- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 2, 2009


Communication technologies have clearly revolutionized access to real-time information, transforming not only coverage of events, but also the events themselves.

Over the past few weeks, protesters in Iran have used Twitter, Facebook and YouTube to organize and to inform the world about the government crackdown as it is happening. Despite global access to real-time information, governments continue to use violence against their civilian populations, and they continue to do so with impunity.

No longer can we say that people did not know about genocide or humanitarian catastrophes or brutal and violent suppression of peaceful protest. The crackdowns take place in full world view.

On many fronts, sunshine is the best disinfectant, and transparency can help to shape behavior. When it comes to government repression, though, global access to information is not translating into a reduction in brutality.

There is, sadly, reason to believe that this trend is only going to rise as authoritarian powers grow in economic strength, stature and influence. China’s support for Sri Lanka is one example.

China has strategic interests and investments in Sri Lanka, including the development of a deep-water port at Hambantota, which can serve its commercial and military ships, increase its presence around the important sea lines of communication through the Indian Ocean, and provide a base for both electronic and space monitoring systems allowing the People’s Liberation Army to keep a closer eye on U.S. military movements. China’s increasing presence in Sri Lanka also serves to position it in a more assertive way vis-a-vis India. These issues must all be factored in to China’s expanding role in Asia and, indeed, around the world.

The Chinese government likes to posture itself as staying out of the internal affairs of other countries. Yet, in the Sri Lankan government’s recent success over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the Tamil Tigers, China played a major role. As Western governments reduced or restricted arms assistance to Sri Lanka because of serious concerns about human rights abuses there, China had no such qualms and willingly provided military equipment, including artillery guns, armored personnel carriers and jet fighters. The LTTE was a brutal terrorist movement that invented and exported terrorist tactics we see being carried out elsewhere in the world. Their defeat is significant.

But not all Tamils are Tigers or supporters of the Tigers. And, as the Chinese government’s military assistance fueled the Sri Lankan military campaign, its diplomatic support provided cover for a Sri Lankan campaign against Tamil civilians that continues even now that the war has been won.

In the closing months of the war, up to 100,000 civilians were trapped on a small spit of land, caught in the fighting and targeted by both the Sri Lankan military and the Tamil fighters. There is evidence that the government shelled civilians in violation of international humanitarian law and in spite of its promises to the contrary. Global calls for a ceasefire to allow civilian safe passage were ignored and the Sri Lankan government even denied the Swedish foreign minister a visa to discuss the humanitarian crisis.

Since the fighting ended, there are nearly 300,000 displaced people still being held in military-run internment camps, amid alarming reports that young men are being rounded up by paramilitaries and disappearing. Access by humanitarian relief organizations is severely limited and conditions in the camps are appalling. With Chinese assistance, the Sri Lankan government turned the United Nations Human Rights Council into a joke, overturning a resolution regarding war crimes by both the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE and passing a resolution effectively commending the government of Sri Lanka for its success in the war.

Both the Chinese and Sri Lankan governments acknowledge the important role that China has played in Sri Lanka, militarily and diplomatically. China’s role can be expected to grow. Sri Lanka has been granted “dialogue partner” status in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. There are interesting reports that China is fostering stronger relations between Sri Lanka and Pakistan. And, Chinese investments in Sri Lanka are increasing, with China providing more than $1 billion in economic assistance there.

These trends have geopolitical significance. They also have consequences for how governments think they can treat their own people.

Interestingly, Iran has pledged $1.9 billion in assistance to Sri Lanka.

Thanks to the miracles of modern technology, we can watch as people are beaten in the streets, civilians are shelled and peaceful voices of dissent are silenced. As oppressive governments grow stronger and bolder and give each other sustenance, we are being reduced to watching helplessly as repression unfolds. Bearing witness is something, but for the lives of the people who are being crushed, it is not enough.

• Carolyn Bartholomew is chairman of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission. The views expressed in this column are her own.

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