The government of Sri Lanka announced plans this week to conduct a nationwide census to tally “human and property damages” inflicted during the nation’s three decades of civil war.
“The death toll of civilians during the 30-year conflict has not been accurately assessed,” a Nov. 26 government statement read. “A U.N. panel probed the last phase of the war [and] has estimated that around 40,000 died while other independent reports estimated the number of civilians dead to exceed 100,000.”
The government has long denied allegations by the U.N. and human-rights groups of committing war crimes and abuses during the last, successful offensive against the separatist Tamil Tigers that ended the nation’s long conflict. In 2012, U.N. records showed that Sri Lanka was second only to Iraq in the number of unresolved missing persons in the country. Tens of thousands of civilians are believed to have been killed in the final months of battle, but the government has thus far ignored the international community’s calls for an independent investigation into those deaths and other wartime disappearances.
The census appears to be an attempt to quiet those calls. According to the statement, it was one of the key recommendations of the government-appointed Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, which published its report in 2011. The Department of Census and Statistics is set to begin the census on Nov. 28 and has six months to complete it, deploying 16,000 officials to visit households throughout the country and evaluate losses from 1983 to 2009.
The move comes close on the heels of a high-profile summit of the heads of the Commonwealth nations in Colombo in mid-November. The government saw the meeting as a rare opportunity to boost Sri Lanka’s profile on the world stage. Banners for the meeting bore the smiling visage of President Mahinda Rajapaksa and the slogan “We who won the country will win the world.”
That good PR opportunity didn’t go according to plan. The leaders of India, Canada and Mauritius boycotted the event because of the country’s human-rights record. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued a statement in October saying he would not go because the “Sri Lankan government has failed to uphold the Commonwealth’s core values.” British Prime Minister David Cameron did go, but he used the closely watched meeting to visit the country’s war-torn north, an experience he called “harrowing.”