Sri Lankan MoD plays the numbers game

[TamilNet, Thursday, 12 June 1997, 23:59 GMT]
When Tamil Tiger commandos stormed the Sri Lankan Army's Thandikulum base, they clearly caught the Sri Lankan military off guard. Within hours the Tigers had penetrated 10 miles into SLA-held territory, and successfully overran their targets, inflicting severe casualties on the SLA. However, as soon as the assault began, the Sri Lankan Ministry of Defense swung into its public relations exercise.

Thandikulam offensive The Sri Lankan government controls the external perception of events in the Tamil homelands by simply banning the press from visiting the area, and handing out suitably tailored 'news reports', a simple procedure that makes a mockery of the freedom of the press.

Shortly after commencing their assault, the LTTE had blown up a bridge, two large ammunition dumps and captured the headquarters of the 55th Brigade. Thandikulum is a key base deep within army occupied territory.

However, the initial reports from the Sri Lankan Ministry of Defense stated that the assault had been repulsed. It even went onto say that 'troops fought back valiantly, causing heavy casualties amongst the terrorists'. The LTTE force was said to number '300-400'.

It could not have escaped the MoD's notice that 55th Brigade headquarters' defenses were collapsing at the time. Nevertheless, control of public perception seems to have been the overriding concern. The SLA spokesman, Sarath Munesinghe was quoted as saying 'there were casualties on both sides and we still don't know the exact details'.

Shortly afterwards, the MoD issued it's first casualty claim: 7 Sri Lankans killed (3 soldiers, 2 sailors and 2 Special Forces commandos). This was accompanied by a claim that LTTE casualties had to be heavy, though no basis was given this conclusion. Later this was qualified: 34 Tigers had been killed. In addition, the size of the attacking force was now stated to be 500.

Late on Tuesday, the MoD said that 25 Sri Lankans had died and that 'terrorist transmissions' indicated 27 Tigers had died. The MoD also said that 150 Sri Lankans were wounded. The situation was said to be 'under control' and the troops were said to be engaged in 'clearing operations'.

However, Vavuniya residents told news agency reporters that they could hear the sound of heavy fighting to the north, including artillery. Thandikulum is a few miles north of Vavuniya. An aid worker told agency reporter that the LTTE was still holding parts of Thandikulum. The road from Vavuniya to Thandikulum remained sealed. Military officials also admitted to agency reporters that the 55th Brigade HQ had been overrun.

The LTTE issued a statement late on Tuesday, stating that it's troops were still holding Thandikulum. It also stated that it had killed 'hundreds' of soldiers, whilst losing 50 Tigers.

On the following day, the MoD had a new set of numbers: the number of Tigers killed was aid to be 210, whilst army losses were put at 58. The size of the attacking force was now claimed to be 1000 (conveniently rationalizing the new casualty claim). The number of wounded government troops was revised down to 98 from 150. The Tigers 'were believed' to have suffered 300 wounded. No basis was given for the new numbers.

A little later, the government KIA claim of 58 was revised to 72, and then again to 110. The numbers were said to be changing as the troops moving into the shattered base were finding more bodies.

In fact, the Ministry of Defense has a standard procedure for issuing casualty figures. Fundamentally, the number of the LTTE casualties are exaggerated, while the number of government losses are played down. An 'estimated' number of LTTE dead is stated along with the 'estimated' size of the attacking force. These numbers are then adjusted upwards as government casualty figures are released, so as to maintain the impression that the LTTE had been unsuccessful in it's attack.

The number of government dead is gradually increased from a small number to a level that won't alarm the Sinhalese public. The number of Tigers killed and the size of the attacking force is also increased so as to make the government casualty claims seem 'acceptable' to the Sinhala public.

To lend credibility to the claims of LTTE casualties, supposed 'intercepted transmissions' are cited. This has been standard practice for many years. However, the LTTE has been able to successfully organise several large operations against the Sri Lankan military over the past year. It begs the question why 'intercepted transmissions' have never allowed the Sri Lankans to prepare their defenses against these.

These public relations procedures have been followed routinely in every engagement since the LTTE overran the Mullaitivu base in July 1996. It's staggering losses left the government speechless and the resultant official silence fueled the public's rumor mill. Even in that battle, the MoD initially claimed that only 300-400 solders had been killed. It was only when less than 40 survivors made it to government lines that the loss of over 1200 soldiers was indirectly acknowledged: they are officially listed as 'missing'.

The government claims it has killed over 400 Tigers during the current offensive in the Vanni, whilst losing 120 soldiers. It admits these are 'estimates' of numbers that 'should have been' killed in artillery and air strikes. There have been few direct engagements. The LTTE have said that they have lost less than 100 fighters in resisting the army offensive.

The Sri Lankan government is able to continue to issue fictitious casualty claims, simply because it is certain they can never be independently verified: reporters have been banned from the Tamil homelands for two years.

The LTTE intensified it's campaign for independence following the island wide pogrom against Tamils in July 1983. Over 50,000 Tamil civilians have been killed in the government's attempts to crush the Tamil struggle. In the 1977 elections, the Tamil people of the island voted overwhelmingly for parties supporting independence from Sri Lanka.


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