Updated at 4:10 p.m. EST on 2012-05-24
The human rights situation in East Asia has worsened amid a backlash in China triggered by uprisings in the Middle East, continuing conflict and abuses in Southeast Asia, and in spite of political change in Burma, the U.S. State Department said in a key report Thursday.
The 2011 Human Rights Report also noted that 19 people reportedly died last year in police custody in Vietnam, including a man beaten after being detained for a traffic violation, and pointed to "a sharp escalation of official restrictions on the work of human rights and democracy advocates" in the region.
In Cambodia, members of the security forces reportedly committed arbitrary killings, the report said, adding that detainees were abused, often to extract confessions, and that prison conditions were harsh.
"This has been an especially tumultuous and momentous year for everyone involved in the cause of human rights," U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told a news conference as the report was released.
"Many of the events that have dominated recent headlines from the revolutions in the Middle East to reforms in Burma began with human rights," she said.
Burma problems persist
The report detailed significant human rights problems in Burma, including military attacks against ethnic minorities in border states, forced relocations, and sexual violence in spite of political reforms ending decades of brutal military rule, and in spite of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi joining parliament.
"Government security forces were responsible for extrajudicial killings, rape, and torture," the report said.
"The government abused some prisoners and detainees, held persons in harsh and life-threatening conditions...[and] infringed on citizens’ privacy and restricted freedom of speech, press, assembly, association, religion, and movement," it said.
Torture was still widely practiced by the regime, as was the use of children as soldiers and human shields by both government troops and separatist ethnic forces.
In secretive North Korea, the last bastion of hard-line communism, the report said that an estimated 130,000-200,000 people were being held in the country's vast network of detention centers, labor camps, and political prison camps, which could number anywhere between 182 and 490.
Authorities continued to punish citizens for listening to overseas media broadcasts and restricted the use of mobile phones, a growing trend among North Koreans.
China's record 'worse'
The State Department, which recently negotiated a last-minute deal with China to allow blind Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng to leave that country with his family and study law in New York, also hit out at China's "worsening" human rights record, saying the authorities were stepping up efforts to silence activists and stifle public debate.
"In China, the human rights situation deteriorated, particularly the freedoms of expression, assembly, and association," the 2011 human rights report said.
China, which saw an unprecedented crackdown on rights activists and political dissidents, has also stepped up controls over ethnic minority populations in Tibet and Xinjiang, it added.
"The [Tibet Autonomous Region] and other Tibetan areas continued to be under increasingly intense and formalized systems of controls...[provoking] acts of resistance [and] creating cycles of repression that resulted in increasingly desperate acts by Tibetans," the report said, citing a slew of self-immolations by Tibetan Buddhist clergy and laypersons in the region.
Amid "severe repression" of the freedoms of speech, religion, association, and movement, Beijing "continued to commit serious human rights abuses, including extrajudicial killings, torture, arbitrary arrests, extrajudicial detentions, and house arrests," the report said.
Citing congressional estimates that 527 political prisoners were being held in Tibet as of Sept. 1, 2011, the report accused police and prison authorities in Tibetan areas of using torture and degrading treatment in dealing with some detainees and prisoners.
"Tibetans returned from Nepal reportedly suffered torture while incarcerated or otherwise in official custody, including electric shocks, exposure to cold, and severe beatings, as well as being forced to perform heavy physical labor," it said.
It said Chinese security forces routinely subjected prisoners to “political investigation” sessions, and punished them if they were deemed insufficiently loyal to the state.
Overall, Beijing stepped up efforts to limit freedom of speech and to control the press, the Internet, and Internet access, the report said, citing "severe cultural and religious repression of ethnic minorities" in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region and Tibetan areas.
It added that authorities also made us of enforced disappearance and incommunicado detention, extrajudicial detention in “black jails," torture, and the coerced confessions of prisoners.
Meanwhile, police continued to detain and harass lawyers, journalists, writers, dissidents, petitioners, and others seeking to peacefully exercise their rights under the law, while the political control of courts and judges meant that many were denied a fair trial.
In Vietnam, the report said, the government severely restricted political rights, including the freedoms of expression, assembly, movement, and association. It also restricted access to Internet content, and monitored bloggers.
There were confirmed reports of attacks against websites critical of the Vietnamese government.
Peaceful political activists were arbitrarily arrested, detained, and sentenced to prison, with those alleged to have ties to foreign-based pro-democracy groups singled out as particular targets, the report said.
At the end of 2011, the Vietnamese government reportedly held more than 100 political detainees, although some international observers claimed there were more, the report said.
Independent nongovernmental organizations were not permitted in Vietnam, and corruption was a problem in the judiciary as well as at various levels in the police, it said. Prosecution of officials who committed abuses was inconsistent.
In Cambodia, a weak judiciary that sometimes failed to provide due process and fair trial procedures was a leading human rights problem, the report said.
"The courts lacked human and financial resources and were subject to corruption and political influence. Their ineffectiveness in adjudicating land disputes that arose from the government’s granting of economic land concessions, including to ruling party officials, fueled disputes, sometimes violent, in every province," it said.
Child rape also "remained a serious problem" in Cambodia, with some groups reporting up to 304 cases of rape and attempted rape committed against persons under 18, the report said.
While the authorities have continued to arrest sex tourists, child prostitution and trafficking in children continued, with 35 of last year's cases involving children under five, 73 involving children aged five to 10, and 196 involving children aged 10 to 18, it said.
In Laos, the most significant human rights problems were a lack of political freedom, harsh prison conditions, and rampant official corruption and abuse of detainees throughout the police and judiciary, the report said.
Restrictions remained in place on academic and religious freedom in Laos, along with discrimination against women, minorities, and persons with disabilities.
Additionally, in China, Cambodia, and Vietnam, many rights violations were sparked by confrontations between the authorities and local people over the requisitioning of farmland for development.
Reported by Luisetta Mudie.