amil leaders in the North, according to media reports had requested the United Nations Human Rights High Commissioner Prince ZeidRa’ad Al Hussein who was currently on a four-day official visit to Sri Lanka to help them find more than 4,000 of their loved ones missing during the war between the armed forces and the LTTE. In spite of any person agreeing with their plea, the number of persons they had mentioned would raise many questions in the minds of those who are concerned about the deaths and the disappearances during the war.
The Presidential Commission on Missing Persons had recorded statements from relatives of more than 19,000 persons said to have been missing. Commission’s Chairman Maxwell Paranagama had said that out of them around 16,000 were said to have gone missing from the war ravaged Northern and Eastern Provinces. Despite the UN Human Rights Chief having called on the government to abolish the commission, anybody would be stunned to see the disparity between the number of missing persons in the Tamil leaders’ plea to Prince Hussein and the number of complaints received by the Commission.
Numbers pertaining to the war have always been used to suit the agendas and ideologies of various people. In January 2013 former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa had told the media that no person had disappeared during the war and a six-member army court of inquiry appointed by the then army commander in the same year confirmed his point. But under the same former government, the then president Mahinda Rajapaksa appointed the commission on missing persons which had interviewed relatives of more than 19,000 persons said to have disappeared.
Same confusion could be seen in the number of persons who died in the war. Various UN bodies including the then resident representative had put the number of people killed during the last phase of the war at around 7,000. However, the experts panel, commonly known in Sri Lanka as the Darusman committee appointed by UN Secretary General Ban ki-Moon in 2010 to advise him on Sri Lanka had estimated the number at nearly 40,000.
Interestingly, the government and the Sinhalese people were sad to hear of that whopping number while many Tamils here and abroad were jubilant and they were so keen to use it in their writings.
TNA, the main Tamil coalition in its manifesto for the Northern Provincial Council election in 2013 had put the number of people who died during the last stage of the war as 70,000 and the Tamil Nadu leaders who were not satisfied with the death of 70,000 Tamils during the Eelam war claim that the number exceeded 150,000. Reminding the famous statement by the former Soviet leader Joseph Stalin” the death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic”, the number of people killed and missing during the armed conflict has become just statistics that can be twisted according to the agendas of various people and organizations.
The Darusman committee’s estimation of civilian deaths during the last phase of the war is something that should be questioned. On what grounds had they increased to such levels? The former Foreign Secretary Palitha Kohona’s argument that there should be 40,000 graves if the Darusman committee was correct is a strong valid point, considering the fact that the last stage of the war was fought within the small littoral of Puthumatalan.
On or around May 17, 2009, two or three days before the end of the war in a voice message to the international community calling for intervention, which had been in circulation in many websites those days, Sea Tiger leader Soosai had said that there were about 25,000 injured people entrapped with them. Nowhere in his speech had he said about such a large number of deaths.
The findings of the census carried out in 2011 in the North which has never been challenged even by the Tamil leaders put the number of deaths at 7,000 and were tallied with the UN estimate before the Darusman report. These numbers involve human lives. People must handle them with care and sensitivity.