| by Robert C. Oberst

( August 19, 2014,Lincoln - NE , Sri Lanka Guardian) Five years ago, the Sri Lankan security forces achieved what had been believed to be an impossible task. They not only defeated the forces of the LTTE but killed or captured all of their leaders seemingly ending the 30 year old conflict. However the post-war period has generated a debate over the peace building process which began in May 2009. A war of words has been fought between those who argue that the Government of Sri Lanka committed war crimes and the supporters of the government who have tried to present their victory as a model of how nations can destroy “terrorism.” Demands for an international tribunal to examine the conduct of the war have met a steadfast refusal by the Sri Lankan government which refuses to consider the validity of any outside evaluation of the war and their methods to end it. A lack of evidence and empirical evidence about the war has prevented a knowledgeable debate. This brief report offers some empirical evidence about the conflict that may be useful to the continuing debate.

This report is an effort to offer some empirical data to the debate over the war. It is based on a data set of the casualties of the war. The data set begun in 1984 (backdated to the 1970s) and has amassed over 70,000 cases of violence during the conduct of the war from 1972 through 2009 and continuing to the present.

The Lincoln Project gathered data from Sri Lankan and international news sources. There is limited space in this report to fully discuss the many methodological issues created by the data gathering. The most important limitation of the data is that if an event is not reported in the press or by some group, it is not included in the data. However, without a comprehensive and reliable source of information for the number of deaths and injuries during the war, this is one of the most comprehensive sources of data on the Sri Lankan war and its casualties. Obviously, the most significant limitation in the data is the limited information reported from the last year of the war. The government of Sri Lanka stopped reporting its own casualties in mid-2008 and of course ultimately banned reporters and outsiders from the war zone. Despite, this, there were Tamil sources reporting battle deaths and killings until April 2009 and continued reports being compiled by human rights groups. In addition, sources within the military reported some of the casualties during the final year of fighting. The statistics reported by the Lincoln Project data very clearly underreport the number of deaths during the final offensive against the LTTE. However, they offer a clue about the magnitude of the killing. The data also provide an indication of the impact of the war on the Sri Lankan ethnic communities and the effect on civilians.

Another limitation of the data is that it is constantly being updated with new information—especially from the last battles of the war in 2009. The size of the data set and the arrival of new data limit the ability of the data to be updated quickly. The current data set has over 70,000 cases and five million data points. As a result, the results are constantly changing as errors are corrected and new data is added. Nevertheless, the changes have been relatively small, but the totals continue to grow.

While the data set can report any sub groups of deaths, injuries and arrests, the deaths reported in this brief report include all ethnically related casualties. This includes riot deaths and mob attacks against Tamils and Muslims during the war years.

Ironically, there have been very haphazard reports of the number of deaths from the conflict. With no source reporting the deaths, estimates of the total killed have varied wildly. The total number of deaths reported in the press “froze” in the late 1990s around 100,000, although some commentators continued to use the 65,000 figure from the early 1990s. These numbers are ridiculously low and do not reflect the reality of the Sri Lanka conflict nor its impact on the society.

More than 165 thousand deaths are recorded in the data set through May 2009. This is a very high number for a society of roughly 20 million people. However, the full impact of the war can be seen by the fact that the overwhelming impact of the war fell on the Tamil population which was the most seriously affected by the war with nearly 72% of the deaths being Tamils or more than 119,000 of those killed. The Tamil people experienced the full brunt of the war. Despite, a large number of widely publicized massacres of Sinhalese by the LTTE, the day to day battles and fighting in the north and east resulted in the overwhelming total of casualties. The Tamil death toll comprises about 5 percent of the total Tamil population of Sri Lanka.
Despite being affected by a number of large scale (and widely reported) massacres, the Muslim population comprised less than 2 percent of the deaths. The Sri Lankan and western media tended to focus on these horrific events while the daily death toll of civilians (mostly Tamil) mounted in the north and east on a daily basis.

Most of the casualties in the war were combatants with civilians comprising less than 30% of the deaths. Once again this figure may be understated. The underreporting of civilian casualties in the final stages of the war as well as the tendency of the government to report all killed in battles as LTTE, even when some of the casualties were civilians. Tamils comprised nearly 84% of the civilian casualties once more reflecting the burden of the war on the Tamil people.


There were three periods of intensified conflict during the war – 1990 to 1992, 1995 to 2000 and the final offensive of 2007 to 2009. The bloodiest years of the war were the last period, 2007 to 2009 where at least 42,000 people died. Prior to this, the previous bloodiest periods, 1990-92 and 1995-2000 saw 31,000 and 56,000 deaths respectively. All three of these periods coincided with major government offensives. However, the biggest difference between the three offensives was the percentage of civilian casualties. In the early years of the war and especially the fighting in 1990, more than 45% of the deaths were civilians. This is in contrast to the years of President Kumaratunga’s presidency, when the number of civilian casualties dropped sharply to less than 10% of the deaths. In the violent years of 1998 to 2000 the rate dropped to 6.8 percent of the total deaths. The percentage of civilian deaths rose sharply after 2004 (the year the Rajapakse government came to power) to more than two-thirds of the deaths in 2009. Government forces were much freer in killing civilians during the Premadasa offensive in the early 90s and the later Rajapakse offensive. However, Tamil civilian casualties during the Rajapakse offensive exceeded the exceptionally high totals in the 1990 offensive which experienced large numbers of Tamil villagers being killed in retaliation of the slaughter of Sri Lankan policemen.

It should be noted that the government claimed more than 15,000 LTTE deaths in 2008 and 2009, despite 2008 government estimates of only about 5 to 7 thousand LTTE fighters. If the government included large numbers of civilians in this total, the percentage of civilian deaths in the final offensive is even higher than the 65%. If one assumes that one-half of those killed and reported as LTTE were actually civilians, this raises the percentage of civilian casualties to nearly 80% of the total killed in those 2 years.

Another commonly reported myth of the war was that the LTTE was responsible for most civilian deaths. The data set reports that the government was responsible for about 80% of the Tamil civilians killed during the war. Almost all of the Sinhalese civilian deaths were the responsibility of the LTTE. Again there are very sharp differences in the percentage of Tamil deaths between the pre and post Chandrika period. During Chandrika’s rule, there was a sharp drop in civilian deaths and roughly equal numbers of Tamil civilians killed by the LTTE and the government. In the two other periods, the government was responsible for the overwhelming number of deaths of Tamil civilians. During the final 18 months of the war, very few Sinhalese civilians were killed by the LTTE. Over 95% of the civilians killed during this time period were Tamils and most of them in operations initiated by the government forces or directly responsible for them.


Clearly, the large number of civilian deaths in the final stages of the war support allegations that the government targeted Tamil civilians or at least did not make suitable efforts to avoid civilian casualties during their final offensive. It is important to note that during the offensives of the Chandrika era, the Sri Lankan armed forces were able to limit the number of civilian casualties. It should also be noted that the government enforced very strict rules prohibiting the security forces from engaging in attacking civilians. The number of rapes and government security force rampages declined sharply during her presidency. In any case, the government security forces were able to limit civilian casualties when the government leadership demanded it. The unanswered question is why was there such an uncacceptably high percentage of civilian deaths in the final year of the war.

While the data points to excessive deaths of Tamils during the Rajapakse government’s final offensive, it also shows much less “oppression” of Tamils in the post war era. Again using a very liberal interpretation of ethnic minority deaths, the number of Tamils and Muslims dying in the post war period has dropped from a high of about three a week in 2009 and two a week in 2010 to current totals of about one death every 13 days in 2013 and 2014. However, the number of ethnic minority kidnappings have remained relatively high for peace time from about 3 a week from 2009 until 2013. In the first 6 months of 2014 the number has dropped sharply to less than one a week.

Clearly the data shows that there have been human rights improvements (as measured by deaths and kidnappings) in the Tamil areas of Sri Lanka since 2009. Whether the drops in 2014 and 2013 are the result of increased international pressure and scrutiny cannot be determined from the data but would be a reasonable explanation for the drop. However, the number of ethnic minority deaths has declined sharply from the 2009 and 2010 totals. Another sign of the improving situation has been a decline in the number of Tamils arrested. In 2012, more than 6 Tamils were arrested a day for political acts or on suspicion. In 2013 and 2014 the rate dropped to about 2 to 3 a day.

Despite the improving situation, it can easily be argued that the “peacetime” totals before 2013-14 were totally unacceptable and the lower levels in the last 18 months are still much higher than should be acceptable in a nation at peace. The current totals are still higher than the rates in the years 1980 to 1982 when Sri Lanka was leading up to war. It should also be noted that Tamil complaints about land encroachment by the military and Sinhalese settlers is not measured by this data. Also not included in the data are the arrests of the 10,000 Tamils arrested during this time period for trying to illegally immigrate to Australia and elsewhere.

The myth of an ethnic war in Sri Lanka that killed 100,000 people understates the intensity of the war. In addition, the data on ethnic deaths in Sri Lanka offers support for the use of excessive force against Tamil civilians during the last stages of the war but the post-war data offers some signs of improvement but still unacceptably high levels of violence against ethnic minorities in Sri Lanka. In addition, if the drop in violence in 2014 is the result of international pressure, there is no reason to not expect it to increase if the international community relaxes its pressure on Sri Lanka.
In summary, the data shows the intense impact the Sri Lankan war has had on the Tamil population and more importantly, the continuing need for reconciliation and peace building in Sri Lanka.

Robert C. Oberst is Professor and Chair of Political Science at Nebraska Wesleyan University and has written extensively on the Sri Lankan politics and conflict. He is also a co-author of Government and Politics in South Asia, 7th edition.

End Notes:

1. Almost all of the data was gathered from Sri Lankan sources – English, Sinhala and Tamil newspapers, news sites and reports by the government and human rights groups. Initially it was limited to print media but added electronic sources at they grew.
2. The riot totals are a very small percentage of the total deaths from the war and their inclusion has very little impact on the results.
3. This percentage is a little misleading because, there was limited reporting of whether war casualties were Indian Tamils or Sri Lankan Tamils. While the overwhelming total of fighters and residents in the north and east were Sri Lankan Tamils, there are some Indian Tamils residing in these areas. In addition, the percentage is based on static population figure while the war existed over a 30 year period and thus, the total population who lived during the war is higher than the static total used in this percentage.
4. When reports contradicted the government’s claim of LTTE deaths, they were included as an option in the data. However, most reports of LTTE deaths were not contradicted.
5. This is based on years with more than 6000 deaths.
6. In the last stages of the war, the LTTE “recruited” large number of Tamil youths to fill its depleted forces. This can explain some of the discrepancy as they rushed underage combatants to the war front to increase depleted forces. However, as earlier noted, civilians killed in government battles were almost always reported by the government as LTTE members during the war unless they were killed by the LTTE.