Human rights throughout East Asia remained dismal in 2003, despite modest advances in China's legal system, the State Department said in its annual report on human rights around the world.
In China, "although legal reforms continued, there was backsliding on key human rights issues during the year, including arrests of individuals discussing sensitive subjects on the Internet, health activists, labor protesters, defense lawyers, [and] journalists," the report said. Beijing also continued to block Western media from entering the country, it said.
"The authorities continued to jam, with varying degrees of success, Chinese-, Uyghur-, and Tibetan-language broadcasts of the Voice of American (VOA), Radio Free Asia (RFA), and the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC)...Despite jamming, in the absence of an independent press, overseas broadcasts such as VOA, BBC, RFA, and Radio France International had a large audience, including activists, ordinary citizens, and even government officials," the report said.
China's 1.3 billion people lack the power to change their government, and those who speak out against it are routinely harassed, detained or imprisoned.
On the positive side, China improved its HIV/AIDS awareness initiatives and medical aid among its people to quell the epidemic that has spread across the country. "In November, the Chinese government relaxed its policy of tightly controlling information about the extent of the HIV/AIDS epidemic and announced plans to provide anti-retroviral drugs to millions of people, including rural residents and the urban poor."
The State Department slammed Cambodia's human rights record in 2003 as "poor," with heavy control of the media by the government, forced child labor, continuous cross-border trafficking of woman and children, and increased voter intimidation during the July elections despite lower numbers in political killings from previous elections.
While "newspapers provided a primary source of news and expression of political freedom," the report said, "the Government, the military forces, and the ruling political party continued to dominate the broadcast media and to influence the content of broadcasters." The report noted mentioned the temporary closure of a Phnom Penh radio station that had broadcast VOA and RFA programs daily.
In North Korea, "rigid controls over information, which limit the extent of our report, reflect the totalitarian repression of North Korean society. Basic freedoms are unheard of, and the regime committed widespread abuses of human rights," the report said. "This year's report details — ; among other abuses — ; killings, persecution of forcibly repatriated North Koreans, and harsh conditions in the extensive prison camp system including torture, forced abortions and infanticide."
The report included horrific details of individual abuses including — ; pregnant female prisoners [who] underwent forced abortions and, in other cases, babies reportedly [who] were killed upon birth in prisons."
Burma's human rights situation worsened in 2003, with security forces continuing to "commit extrajudicial killings and rape, forcibly relocate persons, use forced labor, conscript child soldiers, and reestablished forced conscription of the civilian population into militia units."
Pro-democracy supporters were either killed or beaten by security forces in 2003. The Government arrested over 270 democracy supporters, primarily members of the country's largest pro-democracy party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), headed by Aung San Suu Kyi, who was detained on May 30, 2003 while touring the countryside on a pro-democracy campaign. She remains under house arrest.
Freedom of speech was severely restricted in 2003, with "persons suspected of or charged with pro-democratic political activity — ; killed or subjected to severe punishment, physical attack, arbitrary arrest, detention without trial, incommunicado detention, house arrest, and the closing of political and economic offices."
In Laos, the government's human rights record remained poor in 2003, with its government infringing on "citizens' privacy rights and restricted freedom of speech, the press, assembly, and association."
Security forces abused prisoners, particularly those who dissented against the government. The report said "prisoners were sometimes abused and tortured, and prison conditions were extremely harsh and life threatening" and the judiciary "did not ensure citizens due process" at trial.
Heightened insurgent activity in Laos, and the government's response, resulted in scores of casualties during the year. "Relatively quiescent in recent years, the long-running insurgency increased its activities during the year, resulting in scores of civilian and military casualties. Multiple ambushes by armed insurgents identified by witnesses as ethnic Hmong committed multiple ambushes in 2003 that resulted in the deaths of over 25 people including tourists."
While the Lao Constitution guarantees freedom of speech, the government "severely restricted political speech and writing in practice," according to the report. Citizens are forbidden by law to slander the government, and while complaints generally go without retribution, "criticism of a more general nature, or targeting the leadership, could lead to censure or arrest."
Vietnam's human rights record remained poor in 2003, with significant abuses, the reports said. "Police sometimes beat suspects during arrests, detention, and interrogation. Several sources also reported that security forces detained, beat, and were responsible for the disappearances of persons during the year," the report said.
Those with dissenting political or religious views were arbitrarily arrested and detained, some dying in police custody as a result of abuse. Buddhists, Hoa Hao, and Protestants faced harassment and possible detention by authorities as the government clamped down on religious activity.
"The Government significantly restricted freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, and freedom of association," the report said. "The Government continued its longstanding policy of not tolerating most types of public dissent and stepped up efforts to control dissent on the Internet."
Discrimination against woman and child prostitution remained a problem in 2003. "Trafficking in women and children for purpose of prostitution within the country and abroad continued to a serious problem, and there were reports of the trafficking of women to China and Taiwan for arranged and forced marriages."
A crackdown on Internet activity by the general population ensued in 2003. "The Government used firewalls to block sites it deemed politically or culturally inappropriate, including sites operated by exile groups abroad. The Government restricted access to Radio Free Asia and Voice of America Web sites during the year."