Sinhala  Tamil    Seperate    
Governtment of Sri Lanka

Accusations of civilian deaths still very low

( Created date: 22-Dec-2008 )

The Peace Secretariat wrote an article a couple of months ago giving details of incidents in which the Air Force had been accused of causing the deaths of ordinary people, in order to demonstrate the precautions being taken in such operations. But talk of mass killings has persisted. The Government is even accused in some quarters of committing genocide against the Tamil people, which is simply ridiculous. This note updates the figures given in Tamil newspapers and websites for civilian deaths in Air Force bombings, and adds information on allegations of killings of ordinary people in Army shelling and claymore attacks. And the results speak for themselves.

TamilNet is the primary source used, despite its known connections to the LTTE. Propaganda is therefore bound to have found its way into the data. The LTTE has shown itself to be quite adept in such matters over the years.

In the last six months, there have been reports of only 24 deaths in Air Force operations. This is an average of four deaths per month, and the figures haven’t been increasing in recent weeks, although fighting has certainly intensified.  The Air Force has carried out many hundreds of bombing raids during this period, but of course the targets were all military positions.

As has been stressed before, this compares very favourably to the record of other countries, even those far better equipped than Sri Lanka. The Peace Secretariat referred in its earlier article to the operations of the United States in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and to studies by Human Rights Watch that show a much higher number of ordinary people are being killed. As was pointed out then, the difference lies in the choice of weapons and tactics, which have been rather more suited to purpose in our case. Sri Lanka is obviously more concerned about the fate of its people than other countries are when they fight overseas against foreigners whose lives are sadly given a considerably lower value than those of the invading troops.

Army operations have been equally restrained. Tamil newspapers and websites claim that 16 people have died in Army shelling and 31 have been killed in claymore attacks by Deep Penetration Units in the last six months.

A closer look at the details of these cases also proves instructive. In fact, a third of the alleged deaths in Army shelling apparently occurred in a single clash back in August. The incident is being investigated, but details are hard to uncover in areas under the control of the LTTE. The other accusations of killings of ordinary people have been made at an average of no more than one per month, and the circumstances have often been understandable if also deeply regrettable.  Tamil newspapers and websites have reported several cases of the displaced having gone back to their homes, usually to collect belongings abandoned or forgotten when they moved out in the first place, then getting caught up in shelling, because the Army thought that civilians were no longer present. While mistakes shouldn't happen at all, it is creditable that we are only talking about a handful of incidents here, and with relatively few consequences.

The LTTE may equally have been responsible for some of these alleged deaths, as it is often the source for news reports, particularly on TamilNet. The information cannot be verified even if the publisher is inclined to try, and TamilNet isn’t usually concerned to do any such thing. The LTTE is definitely engaged in shelling, and misdirection on their side obviously can’t be ruled out either.

Deep Penetration Unit mistakes are apparently similarly few and far between. They have been alleged at a relatively constant rate of five per month over the period. But the authors of these attacks are hotly debated. Some have accused the LTTE of trying to bolster support for their war, which is now incredibly unpopular amongst the people of the Vanni, by giving the impression that the Army is targeting civilians. The LTTE are known for their ruthlessness, and they have killed as many from the community they claim to represent as they have from other ethnic groups. Whatever the truth of these incidents, the number of casualties we are talking about fortunately remains small.

Critics sometimes pretend that all kinds of things are happening in this country without being reported, and they would undoubtedly like to convince the world that the above details are only the tip of a much bigger iceberg. But this argument doesn’t stand up to even the slightest examination. Tamil newspapers and websites haven’t carried all of the accusations mentioned here. Not by a long way. Media houses concerned about the accuracy of their output do not publish stories they feel are just propaganda, and only a third of the incidents covered in this article have generally found their way into mainstream outlets. Even then, the accusations are often reported as just that, meaning unverifiable information emerging from the conflict areas.

TamilNet is rather different. It carries whatever seems most useful to its cause at the time, without serious reference to the truth. Critics may go through its website for themselves to check that no accusations have been left out of this analysis, and we can only hope this doesn’t encourage an increase in the number of false stories.

The Government is naturally worried by all allegations of ordinary people dying in the conflict, whether as the misleadingly impersonal concept of collateral damage or otherwise. It recognises that the only chance we have of sustaining peace in this country is going to come through building up trust between the communities who live here. This is why the Peace Secretariat continues to monitor allegations of errors by the Air Force and the Army. And the overall picture remains positive on that score.

Communications Division
Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process


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