Body count: an illusive index of 'progress'

[TamilNet, Thursday, 18 September 1997, 12:00 GMT]
"In a war without battle lines, perhaps the best overall index of progress is that of casualties". This view was delivered as part of the orientation given to newcomers to the US military's Saigon HQ at the height of the conflict in Vietnam. Despite several Sri Lankan offensives against the Tamil Tigers, the LTTE continues to vigorously resist the Sinhalese army in the Tamil homelands. In a bid to show 'progress' in its war, the Sri Lankans have developed a preoccupation with body counts.

The intensity of the war between the Tamil Tigers and the Sinhalese government has steadily escalated with the conventional set-piece battles being fought recently between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan military. However, in what has largely been and continues to be a guerrilla war of attrition, the taking of territory alone cannot be used as a measure of success.

Funeral woman fighter
Funeral of LTTE fighters
Even though the Jaffna peninsula was captured by the SLA in early 1996, LTTE fighters organised into small attack teams are still continuing an effective resistance campaign within army occupied territory. Sinhalese troops have even abandoned sections of the peninsula, except for occasional forays in strength.

The LTTE measures its success by its ability to stretch the military and raise the cost of Sri Lanka's war, while at the same time extending its fighting strength. Even the Sri Lankan military intelligence admits that the LTTE is growing steadily, both numerically and in equipment.

Since losing control of Jaffna, the LTTE has entrenched itself in the Vanni jungles and brought most of the east of the island under its control, through a combination of guerrilla war and conventional assaults on army bases.

The Sri Lankan government, however, has had difficulties showing continuous tangible results from its war strategy to the Sinhala population. Even the capture of Jaffna, promised in a matter of days, took an embarrassingly long seven weeks. This prize still cannot be shown off due to the increasing difficulty in controlling the area.

SLA soldiers killed in Mullaitivu
Sri Lankan soldiers killed
at Mullaitivu in 1996
Continuous attacks on Sri Lankan security forces are costing political mileage. The myth that the LTTE was a 'spent force' following the capture of the Jaffna peninsula by the SLA, was shattered in July 1996 by the Tiger assault on Mullaitivu SLA base and subsequent Sri Lankan offensives have not provided the spectacular victory that Colombo desperately needs.

Hence the only measure of success for the Sri Lankan government has been the outcome of each individual encounter, which in turn has come to be measured in terms of kill ratios, i.e. how many on the each side are killed and wounded in each engagement.

This has had a number of implications, both on and off the battlefield. Not least is the ban on reporters and observers entering the affected areas of the island. The censorship is strictly enforced, ensuring that casualty figures cannot be independently verified. Neither can the true picture of the war and its effects be revealed to the outside world.

In combat, the SLA relies increasingly on artillery and air strikes to hit out at the shadowy Tigers. Every Tamil attack on a patrol or camp brings down a (belated) hail of artillery fire, which usually lands in nearby Tamil villages, with large numbers of Tamil civilians being killed or wounded. The SLA gunners seem to think nothing of wiping out the Tamil villagers: they are considered Tiger sympathisers and therefore legitimate targets.

LTTE shrine for war dead
A monument to fallen LTTE fighters
When conducting offensive operations, the Sri Lankan military typically favours large scale military sweeps, moving out from heavily defended camps under air and artillery (and sometimes naval) cover.

The LTTE units, in these situations, usually side-step the army columns until the military returns to its bases or digs into vulnerable forward positions. Contrary to doctrines of guerrilla war, the Sri Lankans have no intention of engaging the Tamil fighters in close combat while winning the hearts and minds of Tamil civilians.

Instead, the Sri Lankans use an artillery curtain to disperse Tamil fighters ahead of their columns. Tamil villages that get caught in artillery strikes are identified as 'LTTE bases' and dead civilians are displayed as 'LTTE fighters'. Tamil civilians are forced to flee ahead of advancing Sinhalese troops, or risk being massacred.

On March 16th, 1996, 16 Tamil civilians were killed and 64 badly wounded when Sri Lankan gunships levelled Nachchikuda village. The government claimed that Nachchikuddah was an LTTE base and that the dead were 'terrorists', despite protests by MPs, civil servants and priests from the area.

Away from the battlefield, the government uses inflated casualty claims to prove 'successes' and play down the impact of Sinhala losses on public morale. Some observers blame the Sri Lankan chain of command where each link in the chain alters the casualty figures to be more 'appealing' thereby cumulatively distorting the outcome of the engagement. Others say a deliberate policy of distortion is being practised.

One pressing reason for inflating Tamil casualty figures may be the need to fill a 'kill quota' which may have been set to demonstrate that the Sri Lankans are 'winning' the war. Even when there are no engagements, fictitious clashes are reported (typically involving the Sri Lankans 'sinking an LTTE boat' or bombing an 'LTTE camp'), there by ensuring the phrase 'Tigers killed' can be regularly reported in the local press.

This is similar to a policy followed by the South Vietnamese military to show continuous 'results' to their American advisors in the fight against the Viet Cong.

Graves of fallen LTTE fighters
Following engagements with the Tigers, Sri Lankan military is usually careful to report at least as many Tamil casualties as its own losses. Typically, Tiger 'radio transmissions monitored by the military' are used to justify the figures issued.

Sometimes the bodies of Tamil villagers killed in artillery or air strikes are displayed with small arms and claimed as those of Tiger fighters. The Sri Lankan army and the LTTE use identical small arms. Many Tamil (and Indian) fishermen have been killed by Sri Lankan naval fire, and these deaths are routinely claimed as attacks on Sea Tiger boats.

The playing down of its own casualty figures is an important facet of the Sri Lankan government's manipulation of combat news. Typically, the losses are reduced or simply not reported. This is deemed preferable to accepting the deaths and the resultant impact on public morale (and any further drop in the numbers of recruits joining the armed forces).

In March 1996, Sinhalese troops on a search and destroy mission were caught in a Tiger ambush close to their base at Sittandy. The Sri Lankan military said less than forty soldiers were killed in the attack, along with forty Tigers (citing the usual 'monitored radios'). Later a western defence analyst confirmed at least 70 soldiers had died. The Tigers lost 3 men.

When the LTTE stormed the Mullaitivu SLA base in July 1996, communications with the garrison were cut off early in the attack. Despite this, during the course of the battle the Sri Lankan government confidently claimed that 400 Tigers had been killed for the loss of three hundred soldiers. In reality, at least 1300 Sinhalese soldiers died, along with 332 Tigers. Only 40 of the garrison's defenders survived the battle.

A notable distortion of casualty figures occurred during the LTTE counter-attack on a Sri Lankan column marching on Kilinochchi in September 1996. Tamil troops hit the rear of the column in a devastating mortar and infantry attack.

Initially, a horrified SLA officer told an international press agency that 'over a hundred troops' had been killed. The LTTE said 150 Sri Lankans were killed along with 50 Tigers. However, the following day an MoD spokesman said only seventy five soldiers had been killed, but claimed 450 Tigers had died. Subsequently the Sri Lankan press reported that 200 soldiers died in the attack.

When the Sri Lankan army is percieved as 'winning' then the number of Sinhalese applicants rises. Conversely, the current climate of perceived defeat has seen very poor recruitment results. Some analysts expect less than a tenth of the number of recruits needed actually applied.

The LTTE conversely, is fastidious about its credibility amongst the Tamil population whose support it relies on. Enemy deaths are not claimed unless senior field officers have visually confirmed them. If there is a disparity between the figures issued formally and figures that filter out from Tiger troops into the Tamil community, the LTTE will face a damaging credibility gap.

Western analysts say that casualty figures from the LTTE are broadly in line with their own estimates. The full casualty lists are distributed to the Tigers international offices, so that the next of kin amongst the Tamil Diaspora could be informed.

Neil Sheehan, the veteran New York Times war correspondent wrote of the Viet Cong movement: "[They] were fighting a war of national independence and survival. They had to be able to record the dark hours and learn from them if they were to live to see sunny hours.... A VC leader could report that he was failing to attain success without necessarily jeopardising his position, as long as he was seeking alternative means to overcome his problems. His system encouraged self-criticism, criticism of colleagues and subordinates." The LTTE operates on a similar basis.

The Tiger dead are buried with full military honours. There is a strong bond among the Tamil fighters, including the LTTE leadership, the military members of which have all risen through the Tiger ranks. The bodies of Tamil fighters often lie in state, so that their families may mourn and the local Tamil people may pay their respects. Monuments to fallen fighters are located all over the Tamil homelands. Garlanded portraits of fallen fighters are displayed at public places in their home towns.

The Tigers use the funerals of fallen fighters to arouse nationalistic emotions, as do a number of armies around the world. The monuments and portraits also serve to act as constant reminders of the movements armed resistance, which when combined with the effect of Sinhalese atrocities, act as powerful persuaders to Tamil youth.

Prior to the capture of Jaffna by the Sri Lankan army, the Tigers maintained a military cemetery containing the graves of up to 5,000 fighters. The graves were bulldozed by the SLA after they capture of the city in late 1995.

In contrast, the Sri Lankan government prefers not to acknowledge the deaths of many of its soldiers. After the Mullaitivu battle, the bodies of at least 400 soldiers were handed over to the Red Cross by the LTTE. The government refused to accept them and instructed the ICRC to cremate the bodies in (LTTE-held) Kilinochchi. Most of the Mullaitivu garrison are officially listed as 'missing in action'.

Notably, this contrasts with the full military funeral held for General Fazly Lafir, killed in the same battle. After the gruelling fight for Jaffna, some civilians who stayed behind said they saw bodies clad in SLA uniforms being tossed into Kilali lagoon.

Sri Lankan analysts put the lack of regard for troop casualties down to a difference in backgrounds, with the officers mostly coming from wealthier, educated families while the majority of troops are from rural southern villages. The divide between the two often leads to disciplinary problems and lack lustre performance in combat.

Another reason why the Sri Lankan government may not wish to acknowledge the deaths of its soldiers is the compensation that the relatives are entitled to. The cash-strapped government can avoid this obligation by simply listing dead soldiers as missing in action.

The families of the 1300 soldiers killed at Mullaitivu are still awaiting their entitlements. Desperate relatives have contacted the Red Cross and even the LTTE in the hope of confirming the fate of the soldiers.

With the war expected to continue, and the ban on journalists being rigidly enforced, the distortion of casualty figures can be expected to continue unabated as the Sri Lankan government attempts to contain public frustration at the cost of the war and to claim that its war strategy is working.


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