A fortnight after hosting the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), Sri Lanka has set out to count the number of civilians who died in the final stages of its civil war against Tamil rebels, which ended in May 2009.
The Department of Census and Statistics started a nationwide exercise on Thursday to assess the loss of human lives and damage to property. The census would cover the period from 1982 to 2009, said a report published in state-run English daily Daily News . The survey, one of the recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, would involve 16,000 officials.
Though U.N. estimates point to 40,000 civilian deaths in the final phase of the war, the government has denied the figure and termed the campaign a “humanitarian operation,” which could not have caused so many deaths. However, estimates from civil society and human rights groups have kept the issue in focus since 2009, when the army defeated the LTTE.
More recently, days ahead of the CHOGM, a Channel 4 production, ‘No Fire Zone,’ sparked a fresh debate. The army dismissed the British channel’s footage as “fabricated.” The Channel 4 crew — which was here to cover the CHOGM — also faced considerable difficulty travelling to the north. However, in almost all CHOGM press conferences President Mahinda Rajapaksa addressed, he emphasised that Sri Lanka had “nothing to hide.”
The census also assumes significance after British Prime Minister David Cameron’s visit to the war-torn Jaffna earlier this month, and the strong remarks he made, virtually setting an ultimatum to the Sri Lankan government. Mr. Cameron warned Sri Lanka of an international inquiry into its alleged war crimes if it failed to open a credible probe ahead of the U.N. Human Rights Council session scheduled for March next in Geneva.
Though Mr. Rajapaksa rejected Mr. Cameron’s ultimatum, citing internal mechanisms, the government’s decision to initiate the census — and its efforts to simultaneously publicise the work done by the presidential commission to investigate complaints about missing persons — come barely weeks after the CHOGM, suggesting that they are the result of the mounting international pressure.