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Ficha de experiencia Dossier : Online Course on Transforming Civil Conflicts

Agnieszka BASISTA, Déborah DEMORTIERE, , , Grenoble, 2013

Clowns Without Borders in Sri Lanka

How art can help to address post-war trauma?

Keywords: Diálogo social para construir la paz | Gestión de tensiones inter-étnicas | La responsabilidad de las autoridades políticas con respecto a la paz | Actuar localmente para ayudar a las víctimas de la guerra | Deconstruir los discursos identidarios | Sri Lanka


Clowns sans Frontières or Clowns Without Borders (CSF []) is a French association working for children rights since 1994. It is composed of artists who carry out performances in refugee camps, slums, prisons and orphanages. CSF’s wants to offer children and their parents affected by conflicts and catastrophes a moment beyond time, when for a moment they can forget their sorrow and just enjoy the present. They create an ‘elsewhere’ but their action goes further because they also see their art as a means of personal empowerment and see themselves as activists. This article will discuss a projet CSH carried out in Sri Lanka and analyses in what way this example can be seen as an answer to the conflict dynamics.

Intervention in Sri Lanka

During their performance, CSF aims at creating a new public space in order to build new relations between people, which have been disrupted during several years of war. Displacement leads to situations of exclusion, isolation as well as breaking down of social links and connections.

CSF’s main objective is to act on the psychological individual fragility and the collective abandon through individual and collective empowerment and emancipation giving back to people their human dignity. They claim that artistic action should be part of most humanitarian and development projects.

In 2011, two years after the end of the civil war in Sri Lanka, UNICEF asked CSF to implement a project involving refugees and displaced people in Sri Lankan villages in reconstruction. Subsequently, CSF put in place their first project in Sri Lanka in 2011. The project’s theme was laughter for children who have lived through the war. Performances were shown in the Vanni region in Northern Sri Lanka which was still heavily militarised at the moment of the intervention. CSF organised perforances in order to celebrate the opening of schools and health centres that had been built or reconstructed by UNICEF. CSF has also put in place workshops in which local Tamil artists participated. During these workshops all participants exchanged about their artistic experiences and practices for 3 days. Besides, a rural development centre in Vanni took part in the project by providing premises. Moreover in 2012, after a training workshop with Tamil artists on the theme of clowns and object manipulation, participants performed in schools and centres for disabled children, presenting the result of their collaboration.

PART I. Conflict in Sri Lanka

Backgound to the Sri Lankan conflict

Today, Sri Lanka is a multiethnic and a multi-confessional State. As far as its religions are concerned, the country is composed of Buddhist (69%), Hindus (15%), Muslims (7%), Christians (7%) and others (2%)1. Sri Lanka is also home to the following communities: the Singhalese (74%), the Tamils (18%), the Muslim community2(7%) and others (1%)3. Every ethnic and religious entity is very heterogeneous and has its own interests in the country. Sri Lankan ethnic, religious and linguistic diversity was certainly a catalyst to the conflict which started in 1983 and officially ended in 2009. The conflict opposed mainly the Singhalese (who account for the majority of the population and who are mainly Buddhists) and the Tamils (who represent a minority which is mainly practicing Hinduism). However, there were other actors involved who played a major role in the conflict development, such as India who had an ambiguous position4 and Norway who tried to be a mediator during the conflict. Sri Lanka has been suffering from the consequences of this nearly thirty year long war as it is estimated that 80,000 people have been killed, 800,000 have been displaced, 500,000 have become refugees and millions have disappeared. Please find below a graphic overview of what is at the heart of the conflict, its root causes and some of its consequences.

Conflict Tree

The core problem

The core problem is the absence of identity cohesion as the Singhalese and the Tamils don’t feel they share the same national identity which leads to a conflict between the two communities.


Land Problem

Sri Lanka can be divided into two zones: the south-west region, which is humid and fertile, and the rest of the island, which is dry.

This climate and the diversity of natural resources on the south-west coast led to the concentration of the population in this region, which is favorable for agricultural development. Whereas the Central Highlands could develop only thanks to irrigation systems implemented by Britain and maintained by the Tamils.

Since the independence, The Sinhalese Government has been trying to resettle poor Sinhalese peasants in these arid Tamil lands where they were given land to cultivate. This caused tensions between Sinhalese and Tamil peasants.


Sinhalese felt “shut in” while Tamils perceived themselves as oppressed by the Sinhalese majority.

Since the independence of Sri Lanka, Tamils felt oppressed by the Singhalese majority. As a consequence, they started to claim their rights and when the separatist movement emerged, India supported the Tamils which provoked a counter effect. Indeed, the Sinhalese felt ‘shut in’ and Sinhalese nationalism emerged through the creation of the JVP movement.

Colonial period

During the colonial period, the British brought Tamil labourers to work in coffee and tea plantations. Britain used to ask the workers to classify themselves according to their ‘race’ which means according to their linguistic and religious affiliations. This factor, together with British favouritism towards Tamils, deepened the communitarian division amongst the Tamils and the Sinhalese.

Language polarization

In the 1978 the new language policy was implemented. Chapter IV of the Constitution of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka states that both Sinhala and Tamil are national languages and English is the link language. Since 1978 English language took the second place in the Sri Lankan education system. Hence the community division between the Tamils and the Sinhalese has widened, as every community speaks its own language only. The phenomenon of linguistic polarization has contributed to the emergency of identitary movements such as Tamil separatism or Sinhalese nationalism (JVP).

An ethno-supremacist state

In the post-independence period there has been a building of a so called ethno-supremacist state which was expressed through the laws passed by the Government. In 1956 Sinhala Only Act recognized Sinhala as the official language. Moreover, the 1972 Constitution gave Buddhism a ‘foremost place’ in the state. Such policies had an important impact on the Tamils’ socio-economic opportunities, such as the right to higher education or access to qualified jobs.


Separatist movements

The separatist movements are LTTE and JVP. Both movements carry out attacks and do not accept to make concessions.


The Tamil Tigers have used terrorist means to attack Sinhalese, Tamil supporters of the Government, Tamil police officers and anyone who opposes them.

In addition, the Sinhalese also showed their hostility towards the Tamils and this sparked off riots which eventually led to a long armed conflict between the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan government forces. The conflict itself became extremely violent: torture and killing in public, rapes, emasculation, suicide attacks etc.

Economic slow-down

As a consequence of riots and armed conflict between the LTTE and the Government, massive unemployment occurred. Many businesses have or were forced to close due to the violence. The political instability led to the loss of Investment from other countries.

Refugee camps

Approximately 600 000 persons have been displaced within the country. Most of them are still depending on the Government and living in refugee camps.

Population trauma

The Sri Lankan society is suffering from banalisation of violence and disregard and lie regarding the conflict. The Sri Lankan society is silent about the ethnic conflict and its consequences. Furthermore, there have been no regrets presented by any stakeholder.

High suicide rates

There is a high suicide rate among the young men aged between 15 and 30 who find themselves in a situation of discrimination, poverty or dislocation due to the conflict. Indeed, in the 90’s, the suicide rate reached 47%.


Approximately 500 000 persons (Tamils mostly) had to flee the country because of violence. More than 700 000 persons (Sinhalese women in particular) had to emigrate work in Middle East, due to degrading economic situation.

Foreign state intervention

India supports the Tamil because the latter descend from the South of the country.

China has supplied the Sri Lankan army with military equipment. They have geostrategic and commercial interests in Sri Lanka, as strategic oil pipelines cross this country.

Norway has acted as mediator between the Sri Lankan Government and the Tamils on the demand of the LTTE. Norway hosts a great number of Tamil refugees and the country therefore felt concerned about the conflict.

PART II. CSF’s contribution to transform the conflict

The defeat of the Tamil tigers in 2009 meant a change in power relations. After decades of armed conflict between two main belligerent parties, one party to the conflict was annihilated (LTTE). Following the LTTE defeat, the popularity of Sri Lanka’s President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s grew rapidly among the predominant Sinhalese population. During the aftermath of the civil war, Tamils were overwhelmed with grief over their lost relatives and anger about the plight of those who were confined to refugee camps without freedom of movement. Yet, they didn’t have means to express their feelings and deal with the trauma.

CSF tried to tackle the population’s trauma, organising performances and entertaining people affected by the conflict. The main target were displaced Tamils who had to flee from their ruined houses and villages. CSF provided moments when Tamils can forget about their situation and regain dignity and make them change perception of themselves. CSF addresses in this way the issue of victimization. CSF actions are relevant as the government neglects the problem and there are no state programmes dedicated to help the Tamil population with their trauma.


On the one hand, one can consider that CSF’s intervention does not provide a long-term solution to the situation. CSF only implemented projects inside the Tamil community neglecting the Singhalese and failing in establishing a dialogue between the two communities. On the other hand, CSF is working with Tamil artists and providing them with artistic techniques that will be a great help to their work in future. As well, CSF is helping the Tamil artists to establish contacts with NGOs so that they would become CSF’s relay after its departure. Indeed, one of the main CSF’s objectives is to establish a sustainable and financially independent action in the field. As a case in point, often when a CSF’s project in the field is over, a new collective of artists is founded.

All in all, CSF tries to create a favourable background for positive transformation of the conflict. Nevertheless, it is not sufficient to change durably the situation in the country.

Level 3 Actor: Centre for Performing Arts: local NGO

CSF’s action is similar to that of a local Sri Lankan NGO, the Centre for Performing Arts (CPA): they both use art in order to face conflict and post-conflict issues. CPA’s action however is more durable and legitimate as the centre is implemented in the field and employs local staff.

The Centre for performing arts was created in Jaffna (North Sri Lanka) in 1965. In 2002, it registered as an NGO. The centre uses the performing arts as a means to resolve conflict between people from different religious and ethnic background by promoting cross-community cooperation. Their staff comes from different ethnic and religious groups speak both Tamil and Singhalese which provides them with additional legitimacy.

The centre organises workshops for three target groups: women, youth and children. It encourages women to use performance in order to express their feelings about the conflict. In the centre, children from various backgrounds play games and music together making them forget about their differences. Another tool used by the centre is that of relating old epic stories like Ashoka, well known in Sri Lanka in a way that children would understand that all ethnic and religious groups suffer from wars in the same way. Nowadays there are about 25 branches of CPA throughout Sri Lanka.