Despite fierce campaigning by women rights groups and an international outcry, Burma has introduced a birth control law which opponents say is aimed at ethnic minorities.
The controversial bill is one of four pieces of legislation driven by nationalist Buddhist monks who fear that the Muslim population is growing too quickly.
Under the law signed by president Thein Sein, governments of the 14 states and regions can request a presidential order so that local authorities can “organise” women to have a gap of 36 months between births.
The World Health Organisation recommends a similar policy to reduce child mortality. However, the law explicitly states that factors taken into consideration, as well as mortality rates and food shortage, can be “a high number of migrants in the area, a high population growth rate and a high birth rate”, that are seen negatively impacting regional development.
This has reinforced concerns of international observers that the law is aimed primarily at controlling birth rates of the Muslim community – which has been subject to birth-control policies in the past – and non-Buddhists more widely.
Burma’s attorney general Tun Shin, who is reported to be a London-educated Christian, will oversee the laws and will be supported by Khin Yi, a retired brigadier-general who was previously chief of police.
The Health Care for Population Control act does not identify any specific group within Burma’s web of ethnic communities and religions. But as the plight of thousands of Rohingya Muslim fleeing persecution unfolds, the US and human rights organisations have stepped up their criticism.
US deputy secretary of state Antony Blinken said at a press conference in Yangon on Saturday that he was “deeply concerned” about the four laws, that “could exacerbate ethnic and religious divisions.” He said the population law could be enforced in such a way as to undermine the reproductive rights of minorities. Blinken lobbied president Thein Sein about the law on a visit last week while it had already been “discreetly” signed.
“We are particularly concerned that the bill could provide a legal basis for discrimination through coercive, uneven application of birth control policies, and differing standards of care for different communities across the country,” the US State Department said.
Comments by extremist monk Ashin Wirathu, close to the Committee for the Protection of Nationality and Religion movement that inspired the laws, has fueled concerns. “If the bill is enacted, it could stop the Bengalis that call themselves Rohingya, who are trying to seize control,” he told The Irrawaddy, a local magazine.
“[The bill] was drafted for healthcare. The World Health Organization also advised a three-year interval between each child. Will it only be legal when women join the discussion? Did women have any participation in sharia law?” He added.
The three other laws would impose restrictions on religious conversion and inter-religious marriage and prohibit extra-marital affairs.
The final version of the bill was approved by the joint houses of parliament on 14 May following minor amendments submitted by the president. Members of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy opposed the bill.
“Activists with a racist, anti-Muslim agenda pressed this population law so there is every reason to expect it to be implemented in a discriminatory way,” Human Rights Watch Asia director Brad Adams said, warning that the package of laws was “likely to escalate repression and sectarian violence”.
Rights groups complain that they have not seen the final text of the law but earlier drafts instruct authorities in designated “health zones” to “organise” married couples to practise birth spacing. The bill does not contain explicit guarantees that contraceptive use should be voluntary with consent of the user. It does not specify punishments either, nor does it mention abortion.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al-Hussein, also expressed concern over the four bills as they moved through parliament in February.
“During an election year, it will be tempting for some politicians to fan the flames of prejudice for electoral gain,” he said, placing the legislation in the context of an unpopular quasi-civilian government facing parliamentary elections in November and unwilling to antagonise powerful lobby groups of Burma’s Bamar Buddhist majority.
One of the constant narratives of a hardline minority of Buddhist monks is that the ancient religion of Burma must be defended against an advancing tide of radical Islam, with the Muslim population growing more swiftly within the country and entering as illegal immigrants from without.
A report commissioned by the government after violent clashes between Buddhists and Muslims concluded in 2013 that “the extremely rapid growth rate of the Bengali population also contributed to fear and insecurity … The growth was not only due to high birth rates, but also to a steady increase of illegal immigration from neighbouring Bangladesh”.
Khon Ja, a member of the Kachin Women’s Peace Network which is part of a wider group of women’s organisations trying to stop the law, said it particularly affected minority groups.
“The target is the Rohingya,” she said, referring to the Muslim minority. “But the law could affect anyone,” she added.
She is worried about the vagueness of the law and what punishments might be entailed. There are concerns it would be applied to pregnant women in prison, and whether they might come under pressure to have abortions.
Members of the Akhaya women’s group, which promotes education about sexual health, said they were sexually harassed on social media and even accused of “treason” for speaking out against the law.
Activists still hope that even after becoming law the government will fail to follow up with the specific directives that would activate the population controls. If Aung San Suu Kyi’s party wins the elections in November and is allowed to form a government they could then influence that process and clarify the law. However, a new government will not take office until next March 2016.