Sri Lanka’s Civilian Deaths Bingo
28/11/2012 11 Comments
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?
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.
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.
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.