Sri Lanka said it has “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 have expressed scepticism at the project, organisers say it will reveal the true cost of one of Asia’s bloodiest conflicts, which 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.
The UN says more than 100,000 people were killed during the course of the war, with as many as 40,000 in the final weeks alone.
President Mahinda Rajapakse and his mainly ethnic Sinhalese regime have repeatedly rejected that claim and said there is no need for a separate international investigation.
A top civil servant, P.B Abeykoon, who will supervise the census, says the government has nothing to hide.
“A lot of people have come out with various accusations with their own figures. We will come out with the real facts,” he said.
D.C.A Gunawardena, the head of the census department, says his teams will try to determine the numbers of dead, missing, or maimed by the conflict as well as the extent of property damage.
“The public will be asked to substantiate the claims of deaths, missing and property damage,” he said.
The president announced the start of the census on his website in a brief statement on Wednesday evening.
The six-month census will see some 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.
International pressure has been steadily building on the Sri Lankan government, and Mr Rajapakse was embarrassed when the leaders of Canada, India and Mauritius all boycotted the Commonwealth summit in protest against the country’s rights record.
British prime minister David Cameron did attend, but infuriated Mr Rajapakse by paying an historic visit to the war-torn Jaffna region.
After meeting survivors and relatives who had lost loved ones during the war, Mr Cameron warned he would lead a push for an international probe, unless Sri Lanka produces credible results of its own by March.
Mr Abeykoon says the census shows the government’s determination to seek the truth, when asked about the claims of 40,000 civilian deaths.
“Why should we go for a census if we have anything to hide? We are trying to get a clear picture for ourselves,” he said.
The director of the New Delhi-based Asian Centre for Human Rights, Suhas Chakma, says 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,” he said.
Mr Chakma says the survey will not have credibility unless it allowed it to determine whether international laws relating to war crimes had been broken.
“If they are seeking to assuage the sentiments of the international community and the local people, they need to determine whether war crimes have been committed,” he said.
At the Colombo summit, Mr Rajapakse said Sri Lanka needed more time to conduct its own investigations, urging his peers “to trust us”.
The census was one of the recommendations of a government-appointed panel that submitted a report last year.(AFP)