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Rights Activist Says State-Sanctioned Rape Widespread in Burma

A Burmese human rights activist says Burma's military government continues to use rape as a weapon to subdue ethnic minorities. She urges Burma's neighbors to put pressure on the military to stop sexual violence against women. Claudia Blume reports from Hong Kong.

Cheery Zahau, a member of Burma's Chin minority, says members of the Burmese army rape women in ethnic minority areas all over the country. She says in Burma's western Chin State alone, at least 38 cases of sexual violence were committed by soldiers in 2006. The youngest victim was only 12.

Zahau, a human rights activist who now lives in India, spoke Friday to journalists in Hong Kong. She says women's groups in Burma have documented more than 1800 rapes by the military since 1995.

She says the government uses rape as a weapon against its opponents.

"The soldiers are raping women to punish the populations who they suspect of supporting insurgency groups," she said. "And also they rape the women to disturb the faith and psychological welfare of these ethnic women. For example in 2003, a woman was raped by four soldiers on her way back home from the market. Until now she is mentally disturbed."

Zahau says most of the victims are too scared to speak out. even if they do, she says, the perpetrators are not punished.

The Burmese government denies the reports that it uses rape as a tool.

Last year, the U.N. Security Council considered a resolution calling on Burma to end human rights violations, including systematic rape. But Security Council members China and Russia used their vetoes to block the resolution.

Bruce Van Voorhis, a spokesman for the Asian Human Rights Commission, says no other country has more influence on the Burmese government than China.

"The Chinese government by not taking action is condoning the rape of Burmese women by the Burmese army, and we call on the Chinese government to take action to stop that," he said.

Zahau says Burma's other neighbors, such as India and Thailand, also need to put pressure on Burma's military leaders. She says it is in their own interest to speak out, as sexual violence is one of the factors forcing Burmese women to become refugees in neighboring countries.

Many governments, including the United States and the European Union, have imposed economic sanctions on Burma because of its repression of dissidents and rights abuses. The military says it will allow elections in 2010, but that it must retain a central role in the government to keep the country intact.