Sri Lankan artists address anti-Tamil riots

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka – Anoma Rajakaruna has warm memories of her childhood in the diverse suburb of Panadura, where she went to the market and the pharmacy with her mother and chatted with neighbors in a mixture of English, Sinhalese and Tamil.

Then bloody riots targeting minority Tamils exploded across the Sri Lankan capital. The Tamil neighbors she once greeted disappeared. And her country was plunged into a civil war that continues to consume it.

As Sri Lanka marks the 25th anniversary of the riots Wednesday, two exhibits by artists from the Sinhalese majority seek to prod their countrymen into acknowledging a quarter century of suffering, in the hopes of offering a path out of the violence.

“We need to take a minute after 25 years to think,” said Rajakaruna, 43, a photographer and documentary filmmaker. “People haven’t dealt with this as they should.”

Her exhibit, “July: Life After 25 Years,” is a series of photographs of Tamil victims of the riots and the ensuing war. The images are stark and each portrait shows a different facet of the tremendous suffering.

One shows the lined and nearly expressionless face of a woman, almost 70, who lost all seven of her sons in the violence.

Another examines a Hindu Tamil writer, who lost all his works in the flames and now sculpts Buddha statues for the temples of poor Sinhalese Buddhists.

Yet another zeros in on the key tied around the neck of a woman, who was driven from homes 16 times because of the violence.

Many in the Sinhalese community see themselves as victims of the separatists’ bombs and suicide attacks and have never taken time to see that the Tamils are suffering as well, Rajakaruna said.

“I wanted (the Sinhalese) to look at it and realize what we are going through and what they are going through,” she said.

What has come to be known as “Black July” began after Tamil rebels killed 13 government soldiers in an ambush in northern Sri Lanka on July 23, 1983. Enraged Sinhalese mobs rampaged through Colombo for a week in a spasm of violence that human rights groups say killed more than 2,000 Tamils.

After the riots, many Tamils fled to the north. Some joined the Tamil Tiger rebels, who were fighting for an independent state for the minority community after decades of marginalization by governments dominated by the Sinhalese majority. The war has killed more than 70,000 people.

Chandraguptha Thenuwara, then 23, was heading to work at the start of the riots when thugs boarded his bus looking for Tamils.

Later that day, as he walked through a city gone mad, he saw people being abducted, buildings set ablaze and Tamil-owned shops being looted at the direction of Buddhist monks.

As he began his career as a radical, anti-war artist, Thenuwara often thought of that scene.

“It was inside of me,” he said.

His country has lost its way and forgotten the meaning of its Buddhist roots, he said. Even many Buddhist clerics have become ultra-nationalist, prodding the government to push on with the war and try to crush the rebels, he said.

His exhibit, “The Dhammapada and other works,” seeks to remind Sri Lankans of the Buddha’s teachings of peace and tolerance, he said.

In one yellow painting, flanked by two other yellow-flecked paintings, Thenuwara has written, then partially obscured, the words of the Buddha: “In this world hatred never ceases by hatred; it ceases by love alone. This is an eternal law.”

He camouflaged the phrase, because so few seem to be able to follow it, he said. He chose yellow to mirror the yellow security barriers along so many of the nation’s roads.

Nearby is another three painting set, this one tinted black for fear and death, with another saying from the Buddha: “All fear punishment; all fear death. Comparing oneself with others, one should neither kill nor cause to kill.”

The third set, in green for life, hides the Buddha’s saying that “to all, life is dear.”

Thenuwara blames the country’s leaders for manipulating the public into supporting the war. But he also blames Sri Lankans, for being passive and simply watching as the war rages on.

“Politicians are not listening, people are not listening,” he said.

The fighting has since pushed many Tamils out of the northern war zone and back into Colombo, where the burned buildings and other scars of the riots are long gone. Some poor areas of the capital are unofficially divided by ethnic group, though middle class and wealthier neighborhoods are more mixed.

Though the fighting has spanned a generation, both Rajakaruna and Thenuwara said few artists have tackled the subject that has so badly scarred their nation.

Many are afraid of being ostracized by a community dealing with conflicting emotions of anger, pain and guilt, Rajakaruna said.

Last year, she tried to make a documentary about the riots, but with a new flare-up in fighting that continues to escalate, no one would cooperate.

“We don’t want to talk about what happened, even now,” she said.


One Response

  1. Dear Anoma

    I think you can remeber me as a person from Kuruppumulla. I wached your video. If you can drop me an e-mail to


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