There is mass speculation regarding the number of civilians trapped inside LTTE areas. Human Rights groups who make a living out of such situations have claimed that 250-000 (MSF) to 300,000 (AI Report) civilians are trapped in these areas. How these organizations arrived at these figures is a mystery, or is it?
A careful observation of these agencies’ information extraction process reveals that there is much to be desired in terms of their methodology for getting at the ‘truth’. This is because the exact number of civilians trapped in those areas is not known even by the military. There has not been a census conducted in those areas in two decades. The Army’s best guesstimates puts the number around 100,000 civilians at the most.
So how do these organizations gather their information?
When it comes to the collection of information from ‘the other side’, there has been a practice by these organizations, even diplomatic missions, of hiring or networking either directly or indirectly with Tamil nationals residing both in Colombo and in the Districts. This is based on the idea that they have better access and therefore better information about the Tamils in the said area.
The issue of natural bias is often overlooked as a result of high expectation for professionalism from the said officers. These networks are maintained by a ‘local operation’ meaning a small office/s maintained in Sri Lanka by a group of expatriates and their local employees. The major sources of these organizations are as follows:
- Political affairs officers of embassies/High Commissions who rely on Tamil journalists from mainly the print media (Thinakkural etc)
- Tamil nationals attached to NGOs/INGOs/UN agencies both at the head quarters and district level (ICRC, SLRC, Local ‘Civil Society’ and Human Rights Groups)
- Tamil nationals attached to various Ministries (Ministry of Rehabilitation etc)
- Expatriate staff of NGOs/INGOs/UN who meet randomly at Colombo’s favourite watering holes (These expatriate officers disseminate information gathered through local staff)
- Local officers/district staff obtain information through their own networks of Tamil journalists/Grama Niladhari etc. Some may have an opportunity to interview returning civilians.
- Sinhala journalists who get tidbits from friends in the Military
There is however a serious problem with this methodology, particularly in the current context.
1. The area of contention has shrunk. One can cover the area under LTTE control with one’s thumb on a map of Sri Lanka.
2. No rebel ‘administration’ exist, hence there cannot be accurate estimates even if they tried
3. Civilian and civil administration, interaction and communication systems within the area and connection to the outside world has ceased and replaced primarily by an LTTE Military communication system, which is naturally biased.
4. Returning civilians may have an ‘idea’ of the numbers displaced but it is by far inaccurate and limited to their immediate experience/individual networks/capacity.
5. Quality and capacity of the information gatherers and their methods are highly questionable. Many local journalists are part-time regional reporters and are untrained. Members of the networks providing ad hoc information are not trained professionals.
6. No scientific surveys are possible. Access to the areas under LTTE control, even the No FIRE ZONE is denied by the Tigers (though access to government IDP centers are allowed).
The repercussions of this failed systems of reporting on humanitarian conditions in the Vanni are numerous. These include:
1. ‘Naming and shaming’ the government based on inaccurate information backfires on the agencies themselves and their networks
2. Wide-spread animosity and antagonism towards functioning and sometimes useful civil society groups
3. Credibility and standards of practice of international humanitarian agencies get eroded
4. Defaming of Sri Lanka- defaming of a democratically elected government or its people supporting a military solution is sometimes tantamount to defaming the entire nation, particularly in the west
5. Based on the ‘established credibility’ of these agencies and their reports, international media continues to defame our nation and its right to defend itself
6. These falsifications strengthen the separatist ideology of the Diaspora pro-LTTE groups resulting in taxation of Tamils living in the west, self-immolation by misled individuals, diplomatic stand-offs (Indian Central Govt-Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka) and finally;
7. Strengthening the hand of Tamil ultra nationalists hell-bent on eternal perpetuation of hatred and subsequently a ‘Round-2’ of the fight.
8. Undue external interference in the conflict- The reports issued by these agencies put undue pressure on the state actor whereas it is the non-state actor that is holding the civilians against their will. In fact, thousands of Tamils attempting to reach government controlled areas at south Puthukudirippu were fired at (some killed) and subsequently driven out to Mathalang, general area north of Puthukudirippu recently.
It is therefore only natural for these agencies to now take stock of their methodologies, particularly in Sri Lanka. We would strongly urge them to do so and go as far as saying that we would even offer our services in reaching out for the truth.