YANGON - Child rape cases in Myanmar have surged by 40 percent this year, state media said Wednesday, highlighting a growing problem for the country still grappling with a dark past of rights abuses.

Poverty and weak laws mean Myanmar’s children are highly vulnerable to abuse, with many of them sold into to labour or forcibly recruited to fight in the country’s borderlands.

Behind closed doors rights activists say many more are at risk of exploitation either as domestic helpers for wealthy families or within their own communities.

At the end of October, 380 child molestation cases had been reported across the country - 150 more than the same period in 2015 and accounting for half of all reported rapes nationwide.

But experts fear the numbers could be only the tip of the iceberg as a culture of silence and victim blaming means abuse often goes undocumented.

“Most most of the time it is carried out by family members, neighbours, relatives or someone close to the victims’ families,” said police major Khin Maung Thin from Mandalay, where cases have doubled.

“Brothers abuse sisters and fathers abuse daughters,” he told AFP.

Physical and emotional abuse is a common problem in many countries in Asia-Pacific.

A UNICEF study released last month found it cost the region some $200 billion, or two percent of GDP, in healthcare and crimes committed by many victims later in life.

UNICEF’s Myanmar representative Bertrand Bainvel said sexual violence is the second most widespread form of child abuse in the country.

“Sometimes families are reluctant to report (cases) because of the taboo surrounding the issue,” he said. “They think they are protecting victims by not reporting.”

Strengthening child protection is a key issue for Myanmar’s new democratically elected government as it seeks to reform the country after half a century of brutal military rule.

He said he expects tougher child protection laws including stiffer sentencing to be passed this year. But for some longer jail terms will not suffice especially for child rapists.

“The public cannot bear such abuse and they are urging the government to take action against the perpetrators by giving the death sentence,” said lawmaker Khin Saw Wai.

“I am a member of parliament, a woman and a mother. I cannot accept such abuse of children.”