Posted on May 5th, 2011

By Don Wijewardana

There is a familiar story in Sri Lankan folklore of a man vomiting seven crows. In fact what he had done was only throw up on a crow’s feather but as the story spread it got magnified over and over. A close parallel to this is currently being played out in the international arena. That is the account of numbers killed during the last days of the Eelam War IV.

Immediately after the end of the war the UN had suggested a death toll of possibly 7000. The source of this number was the LTTE’s Tamil Net. By that time the Tigers had given the world not only the suicide vest but also the art of perpetuating a lie until it became accepted as the truth. The West, reeling from Mahinda Rajapaksa’s refusal to heed their call for a ceasefire to rescue Prabhakaran, cottoned on to the number. But the U.N. Under-Secretary-General Sir John Holmes, who was responsible for its humanitarian operations, was uncomfortable using the figure. He underlined that it was an “estimate based on the best evidence that we had, but that wasn’t very good evidence because we weren’t really present in the (battle zone) in any systematic way. That’s why we didn’t publish them.”

Then a few days later the London Times reported that evidence gathered by it has revealed that at least 20,000 Tamils were killed mostly by army shelling on the beach as the army closed in on the Tigers. The paper blamed the UN for underestimating the death toll.

What is interesting was the way they arrived at that figure. The paper gave different bases for its calculation. One version was that the UN had assessed the number of those who died by the end of April at around 7,000, and using the rate of about 1000 a day for May until the 19th. Later the Times claimed that it had extrapolated the number of dead bodies by four. Finally the Times went on to argue it was the result of an analysis of “aerial photographs, official documents, witness accounts and expert testimony,” and what the paper called “confidential United Nations documents.” relying on an anonymous United Nations source.

But the UN representatives were not in the combat zone in the final stages of the war as stated by Under Secretary Holmes. He was furious when in its editorial, The Times wrote that “the U.N. has no right to collude in suppressing the appalling evidence” of a government-executed massacre. “I resent this allegation that we’ve been colluding with the government in some way or not taking sufficient notice,” he said. “We have been the ones drawing attention to this problem when the media weren’t very interested several months ago.” His focus now is on the welfare of the internally displaced.

Ban Ki-moon himself told the UN General Assembly “I categorically reject “”‚ repeat categorically “”‚ any suggestion that the United Nations has deliberately underestimated any figures.”

The rest of the media world was aghast at the claim of the Times. The Guardian and the BBC said they have no good estimate of the number of civilians killed in the final weeks and questioned the methodology used by the Times. The New York Times reported that a coordinator for U.N. humanitarian relief, Elizabeth Byrs, had told that any estimate of the death toll must be based on extrapolation and guesswork.

U.N. officials had also told The New York Times, that they have no good estimate of the number of civilians killed in the final weeks of fighting and questioned the methodology. One described it as a dangerous extrapolation, multiplying by five the figures recorded by three doctors who worked in the hospital. Later, the doctors admitted that even their numbers were exaggerations as demanded by the LTTE.

New York Times went on to say that privately, U.N. staff admitted they were puzzled by the methodology used to achieve the new death toll. “Someone has made an imaginative leap and that is at odds with what we have been saying before,” one official said. “It is a very dangerous thing to do to start making extrapolations.”

Why did the Times do this? Palitha Kohona, then Secretary of the Sri Lankan Ministry of Foreign Affairs offered an explanation. In an interview with the BBC he said the Times might be carrying on a bitter campaign out of spite since Sri Lanka had deported one of its correspondents. The guarantee of press freedom carries with it the responsibility to be objective and impartial. The Times has flouted both these with impunity. To this day the Times has not provided any credible evidence to justify the numbers.

Desired result

However, the fabrication had the desired effect. Amnesty International (AI) was the first off the block. It demanded an investigation into the “20,000 civilians killed in the final phase of the war” citing the Times report. Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch (HRW), and a retired Indian army general Mehta followed by blaming India for not preventing this scale of killing.

The same view emerged from another unexpected quarter. Navaneetham Pillay, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights renewed calls for an independent probe into abuses even after a majority of the 47-member Human Rights Council rebuffed her appeal for that body to launch one.

Undaunted she continued working to build on the numbers. UN deputy spokesperson Marie Okabe was quoted in the UN website as saying that as more information will come out, more evidence will emerge about what did and did not happen. So an international inquiry could still happen further down the line. As if to answer her prayers, not long after, British Channel 4 presented a video of a Sri Lankan soldier killing a civilian. The video was proved to be a fake but Channel 4 went on to add more to its claim.

Through experience AI, HRW and the UN’s Pillay knew that higher the stakes in terms of numbers killed and the nature of violations the better were the chances of getting the international community involved to demand a probe into the allegations.

Numbers jump again

And not surprisingly, the stakes were raised again, this time by an ex-employee of the UN in its Colombo office who left under a cloud. That was Gordon Weiss who told ABC that the death toll could be “ƒ”¹…”between 15,000 to 40,000′ according to his sources. He has not divulged these sources for the divergent figures but probably they were the three doctors who were recording the casualties. But as noted by UN staff even the inflated numbers provided by the doctors under instruction from LTTE as they admitted later, did not add up to such figures.

In spite of the caveats, protests and disagreements, and the absence of a sound basis, once again, the upper end of Weiss’ estimate gained currency. When the Darusman report to Ban ki Moon endorsed the figure noting “there is still no reliable figure for civilian deaths, but multiple sources of information indicate that a range of up to 40,000 civilian deaths cannot be ruled out at this stage”. This is the rationale, which the LTTE based its entire propaganda: if multiple sources repeat it that eventually becomes the truth. Apart from the replication there hasn’t been any new evidence to justify the new figure. The blame for using such questionable figures lie not with the proponents (who obviously have a reason to produce such numbers) but with those who use them without critically examining their validity.

But that was not the end of the story.

In spite of the fact that there has not been any new factual information for all these extrapolations the number continued to leap. After the Darusman report was released Channel Four in a film clip suggested the death toll could be much higher “”…” as high as 140,000. The paper went on to say the “independent source who risked his life to film these pictures “¦recently in northern Sri Lanka had a startling observation to make: only 60% of the people had come back after the war, we don’t know what happened to the other 40%.” This view was backed up by documents obtained it said: “They are the census and they recorded the numbers of civilian in northern Sri Lanka in 2008, the period before the heaviest of fighting took place; the total is nearly 430,000; we can’t be sure about these numbers. At the end of the war the Sri Lankan government put a number of civilians in camps where documents show that 290,000 far fewer than the numbers recorded in the census earlier. So we have more than a hundred thousand people unaccounted for; it raises a critical question; what happened to these people; were they killed in the war?”

It was indeed a startling revelation for different reasons. These analyses have been using statistics just like the drunk uses a lamppost “”…” groping for something to hang on. The so-called census was no census at all but a partial assessment since the LTTE did not allow the government to run a census. Estimates were made in 2007 and not 2008. The totals did not come anywhere near 430,000. In that time many had migrated “”…” some overseas and some to the South while a large number of Moors and Sinhalese were purged out of the regions by the LTTE. And those in the camps were not only from the north and the two entities that were added together were like coconuts and mangoes. Even if all these were neutral, two-year difference could make a considerable variation to population numbers, especially under such volatile conditions. A calculation of this nature cannot be expected even from a first year university student.

Such concoctions unworthy of publishing seem like an intellectually bankrupt media channel singing for supper. Yet, if you keep on repeating, the numbers will eventually stick. All the caveats to the figures vanish in the process.

We may not have seen the last of the calculations of civilian deaths. In time to come, the numbers will snowball many more times and more videos will emerge showing “ƒ”¹…”government atrocities’. But who cares if they are flights of fancy as long as they can help muster enough support for the objective all these groups have been working for: an investigation into the so called killings. Now that terrorism is gone that’s the only way to punish Sri Lanka for not allowing the west to save Prabhakaran.

Don Wijewardana is a writer, economist and journalist. He can be contacted at

9 Responses to “THE NUMBERS GAME”

  1. Susantha Wijesinghe Says:

    Let us take the UN figure first, of 7000 killed. Nobody is talking about the logistics. In the first instance, there should be at least ONE photograph of a heap of about thousand Dead Bodies. Has anybody got one ? NO. For there to be 7000 dead bodies, there should be mass burials. Has any civilians seen so much of Bodies ? NO. Has any Military Personel seen such an amount of Bodies ? No. Surely, there should be at least a two or three hundred people who participated, in digging graves for 7000 Bodies. Has anyone of them come forward to say they participated in digging so many graves ? NO. Has anybody come forward to say they participated in mass burials of around 7000 Dead Bodies ? NO. So for just now, let us drop the figures 20,000, 40,000, 140,000, because those who mention these figures are positively nude with malice.

    As for the aforesaid UN figure of 7000, the Nit Wits in the UN should have deliberated the logistics involved first, instead of trying to dramatise figures for LTTE Dollar Handouts.

    Let the world Leaders and anyone wanting to know the TRUTH on their own, do the Math on, burying 7000 DEAD BODIES. What would be the space it will take to bury them, the number of people needed to dig graves,and put them into the Graves, from which financial source the labourerers were paid, ( Not taking for granted that they all gave their Labour Free), the time taken to bury 7000 Dead Bodies, were any Religious Priests present to serve the Last Rites,and many more activities related to the BURIAL OF 7000 DEAD BODIES.


    So, talking about 20,000, 40,000, and 140,000 DEAD BODIES are clowns of the first order, awaiting redemption from CLOWNHOOD.

  2. Nihal Fernando Says:

    Sherlock Holmes and his close friend Dr. Watson were passing through a big farm. Sherlock asked Watson, “Do you know how many sheep are there in that herd?” Watson replied, “No idea” Sherlock told, “4,000 black sheep and 3,000 whites” Watson was surprised and questioned Sherlock, “How did you arrive at that figure so quickly, you not even got down from the car and did a counting?” “Elementary Watson, elementary. I counted all the legs and divided them by four while driving” retorted Sherlock.

    Channel 4 can make some black & white spots and say that they are black and white sheep. The London Times can say that the theory applied by Sherlock Holmes to count the exact number of sheep even with the colours are hundred percent correct. If any clown says to Ban Ki Moon that there are three hundred trillions of stars in the sky will he believe it? Sign says, Wet Paint; you still will touch to see.

    With all the high tech sonars, detectors and whatever they have they can find where those dead bodies are buried. Then, count the legs and divide them not by four by two and arrive at the figure. Elementary Moon, elemantary.

  3. cassandra Says:

    This is a sensible article which has evoked two equally sensible responses.

    It is plainly ridiculous for anyone to take the number deaths that occurred on any one day and simply multiply that by, say, 31 to get at the total number of deaths in a month. Such a calculation implies that the number of deaths occurred at a uniform rate throughout that period. It just does not happen that way. And it seems that those who are bandying various figures of alleged casualties, simply arrived at their totals in this naive fashion – using only a calculator and not much of a thinking brain.

    As has been pointed out by the previous respondents, what about the logistics involved in disposing of all those dead bodies? Did those bodies simply disappear into thin air? It seems to me that those who accuse the Sri Lankan armed forces of these staggering killings are unwittingly paying tribute to the skill of these forces, because if we are to accept the figures that are mentioned, the SL forces must have been very, very efficient to have been able to bury all those bodies, quickly – and all this, in enemy territory, mind you – whilst at the same time dodging the LTTE gunfire!

  4. Fran Diaz Says:

    Our thanks to Mr Don Wijewardena for this analysis. In particular, he has drawn attention to the part played by Ms Navi Pillai, head of UNHRC. We would like to add that we think Ms Pillai, apart from slamming Sri Lanka toward perhaps Federalism, is really trying to crack the Caste (Dalit or Untouchables) issue in Tamil Nadu, using Sri Lanka as a hammer ! Please note that India has protested for decades at the UN that the issue of their 165 Million Untouchables (now called Dalits) is not a Human Rights issue and therefore none of UN’s business..

    We totally agree the figure of 40,000 dead is arrived at FAKED UP, WEIRD, NON-SCIENTIFIC, NEVER USED BEFORE methodology, particularly used by Times & Channel 4 to plump up the numbers who died from the Human Shield of the ltte. Most people died by ltte gunfire, as the ltte were trying to stop people fleeing to the govt. held areas.

    Without PROOF we cannot and will not accept arbitrarily trumped up figures. No one in their right senses will. We need PROOF of numbers claimed by the Darusman Report, otherwise we will not accept them.

    As to the actual numbers in the North at the time of the end days of the war, the Army thought around 100,000 hostages were taken by the ltte, because that should have been the right number even though no Census had been taken for quite some time. The actual figure turned out to be 300,000 plus, as claimed by those trying to stop the war at that time ! Unless people came from other areas into the North during the ltte years there, how can there be such a leap in numbers ? Actually, people were fleeing the N&E during that time of war, not going in there. So, it may have been due to large numbers coming in from Tamil Nadu as illegal migrants via the Mannar Route.

    It is time Sri Lanka took that Census, particularly in the N&E, and identify ILLEGAL MIGRANTS FROM TAMIL NADU who have mainly come into Sri Lanka during the time the ltte was holding ‘power’ in those areas. Why were so many Churches built in the North especially if not to convert so-called Hindu Tamils to Christianity ? Or was it to provide places of ‘worship’ to illegal Tamil migrants who were already converted in Tamil Nadu ? There was also a news item that Dalits from

    There are some aerial photos used in the website :, (see on panel of videos on the right hand side of computer picture, items #10, #12 in particular), to show some burial spots in attempt to make out large numbers of the dead. This website, apart from its pro-ltte stand, going along with the lies of Channel 4 & Times. They also attempt to make some claims that the SL Army used heavy weapons. This is untrue as we all know. The Church seems to help itself in conversions etc. when it comes to help others in distress !

    Expect and be prepared for more lies in the future. The ltte rump seems to have bought many journalists & media fronts & institutions abroad, and has entered the Church in a big way.

    No intent to create trouble here. We just want the truth to be known by one and all, so that in the future Lankans are savvy about what really goes on here.

  5. Fran Diaz Says:

    Sorry, my para got cut off. Here it is continued. There was also a news item that Dalits from Andrapradesh had come into Tamil Nadu by the thousands during the final stages of the war in Lanka. Why was this ?

  6. jimmy Says:

    I never knew this. There are Srilankan Tamils ( generations from Sir P ramanathan, Arunachalam and so on)
    and also Plantation tamils who came in 1940s live in Hatton Nuwaraeliya and other plantatiron areas

    These dalits untouchables are they coming to North and eastern province or coming to plantation areas?
    just curious ?

    Hoope my friend you do not make up stories like Donald Trump of USA ( I support Donald as President but did not approve his remarks on Obama , Trump made himself a fool )

  7. Fran Diaz Says:

    Jimmy : What you say is true : there are Sri Lankan Tamils from many hundreds, or even thousands of years. But, I am not referring to these true born Sri Lankan Tamils here. I am referring to the possibility of thousands of ILLEGAL MIGRANTS FROM TAMIL NADU WHO POSSIBLY CAME TO LANKA VIA THE MANNAR ROUTE during the time the ltte was ruling those areas.

    Also, tell me, would any Caste Tamils from Tamil Nadu come to Sri Lanka in large numbers to be indentured labor under the British & Dutch ? I think not.

    I do not take pleasure in bringing out these points. However, face facts we must, Jimmy. Also, Sri Lanka never practiced Untouchability due Buddhist practices, therefore more attractive. So, let’s leave it there.

    American politics have no bearing on this particular point.

  8. Fran Diaz Says:

    P.S. : I have stated before on this website that I am personally against all Caste Systems. However, Caste and it attendant negativities is a ground reality in India even though India is trying hard to overcome this problem, but as India (Tamil Nadu) is our closest neighbor with cultural ties, etc. we have to acknowledge this sorry fact. However, continued slamming of Sri Lanka for India’s (Tamil Nadu) problems is totally unacceptable to me. Using Sri Lanka as some sort of international punch bag is totally unacceptable to us all.

  9. jimmy Says:

    ok Got it Fran
    I am not sure on that though

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