Colombo, Media and Communications, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance

The persuasive power of numbers (Part 2): “54 per cent of Tamils live outside the North and East”

My earlier article (The persuasive power of numbers and the mystery “8.5%” figure) highlighted the dangers of using incomplete census data and how it has been manipulated to bolster political agendas.

Another persuasive number that is routinely cited is the figure of “54%”, used in connection with the proportion of ‘Tamils’ living outside of the North and East. Here is a recent example:

“At least, the West has realized that 54% of ethnic Tamils are now living harmoniously in the Sinhalese-majority districts in other parts of the country, but Jehan Perera is in a fantasy world.” (Sri Lanka Tamil Tiger spokesman Tamilselvan’s death a set back for peace laments Sri Lanka’s peacenik, 3 November 2007)

There are other commentators who have used the number in such a way as to seek to justify that since “54%” of Tamils now live amongst the Sinhalese, there is no ‘ethnic conflict’:

When an untruth is repeated over a period of time, it usually appears to end up as an unassailable truth…It appears that the Boston Globe is unaware that today, the majority of Tamils in Sri Lanka, (about 54%), lives outside the north and the east of the country, among the Sinhalese, Muslims and other communities that blend into Sri Lanka’s multi-ethnic social fabric. This demographic transition shows that Sri Lanka’s conflict is not an “ethnic conflict” as the world at large conveniently categorizes it. (Global media’s ignorance of Lanka’s complex issues, Rajmohan Gomez, 19 November 2007)

But it is not just Asian Tribune writers that propagate the number. Bernard Goonetilleke, Sri Lanka’s ambassador to the US, in his attack on the Boston Globe article referred to above had this to say:

“[The Boston Globe] says Tamils “live mostly in the island nation’s north and east”. However, 54 percent of Sri Lanka’s Tamils now live outside the north and east, among Sinhalese, Muslims, and others. (Editorial misreads Sri Lankan government’s situation, Bernard Goonetilleke, 19 November 2007)

President Rajapakse has also referred to the “54%” figure in his various addresses to underscore the view that Tamils have “migrated” to the Western Province, where they reside “happily”. The following is an extract from a speech before the United Nations General Assembly:

“Today, the innocent Tamil people in Sri Lanka are migrating to the Western Province in large numbers. 54% of the total Tamil population is now living outside the North East. Especially in the Western Province they live and work happily. It is no secret to the world that the LTTE is a murderous outfit.” (Speech of Mahinda Rajapaksa, Sixty-First Session of the United Nations General Assembly, 20th September 2006)

It is worth noting that in some instances the reference is simply to “Tamils”, but in other instances to “Sri Lanka’s Tamils” (Goonetilleke) or to “54% of ethnic Tamils”, as in this example:

“The life line is given to a terrorist movement which has no acceptance over a majority of the 12 percent Tamils. Those who are providing the life line in their acts, pronouncements, policy decisions and behaviors do not want to know that 54% of ethnic Tamils in Sri Lanka now live with the majority Sinhalese in other provinces…” (A joint ‘life line’ to Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tigers, Daya Gamage, 23 September 2007)

Interestingly, in the above example, Gamage cites both the correct figure of 12% from the DCS 2001 census estimate (see earlier article) and the “54%” figure, which of course makes his point all the more persuasive.

So where does the “54%” derive?

All references to the statement that “54% of Tamils live outside of the North and East” do not provide any supporting evidence. The recent report of the International Crisis Group in its study on Sinhala nationalism also highlights the lack of evidence for the “54%” claim and how it has been used to argue that devolution of power and federal solutions are irrelevant:

“More recently, the president and others have taken to claiming that 54 per cent of Tamils now live outside the north and east. That figure – for which no evidence is given – is used to argue that devolution is not relevant, since many Tamils no longer have a connection to their supposed homeland and in any case prefer to live in the south, where a federal solution would not benefit them. That so many Tamils live outside the north and east is also offered as proof they are well treated by the government and the Sinhala majority. “There is no ethnic conflict”, Gammanpila said. “If you come to Colombo, you see every ethnic community living in harmony….Outside of the north and east, all communities are living in peace and harmony”. (Sri Lanka: Sinhala nationalism and the elusive southern consensus, 7 November 2007)

Having previously explored the material surrounding the “8.5%” figure, I had a hunch that the “54%” figure that is cited by so many from the President down to mere Asian Tribune writers, actually stems from the same error: the source was the same flawed and incomplete CIA data highlighted in my earlier article.

When a colleague adept at numbers looked at the figures for me, he very quickly arrived at the same conclusion. Those not interested in the maths, can skip to the next paragraph. Perversely, the “54%” figure seems to be arrived at by ignoring the Sri Lankan Tamils living outside of the North East (where the 2001 census was able to capture their numbers – 3.9% according to the flawed CIA Factsheet) and solely take the percentage of Up Country Tamils (4.6%) as a percentage of 8.5%, giving the “54%” figure. In other words, or rather put as an equation, this would be 4.6 / 8.5 x 100 = 54%. Could our thinking behind this rather dubious approach to the calculation be right? I invite alternative explanations as to how the “54%” figure might have been calculated.

Some reflections

The use of the “54%” figure raises several important issues. It is in the first instance another example of misleading use of incomplete census data and journalists need to be be cautious when relying on this figure and its implications. But what is more interesting is to look at what underlines the thinking behind the “54%” number by its proponents.

The rationale behind the use of the figure is clearly to include data relating to so called ‘Up Country’ or ‘Indian Origin Tamils’. But it is clear that when dealing with issues directly pertaining to the North East, such as a discussion on the concept of a Tamil ‘homeland’, issues of devolution or federalism or as to whether there is even the existence of an ‘ethnic conflict’, using such data seriously lacks credibility. The International Crisis Group rightly points out that “including ‘Indian Tamils’ weakens the [president’s] point, since they have never been involved in the struggle for a Tamil homeland or autonomous region in the North and East”.

These challenges to the “54%” figure dismiss many arguments put forward by those pushing certain political agendas. Of course the figure is very persuasive. But replacing the figure of “54%” with the ‘true’ or truer figure for the number of Sri Lankan Tamils actually living outside the North and East, would give us a very different way of looking at the picture. The footnote to the above extract from the ICG report neatly sets out a rough estimate of the number of Sri Lankan Tamils living outside of the North and East, using data compiled by the Northeast Provincial Council from District Secretariats’ data and arrive at a figure of 27 per cent, not 54 per cent. Replacing the figure “54%” with the figure of “27%” does not really have the same impact does it?

But regardless of the numbers or their accuracy, these statistics linked to demographic changes in the country are being used to sidestep important issues that are at the heart of the conflict. The fact that a group of people may have moved away from a particular region – a region that is experiencing severe hardships as a result of cycles of sustained conflict – is being offered as an indicator of preference. This raises a number of questions. Have these people voted with their feet? And what have they voted for by moving? Have people of different ethnic groups who have moved out of areas prone to conflict done the same? And what are the political implications of the movement of other ethnic groups from conflict areas?

It is clear from the above observations that politicians and certain media organisations are cleverly using the “54%” as a particular political manipulation in such a way as to undermine a different political agenda. But then, that is the persuasive power of numbers.

[Editors Note: For more information on the evolution of conflict and peace in Sri Lanka visit PACT. PACT seeks to help those with an interest in the Sri Lankan conflict gain a deeper understanding of the conflict’s roots, manifestation and trajectory and to promote discussion around events, themes and experiences of peace and conflict related events.]