Behind the Numbers: a Closer Look at Sri Lanka’s Enumeration of Vital Events – 2011 – Northern Province

Last November, Sri Lanka’s Defense Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, noted that finding out how many civilians “died or went missing during the last few months of the conflict” would be “a first step towards reconciliation.”1 The government’s Enumeration of Vital Events (EVE) attempts to answer that question by collecting information about people who have died, disappeared and emigrated from Sri Lanka since 1982. The survey was overseen by the Ministry of Defense, but was conducted by the Department of Census and Statistics (DCS).2 The Methodology In 2011 the Department of Census and Statistics held population enumeration activities specifically for the Enumeration of Vital Events (EVE) in the country’s Northern Province (Jaffna, Kilinochchi, Mannar, Mullaitivu and Vavuniya). A form designed by the Department of Census and Statistics was used for the survey. The form included the general census information, like the names and information (including passport numbers) of people living in their house permanently or temporarily. There are sections for family members who live in other districts or those who have emigrated. Under that section, the form asks for the personal information of the people who have left, where they have gone (domestically and internationally), and why they went. There is a section, special to the Northern Province, about deaths and disappearances. Respondents are only supposed to discuss their family members, and not domestic aids/laborers or boarders who may have died or disappeared while living with them. The form asks for the following information for the deceased/ disappeared:  ID card number ; Relationship to respondent; Sex; Whether they died or disappeared; Age when they died or disappeared; Date that they died or disappeared; Whether a death certificate was obtained for the person

For deaths, there is a section for the cause of death. The options are natural causes, the 2004 tsunami, other natural disaster, an accident, or other. Importantly, there is no option for death due to the war. For disappearances, there is a field to state where the person disappeared. The Department of Education was willing to provide teachers with leave to attend one-day trainings and also to collect data. However, the Department was only willing to give teachers short leave or duty leave to conduct the survey. This suggests that the lack of time given to teachers made it difficult to for all of them to conduct a survey completely. According to the official report, “field data collection required for the project covering the entire Northern

“Sri Lanka Takes Census of Civilian Deaths During the Last Stages of War,” ColomboPage, 24 November 2011 <>.

The Department of Census and Statistics (DCS) is also referred to as the Census and Statistics Department.

Province was planned and executed within the period of two weeks from 3rd July to 17th July, 2011.”3 However, the survey was extended an additional ten days and ended on July 27, 2011. The survey was extended because some teachers were unable to finish their work during the allotted time period.4 Additionally, it appears that not all teachers were compensated for their work---in spite of promises that had been made by DS officials working in the five districts. Teachers were promised that they would be paid 3,000 Sri Lankan rupees for completing the first hundred forms. Teachers who completed more than one hundred forms were paid extra, but it is not clear how much they were paid. While it remains unclear how many teachers have been paid, some definitely have. For those who have been paid, this additional money was included in their monthly governmental check. Teachers were paid at varies times, ranging from September to December, 2011. This occurred in all five districts in the Northern Province. Anecdotally, one teacher from Skandapuram, Kilinochchi (who completed more than one hundred forms) was paid 5,215 Sri Lankan rupees. Data Collection Government schoolteachers collected the data by going door-to-door and using database forms. As noted, prior to collecting data, schoolteachers participated in a training program. In addition, on June 17, 2011 a one-day “Master Training” seminar was held at the Jaffna District Secretariat for Tamil staff of the Department of Census and Statistics based in Jaffna, Mullaithivu, Kilinochchi, Mannar and Vavuniya. Since Sri Lanka had not conducted an island-wide census since 1982, this was a capacity building exercise for DCS staff. Army officials visited the Department of Statistics in Jaffna during that one-day training. Staff from the Department of Census and Statistics was brought to work on the project from other parts of the country (outside the Northern Province) on June 22 and 23, 2011. Significantly, most teachers had no prior experience with data collection or survey work. Once teachers collected the data, those database forms were collected by officials working in the Department of Census and Statistics’ Colombo office. In order to collect the data and bring it back to Colombo, the DCS sent five separate teams of Colombo office staff to the Northern Province’s five districts. The size of these teams varied according to the number of DS divisions located within each of the five districts, with one additional person being designated as the “team leader” for each group. For example, the team that travelled to Kilinochchi (a district with 4 DS divisions) was comprised of five people working in the DCS’s Colombo office. The remaining teams are numbered as follows: Mullaitivu (6 people); Vavuniya (5 people); Mannar (5 people); Jaffna (15 people).
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Please refer to the Preface of the “Enumeration of Vital Events.” This information was provided by a teacher (who participated in the survey) in Kilinochchi.

DCS teams in Mullaitivu, Kilinochchi, Mannar and Vavuniya all stayed in army camps during that time. While those four teams had originally planned to spend three weeks in those districts, DCS staff spent an entire month at those army camps. More specifically, in Vavuniya the DCS staff who came from Colombo stayed at the Kudiyiruppu Army Camp while the survey was conducted. In Jaffna, DCS staff who came from Colombo stayed at a lodge; this was coordinated by the Ministry of Defence.5 DCS staff stayed in Jaffna for two weeks. To be clear, all five Colombo-based DCS teams were in the Northern Province during the entire time that the survey was conducted. Evaluating, collating, analyzing and finalizing the data were done exclusively by people working in the DCS’s Colombo office. No district level government officials were involved in this process.6 Significantly, no real information about this survey was kept in any of the DCS’s district offices in the Northern Province. The only information remaining in those district offices was a note about the number of forms that were used in each district to perform the survey. Analysis There are many reasons to be concerned about this survey. The timing of the survey, and the military’s heavy involvement, suggests that this is an obvious effort to deflect international pressure at the Human Rights Council and to discredit the UN’s Panel of Experts report. Indeed, the government furtively released the EVE last week, but did not hesitate to use it on the opening day of the Council’s 19th session. Usually a data collector in the field will write a summary of information that they collected at the end of the survey period. But, this will not be done for the EVE, creating an opportunity for the government to manipulate data as it sees fit. The glaring omission of war as an option for cause of death is perhaps another sign that the government is merely using the EVE as a tool to underreport the number of deaths that took place during the war. For the survey form which was written in Tamil, in the “Reason for Death” Category (Column 11, Section 4) the direct translation denotes “instantaneous accident” as an option. However, in the English version of the survey, that same part is categorized as “Accident/Homicide/Suicide.”7 This awkwardly worded portion of the survey form in Tamil is confusing and unclear. The ambiguous phrasing provides ample opportunity for respondents to omit deaths which occurred as a result of the war.

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According to officials working at the Department of Census and Statistics. The details about this process were reported by officials from the Department of Census and Statistics (DCS) from all five District Secretariats in the Northern Province.

Please refer Annex I of this briefing paper and to the Enumeration of Vital Events, Appendix II: “Enumeration Schedules” for more information.

Furthermore, the form itself invites manipulation. In the sections related to people residing in the home and people who are living in other districts or abroad, the respondent can fill in information for their extended family---no matter how far away they are living. However, for deaths and disappearances, the form says that the respondent can only report on deaths/disappearances from their primary family. This leads to the underrepresentation of deaths as compared to people who have left the region and are remaining there. Doing a survey in this manner invariably leads to inaccurate and massively underreported information. The people who are in the districts now are not necessarily the same people who have been there since 1982. Whole families were killed, displaced to other districts in Sri Lanka, or emigrated from the country entirely. None of these families will be counted in the survey. This inevitably results in thousands of deaths and disappearances not being reported. It is also highly unlikely that all respondents gave completely honest answers to the survey takers. There is a prevailing fear in the North of the military and by extension the government. Many people are afraid to admit that a family member died as a member of the LTTE. Some might have lied about the circumstances of the deaths, or even that family members died at all. Moreover, many community members in the Northern Province might prefer to say that their loved ones have disappeared, instead of acknowledging that they have passed away. Many women do not want to accept the fact that their husbands are gone forever if they are not completely sure. Some are fearful that, by making a death official, they are killing their husbands. People are especially afraid to share information about family members that have left Sri Lanka for other countries. They are afraid that the government will assume that the emigrating family member is LTTE and that they may be also. They believe that if they admit that a family member left they will be targets of harassment, extortion, and investigation by the military. These fears are well-founded as heavy monitoring of ex-LTTE cadres continues in the country’s North and East.8 The fact that the government collected the passport numbers of people in the survey points to an effort to identify those who would potentially travel abroad and prevent them from doing so, and also identify possible LTTE supporters. Conclusion The processes surrounding the Sri Lankan government’s EVE are deeply flawed. The EVE’s survey and subsequent statistical analyses lack rigor and are shrouded in opacity. The EVE has resulted in the production of highly questionable information. As the Sri Lankan government comes under fire in Geneva, the EVE suggests that far fewer deaths (less than 8,000) occurred during war’s final phases than most people think. The government’s dubious claim lacks merit and should not be taken seriously.


This information was reported by human rights activists living in Sri Lanka.

Annex I: Part of the Survey Form in Tamil (Section IV: “Deaths and Untraceable Persons”)


2004 Tsunami Other Natural Disaster

Instantaneous Accident


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