Sri Lanka’s Civilian Deaths Bingo

The civilians killed in the last months of Sri Lanka’s bloody, brutal and comprehensive victory over the LTTE (Tamil Tigers) can’t find peace, even in death. The exact number of civilian deaths ranges from 1,000+ (Government of Sri Lanka – GoSL) to 7000+ (UN) to 20,000 (The Times) to 40,000 (various international human rights organisations) to a ludicrous 150,000+ (LTTE supporters).

‘Choose the number that best suits your argument’ is how Sri Lanka’s Civilian Deaths Bingo is being played. The latest UN report has increased the Casualty Bingo number yet again, this time to 40,000. But there’s an unexamined aspect of the last battle – what is an acceptable level of casualties in a hostage rescue operation?

Prabhakaran practicing the Human Shield Manoeuvre

Sri Lanka used the appearance (and fact) of mass hostage taking to call the final assault the “largest hostage rescue operation in history”, and following US Army practice (e.g Operation Iraqi Freedom) named it a “Humanitarian Operation”. This caused outrage and impotent fury amongst exiled LTTE supporters and international human rights organisations. As there are no commonly agreed standards for acceptable casualties during hostage rescue operations, examining comparable earlier events places the Sri Lankan civilian casualty figures in proportion and context.

More cease fires than hot kottu rotis

From January 2009, as the scale of the LTTE”s plans for massive civilian casualties became obvious, there were frantic surrender offers, cease fires and even plans to evacuate the LTTE leadership to prevent large-scale civilian deaths. Predictably, Prabhakaran, the LTTE leader contemptuously rejected these offers saying “this is unacceptable”, because he was planning a counter-strike.

Prabhakaran’s reply to ceasefires

The Air Force even managed to broadcast real-time video from their UAV drones showing LTTE cadres shooting at Tamil civilians trying to escape and scenes of general devastation.

Let’s get to the stats

My arbitrary definition of ‘mass hostage taking’ is when 50 or more people are held against their will, under threat of serious physical injury and death. Your definition may differ. Examples of mass hostage taking incidents have been restricted to those occurring on land, to ensure a degree of commonality with the last phase of the 4th Eelam War. Hostage takings occurring on mass transportation (aircraft, buses etc) have been omitted.

Casualty rates in mass hostage takings, 1976-2009

The worst casualty rate was, surprisingly in Waco, Texas, when the US government managed to kill 66% of hostages during their rescue. The best casualty rates range from 0% (e.g. The 1975 Opec Kidnapping) to 3% in the 1976 Entebbe hostage rescue. The second largest mass-hostage situation was in Budyonnovsk in Russia, when Chechen insurgents held about 2,000 hostages. Their rescue resulted in a casualty rate of 7%. The LTTE’s world-record beating mass hostage taking involved over 300,000 civilians spread out over 150 square miles.

Sri Lanka’s casualty rate sits somewhere in the middle, between 2.3% to 5%. So how many civilians were really killed? Un-hysterical observers tend to agree around 10-15,000 civilian deaths, a dreadful figure. It could’ve been worse.

11 Responses to Sri Lanka’s Civilian Deaths Bingo

  1. Cigi says:

    The 40,000 UN figure was based on campaigns like the one below!
    (see the letters after the Q&A from panel of experts, which guaranteed anonymity )

    UN Submission Sample letters 7 Days Left Have you made your submission?

    “25 sample letters that you could use to submit your letters
    to the U.N. (If not already done so) Panel of expert to pressure UN
    for war crimes investigation on Sri Lanka please use these letters if
    you do not find time to write your own letters.

    Please submit your letter to the U.N Panel, as we have only 08 more
    days even if you are not directly affected by the conflict and crimes
    against humanity committed by Sri Lankan forces and its leaders.

    Make sure, you attach your postal address and the country of residence
    in your letter

    The letters does not need to be long, even few lines should do. Please
    appeal to the panel to ask U.N. to investigate Sri Lanka for war
    crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide of Tamils”

  2. Manjula says:

    Nice analysis.
    According to that, UN must investigate and punish US against human rights violations at Waco. We’ll start from there.

  3. Nice analysis.

    I suspect the accurate figure of civilians in the last month is between 3,000 and 10,000. The figure of 7,000 seems to be a reasonable guess.

    However no one ever counts the dead after a war is over.

  4. sach says:

    Hi, I need to know whether that Kurubaharan in CT is in some refugee organization in Aus?

  5. introspection4SL says:

    good read

  6. I had seen you commented in a different site, that Gorden Weiss later rejected the 40000 deaths. can you give me any link for such a claim

    • Mango says:

      From an Australian radio program:
      Gordon Weiss: “I believe that between 10,000 and 40,000 is a reasonable estimate. I think most likely it’s somewhere between 30,000 to 40,000.”

      According to HLD Mahindapala (a SL hack), Weiss dodged the question of the accuracy of his claim.

      “At a book launch held in Melbourne last week, he changed his figure again and came down to 10,000 under questioning by Chanaka Bandarage, a lawyer. Bandarage then asked why the brochure had mentioned 40,000. Weiss had disowned responsibility and passed the buck to the Deakin University which produced the brochure..”

      from Google Cache:

      and reproduced by GoSL at

      So, Weiss’s casualty bingo numbers range from 7,000 to 40,000. Looks like the time he spent in Sri Lanka has turned him into a Sri Lankan and left him with an incurable urge to make up stories 🙂

  7. Rod Newman says:

    Many of these low-key operations have received little or no attention from the world press. Some higher-profile cases include the Waco Siege , Ruby Ridge , the capture of the suspected masterminds of the 1998 bombings of the US embassies in Africa, and the hostage rescue operations of prison guards at Talladega, Alabama , and St. Martinville, Louisiana .

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