Sri Lanka yesterday said it had “nothing to hide” as it began compiling a death toll from its war against Tamil separatists, after allegations of mass killings of civilians.
While rights activists expressed skepticism at the project, organizers said it would reveal the true cost of one of Asia’s bloodiest conflicts that ended when troops routed the Tamil Tiger rebels in May 2009.
The start of the six-month “census” comes after the dispute over the scale of the killings in the final phases of the conflict dominated a Commonwealth summit hosted by Sri Lanka earlier this month.
UN bodies have said as many as 40,000 civilians may have died in the final weeks of combat — a claim that has been repeatedly rejected by Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse and his mainly ethnic Sinhalese regime.
“The government has nothing to hide,” P.B Abeykoon, the top civil servant in the public administration ministry, who will supervise the census, told a press conference yesterday.
“A lot of people have come out with various accusations with their own figures. We will come out with the real facts,” Abeykoon said.
The president announced the start of the census on his Web site in a brief statement on Wednesday evening. The statement said the Department of Census and Statistics would conduct what it called an “islandwide census to assess the loss of human life and damage to property,” adding that work was to begin yesterday.
The six-month census would see about 16,000 officials fan out across the island to conduct the survey in more than 14,000 villages, including in the mainly Tamil north of the island.
Rajapakse has previously insisted no civilians died in the finale to the war and has said there was no need for international investigators to conduct their own separate inquiry.
However, international pressure has been steadily building and Rajapakse was sorely embarrassed when the leaders of Canada, India and Mauritius all boycotted the Commonwealth meet in protest at Colombo’s rights record.
British Prime Minister David Cameron did attend, but he infuriated Rajapakse by paying an historic visit to war-torn Jaffna.
After meeting survivors and relatives who had lost loved ones during the war, Cameron warned he would lead a push for an international probe unless Sri Lanka produces credible results of its own by March.
A leading rights group said that Sri Lanka has set up several investigations in the past into deaths and disappearances, but has not released the findings.
“A number of government inquiries have already been established and there has never been any kind of accountability, so a new one holds no weight whatsoever,” said Suhas Chakma, director of the New Delhi-based Asian Centre for Human Rights.