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This lesson plan is designed to be used in conjunction with the film No More Tears Sister: An Anatomy of Hope and Betrayal. This 52-minute film recreates the struggles of human rights activist Dr. Rajani Thiranagama, who remained in her war-torn homeland of Sri Lanka to expose human rights violations and to provide whatever level of stability that she could.

Note: This film contains a few graphic images of people killed during the conflict in Sri Lanka. Please preview before classroom use.

POV documentaries can be taped off-the-air and used for educational purposes for up to one year from the initial broadcast. In addition, POV offers a lending library of DVDs and VHS tapes that you can borrow anytime during the school year for free!


In this lesson students will:

  • Critically analyze texts to determine the characteristics of their author.
  • Watch several video clips related to the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka.
  • Locate Sri Lanka on a map.
  • Identify and explain factors that contributed to ethnic tensions and conflicts in Sri Lanka.
  • Use a Venn diagram to compare and contrast the war in Sri Lanka with another conflict previously studied.


SUBJECT AREA: Social Studies, World History, Human Rights, Current Events


Note: Both handouts are included in the lesson plan PDF.

ESTIMATED TIME NEEDED: 1-2 class periods


The ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka can be an interesting point of comparison with other revolutionary movements and ethnic/racial clashes that your class may study.

Independent since 1948, Sri Lanka is an island nation south of India slightly larger than the state of West Virginia. Its population of just over 18 million is nearly three-quarters Sinhalese, with approximately 6.3 percent Sri Lankan Tamils, 4.9 percent Indian Tamils, and Moors, Malays, and Burghers (of Portuguese and Dutch descent) comprising the rest. Most Sri Lankans are Buddhist (74.2 percent), while 9.3 percent are Hindu, 9.4 percent Muslim and 7.5 percent Christian.

The "History of the Conflict in Sri Lanka" handout for this lesson provides a timeline and summary of the country's ethnic struggles. For more details, view the timeline on this website or visit some of the websites listed in the Sri Lanka resources section.


  1. Distribute the handout "Who Wrote the Letters?" and give students five minutes or so to complete it.
    The handout for this activity contains excerpts from letters written by Rajani Thiranagama during Operation Liberation, a campaign of carpet-bombing by the Indian government in 1987, and the three-year "reign of terror" that followed. The excerpts are from letters she wrote to her husband, sister, friends and other activists from 1987 through 1989. For more details, view the excerpts in the Special Features section.
  2. Ask several students to share their descriptions of the person who wrote the letters. Have them identify clues in the text that informed their thinking. On the board, capture student ideas to create a more complete profile of the letters' author.
  3. Explain that the letters were written by a woman named Dr. Rajani Thiranagama, a mother, anatomy professor and human rights activist. She stayed with her young daughters in her homeland of Sri Lanka during years of brutal conflict and was assassinated in 1989. Show students the two-minute trailer from the film, No More Tears Sister," to hear her sister and daughter describe the last day she was alive.
  4. Help students locate Sri Lanka on a world map. Tell them that Sri Lanka used to be called Ceylon, and that after 500 years of colonization by the Portuguese, Dutch, and British (show where the colonizing countries are located), it gained its independence in 1948. Tell students that approximately 75 percent of the population in Sri Lanka is Sinhalese, and a large minority (about 18 percent) is Tamil. Explain that ethnic tensions between these groups led to a brutal civil war. Rajani's family believes that Rajani, a Tamil, was gunned down by members of the Tamil Tigers movement who were angered by her attempts to expose their violations of human rights.
  5. Pass out the handout "History of the Conflict in Sri Lanka." Ask students to work in pairs to review the timeline on the handout and use a highlighter pen or other marking method to identify factors in Sri Lanka that contributed to ethnic tensions and led to civil war.
  6. Have each pair report one of their findings to the class and explain how that factor played a role in the country's struggles.
  7. Connect the lesson's discussion to previous learning by drawing a Venn diagram on the board and then comparing and contrasting the war in Sri Lanka with another conflict (e.g., revolutionary movements, ethnic clashes) that students have studied. What conclusions can be drawn from this analysis?


  • Have students watch the full 52-minute film and identify the protest strategies used by Dr. Rajani Thiranagama during her lifetime (e.g., student strikes, supporting militaristic revolutionary activities, international education campaigns about the atrocities in her country, documenting social injustices, refusing to leave her hometown or walk away from her university responsibilities). Ask students to describe how her thinking about resistance changed over time. Discuss what influences shaped her ideas along the way. Do students agree or disagree with her eventual belief that armed struggle can only lead to the abuse of people's rights? Have students justify their answers.
  • Despite the great dangers of resisting the Tamil Tiger movement, Rajani founded the University Teachers for Human Rights (UTHR) group and worked diligently to expose human rights violations. Conduct a brainstorming session to define human rights. Compare student ideas with the U.N. Declaration of Universal Human Rights. Show the class a 90-second video clip (see Clip 1, at right) where Rajani describes some of her human rights activism in a letter to her sister Nirmala. (Begins at 38:53 with "Dear Nirmala, I'm sending the following excerpts..." and ends at 40:20 with "...did not want to escape from that.") Have students then read about current activities by the UTHR and react to their efforts in writing. (See related Special Feature on this site, University Teachers for Human Rights.)
  • Explain that traditional culture in Sri Lanka included a caste system, where each person is born into a particular group that defines his or her unchangeable position within society. Show students the 45-second video clip (see Clip 2) where Rajani's sister Nirmala tells the story of how her parents mistreated the woman who came to pound rice in their home. (Begins at 3:14 with, "As young girls, one figure..." and ends at 4:02 with, "These were complemented by the books we read.") Discuss the impact of growing up in a culture that accepts discrimination as normal. Point out that even as young girls, Rajani and Nirmala knew that discrimination was wrong and discussed it with their parents in an effort to stop it. Ask students if they have ever witnessed or experienced discrimination. How did they respond?
  • Discuss how different people have reacted to the trauma and loss in Sri Lanka. Rajani wanted to do all she could to keep society running. Show students a 4-minute video clip (see Clip 3) to illustrate her response. (Begins at 31:11 with, "Rajani's break with the Tigers..." and ends at 34:54 with, "...exactly one of these women.") Next, find out how members of Rajani's family cope with trauma and loss in the Film Update. Finally, watch FRONTLINE/World's slide show, "Fighting Terror with Paint Brushes" featuring a group of artists who paint protest art at the sites of suicide bomber attacks to honor the fallen. In what ways do students cope with difficult circumstances?
  • What have been the experiences of women during the war in Sri Lanka (e.g., victims of war, militant fighters, peace builders)? How do their experiences compare and contrast with those of men in that country? Have students similarly evaluate the roles that men and women have played during conflicts in other countries studied by the class.


For additional resources related to Sri Lanka, please see the Delve Deeper reading list (PDF) produced in collaboration with the American Library Association for this film.

Sri Lanka
Access a list of resources rich with maps, current news reports and other information about this island nation.

Tamil Tigers
Links to the official Tigers website, background overviews of the group's history and recommended articles from magazines and newspapers available online.

Women and War

This selection of websites and articles highlights data on the plight of women in conflicts around the world.


Links to related PBS reports and NPR news stories about Sri Lanka, the Tamil Tigers, the effect of the tsunami on the conflict and the Tamil diaspora.


Behavioral Studies

Standard 4: Understands conflict, cooperation, and interdependence among individuals, groups, and institutions.

  • Level IV, Benchmark 1: Understands that conflict between people or groups may arise from competition over ideas, resources, power, and/or status.


Standard 10: Understands the nature and complexity of Earth's cultural mosaics.

  • Level IV, Benchmark 4: Knows the role culture plays in incidents of cooperation and conflict in the present-day world (e.g., conflicts in sub-Saharan Africa in the 1960s, Central Europe in the 1980s and 1990s, states within the former Soviet Union in the 1990s; cooperation such as the religious and linguistic ties between Spain and parts of Latin America; ethnic ties among the Kurds living in Iran, Iraq, and Turkey)

Language Arts

Standard 7: Uses reading skills and strategies to understand and interpret a variety of informational texts.

  • Level IV, Benchmark 1: Uses reading skills and strategies to understand a variety of informational texts.

Standard 9: Uses viewing skills and strategies to understand and interpret visual media.

  • Level IV, Benchmark 2: Uses a variety of criteria (e.g., clarity, accuracy, effectiveness, bias, relevance of facts) to evaluate informational media (e.g., web sites, documentaries, news programs)

World History

Standard 44: Understands the search for community, stability, and peace in an interdependent world.

  • Level IV, Benchmark 6: Understands the role of ethnicity, cultural identity, and religious beliefs in shaping economic and political conflicts across the globe (e.g., why terrorist movements have proliferated and the extent of their impact on politics and society in various countries; the tensions and contradictions between globalizing trends of the world economy and assertions of traditional cultural identity and distinctiveness, including the challenges to the role of religion in contemporary society; the meaning of jihad and other Islamic beliefs that are relevant to military activity, how these compare to the Geneva Accords, and how such laws and principles apply to terrorist acts)

Source: McCrel (Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning)