear picture.
In addition, I had some queries from a Sri Lankan professor in England who was extremely helpful in enabling me to rebut some claims through interpretation of analysis of satellite data. These were as follows –
Can you please direct me to someone in Government to obtain the following details:
1 – A monthly tally of the Number of LTTE cadres captured or surrendered from December 2008 to May 2009?
2 – A monthly tally of the Number of LTTE cadres killed via Radio Intercepts by the Army?
3 – Did these intercepts reveal whether they were Enlisted Members or Conscripts?
Any help in this regard would be greatly appreciated..
This information is going into a detailed document I have been preparing to counter these inflated ‘civilian’ casualty figures.
But again there was silence. It was clear government just hoped that, if it did nothing, the problem would go away. Nevertheless, over the next year I tried other methods too to get government to deal with the problem of a claim that was fast becoming established as fact internationally. Darusman had fuelled this by mentioning the larger allegations, which was then used to claim that the UN had ratified a claim of 40,000 dead. And there was absolutely no contestation of this by government.
One suggestion I made was that government should look at various categories, and show that deaths in each of them were minimal. One obvious set was that of aid workers, both the UN local staff who had been kept behind, and those who had worked for the NGOs that left the Wanni in October 2008. In both cases I had been told that there had been no deaths at all, but government failed to register this fact.
I wrote to the UN about this and to Harsha Navaratne of Sewalanka which had been one of the main coordinators with regard to NGO activities. I also wrote to the Ministry of Public Administration to do a count of government servants, and to the Governor of the North to do the same with regard to teachers. I have absolutely no doubt that in all these categories casualties were minimal. Though this was not conclusive proof, it would have been pretty strong circumstantial evidence to show that there had not been indiscriminate attacks on civilians. As a sample of the efforts I put in, I give below the letter to Mr Abeykoon, now the Secretary to the President, sent in July 2013
Ministry of Public Administration
Dear Mr Abeykoon
As you may be aware, I have recently been conducting seminars on casualty figures during the last stages of the conflict. These have been based on a paper entitled ‘The Numbers Game’ prepared by a group of Sri Lankans living abroad. Their basic view is that the figures thrown around by some international critics of the Sri Lankan Government are grossly exaggerated, and a careful study of the evidence will show that our forces conducted themselves with restraint and in line with international law.
In addition to the figures obtained from media at the time, as well as estimates from various sources of casualties as well as the wounded, it would make sense to study groups of persons so as to show by induction that the figure of those who died was less than is proclaimed abroad. In this context I have been struck, in my regular visits to Divisional Secretariats, about the fact that most public servants and their families escaped with their lives.
I am writing therefore to request you to do an audit of public servants at Divisional Secretariats in areas not controlled by government before 2009, and let me know the figures of those who worked in these Secretariats at the end of 2008, and how many still survive, along with details also of family members. I would be most grateful if you could request the Divisional Secretaries to send this information within a couple of weeks.