UN raises alarm over first of Myanmar's four ‘race and religion’ bills

Passage of birth spacing law draws ire from rights experts
UN raises alarm over first of Myanmar's four ‘race and religion’ bills

Rohingya migrant woman and children from Myanmar enjoy their breakfast at a confinement camp for rescued Rohingya migrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh in Kuala Langsa, Aceh province (AFP Photo/Chaideer Mahyuddin)

The UN’s rights envoy to Myanmar has expressed alarm over the enactment of a controversial population control law, the first of four race and religion bills considered to be discriminatory against ethnic and religious minorities.

“These bills risk deepening discrimination against minorities and setting back women’s rights in Myanmar,” Yanghee Lee, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, said in a statement on Wednesday.

“At a time when thousands of Rohingya are already fleeing the country by boat, this sends precisely the wrong signal to these communities.”

The new Myanmar legislation would allow regional governments to introduce family planning regulations to lower birth rates in their states. Namely, the bill would restrict women to giving birth to one child every three years.

The state-run Myanma Alinn newspaper reported on Saturday that President Thein Sein approved the law on May 19.

Under the legislation, local authorities can survey their regions to determine if "resources are unbalanced because of a high number of migrants in the area, a high population growth rate and a high birth rate", the paper reported.

“Any coercive requirement for birth spacing with the aim to organize family planning would constitute a disproportionate interference in the sexual and reproductive health and rights of women and could amount to a violation of women’s human rights,” said Dainius Puras, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to health.

Rights groups have also expressed serious concern over the three other bills currently being debated in parliament: Religious Conversion, Women’s Special Marriage and the Monogamy.

The UN envoys called on the government to discard all four laws, which will violate Myanmar’s obligations under international human rights conventions.

Lee reiterated that in this election year, Myanmar must ensure that its laws comply with fundamental human rights provisions and help rather than hinder progress towards a more “tolerant, pluralistic and inclusive” society.

Supporters of the birth spacing bill include the 969 movement and Ma Ba Tha, Buddhist nationalist groups whose members include outspoken anti-Muslim monks such as U Wirathu. Such support suggests that the bill could be used to persecute Rohingya and other religious or ethnic minorities.

U Wirathu has defended the measures, saying that the reproduction law is drawn along WHO guidelines and is intended to help the healthcare of women in the country, rather than to discriminate against ethnic minorities such as Muslims.

“The law is necessary to control the births of Bengalis in Rakhine state as they are the majority in Buthidaung and Maungdaw areas. We must prevent their influence on the Buddhist community so that the communal violence may not erupt again,” U Wirathu told ucanews.com on Thursday.

The legislation comes at a time of mounting international pressure on Myanmar to stem the fleeing of Muslim Rohingya — considered by the UN to be one of the world's most persecuted minorities.

The exodus has surged since 2012 deadly sectarian violence in Rakhine state that pitted Rohingya against local Buddhists, with rights groups saying nationalists were using the specter of a growing Muslim population to stoke tensions between the communities.

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In an official report following the 2012 unrest, which left around 200 dead and displaced 140,000, a government commission said authorities should encourage family planning in Rohingya communities to limit population growth.

Rights groups said that population control law targets minority Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state which has been subjected to restrictions on marriage, birth registration and a host of other rights violations.

Kyaw Hla Aung, a Rohingya community leader in Sittwe Township in Rakhine state, said that the population law shows “discrimination” and it is not necessary or relevant in the country.

“Despite the law enacted by the government, I also doubt the effectiveness and implementation in the grass root levels. Giving education on birth control to the community is a crucial and practical factor instead of controlling the rights of women and the family affairs through the legislation,” Kyaw Hla Aung, who has worked for more than 10 years at Medicins Sans Frontiers, told ucanews.com on Thursday.

Myanmar has seen surging Buddhist nationalism in recent years and spates of violence targeting Muslim minorities have raised doubts over its much vaunted reforms after decades of harsh military rule.

Tun Tun Oo, deputy attorney general from the Union Attorney General’s Office, whose department was involved in drafting the population control bill, could not be reached for comment.

But a political commentator from the Myanmar Times, Sithu Aung Myint quoted Tun Tun Oo recently as saying that the population bill was drafted in line with international standards such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the International Conference on Population and Development’s Program.

“The intention was not to enforce birth-spacing with the threat of punishment but to provide health education. The law is not intended to discriminate against women and does not go against international treaties,” he told the Myanmar Times in an article on May 27.

Additional reporting by AFP

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