HONG KONG—In some of 2010′s most compelling images, Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi emerged from her home after years in detention and an empty chair marked the absence of Liu Xiaobo from his Nobel prize ceremony.

Asia’s two human rights martyrs serve as compelling reminders that a region which is celebrated for its economic vibrancy also harbors some of the world’s most intractable and brutal regimes.

And despite outrage from foreign governments, and an increasing awareness among Asia’s billions who have embraced the Internet and social media, the region’s dictatorships and corrupt regimes show no sign of bending.

“There seems to have been a downturn in respect for human rights,” said Dave Mathieson from the Asia division of Human Rights Watch. “There’s been a more sophisticated backlash against global human rights norms.”

Countries that had once argued that western notions of democracy are not in keeping with “Asian values” are now instead muting criticism by staging parodies of the democratic process, he said.

“A lot of states talk about democracy and say—at least we’re holding elections, it’s progress. When of course most of them are illiberal processes that just support the status quo.”

Myanmar’s ruling generals held the impoverished country’s first elections in two decades in November, ignoring complaints that barring Suu Kyi’s opposition party rendered the ballot illegitimate.

The 65-year-old democracy icon last month walked out of her lakeside home where she has been locked up for 15 of the past 21 years, smiling and in high spirits, but her future remains precarious and at the mercy of the junta.

In Sri Lanka, January elections were held after the island’s long-running civil war against Tamil Tiger rebels ended in an onslaught that has drawn allegations of war crimes.

President Mahinda Rajapakse was re-elected by a huge margin over his opponent, former army chief Sarath Fonseka, who alleged he was the victim of massive fraud and was then promptly arrested and jailed.

Grisly new photos emerged last month of piles of dead bodies and execution-style killings allegedly taken during the final stages of the war, during which up to 30,000 ethnic Tamil civilians perished, according to several rights watchdogs.

Myanmar and Sri Lanka both count as a key ally China, whose own rights record was on display when jailed dissident Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in absentia in a ceremony China attacked as “political theater.”

Beijing mounted a fearsome response to the Nobel committee’s decision, pressuring around 20 countries to boycott last week’s ceremony and blacking out live broadcasts of the event by CNN and the BBC in China.

Asia Society executive vice-president Jamie Metzl in an editorial in the Wall Street Journal accused China of underpinning some of the worst behavior on the globe.

“Wherever human rights are massively abused today, China is the main protector of the abusing government,” he said, pointing to regimes in Sudan, Myanmar, North Korea, Zimbabwe, and Iran.

“Because China helps protect these regimes—and often benefits commercially, in the form of deals for natural resources—international efforts to protect human rights generally have no net effect on the abusing regime’s actions.”

Metzl said that while “China’s rapid rise has had many positive implications,” it had also derailed a half-century of global efforts to codify and enforce the principles of universal human rights.

“Those unlucky souls around the world who find their rights massively abused by their own governments can, thanks largely to China, expect little or no help from foreign states.”

The Asian Human Rights Commission in an annual report urged regional nations to meet the rising aspirations of their people, and improve “the protection mechanisms for civil rights and economic, social and cultural rights.”

For many ordinary people this is not just a political debate, but a day-to-day struggle against police brutality, violence against women, poverty, religious discrimination, and inadequate justice systems.

“All throughout Asia there are clear signs of the people being more aware of their rights and they are making great efforts to improve the enjoyment of their rights,” the commission said.

“The hope for a better future lies in these initiatives by the people themselves. However, the government response to these initiatives is wholly inadequate.” –Agence France-Presse