Myanmar on Friday said it will reexamine a controversial two-child policy in restive Rakhine state after rights organizations and the international community said the law unfairly targets members of the Muslim Rohingya ethnic group.
“We are reexamining this order,” President Thein Sein’s spokesman Ye Htut told RFA’s Myanmar Service, adding that the policy which bans Rohingya families from having more than two children was regionally implemented and had not been developed in tandem with the central government.
Ye Htut’s statement marked the first time Thein Sein’s office has publicly commented on the policy which, according to Rakhine state spokesperson Win Myaing, was initially introduced in 2005 and reaffirmed earlier this month for Rohingyas in Buthidaung and Maungdaw townships along the Bangladesh border.
Rights groups say the two-child regulation was an addition to longstanding discriminatory marriage restrictions on Rohingyas in Rakhine, which required them to obtain advance permission before tying the knot and which limited Rohingya men to one wife.
Flouting the two-child restriction is punishable with fines and imprisonment, they say.
Though they are a small, unrecognized minority in Myanmar and Rakhine state, Rohingyas make up most of the population in Buthidaung and Maungdaw, which are also home to a small number of Buddhist Rakhines.
Buddhists are not subject to the two-child policy in the two townships, which were hotspots for ethnic violence in Rakhine state last year.
Ye Htut said that laws requiring Rohingyas to inform and apply for permission from the authorities before getting married were aimed at preventing abuse against women.
“The reason for this is that [Rohingya] girls who are not old enough to get married are often married by force.” The age of consent for marriage in Myanmar is 18 years of age.
He said community leaders and husbands in Rohingya society also prevent women from using reproductive health services.
“Women are harassed when they make personal decisions about their health,” he said.
“Because of this, the authorities have encouraged and directed [Rohingya] women to make use of birth control and reproductive health programs.”
Allegations of discrimination
Ye Htut noted that Myanmar’s Ministry of Health and Mother and Child Welfare Association are overseeing reproductive health programs across the country.
But he admitted that “I’m not very well informed about the Rakhine state government’s policy on child limits,” adding, "we have to have a look at this policy."
When asked to address criticism from rights groups and the international community that the policy was discriminatory towards Rohingyas, Ye Htut said that the central government was aware of the charges but declined to comment until carrying out an investigation.
“Some other countries have birth policies in effect to control the nation’s population, such as China. We will study those policies,” he said.
He said the government would also review advice from the Rakhine Inquiry Commission, a panel which in April probed last year’s clashes between Buddhists and Muslims and which recommended family planning education be provided to Rohingyas, saying their “rapid population growth” had been a factor fueling the unrest.
“We will be able to comment on the policy after we review all information,” Ye Htut said.
Violence in June and October last year left nearly 200 people dead and some 140,000 displaced in Rakhine state.
Most of the victims were Rohingya, many of whom remain in camps they are not allowed to leave.
Earlier this week, Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi slammed the two-child policy, voicing rare comments defending the rights of the Muslim minority group.
The National League for Democracy (NLD) leader, who faced criticism from international rights groups for not speaking up for Rohingyas’ rights following the violence last year, called the policy “discriminatory and … not in line with human rights.”
The policy also drew condemnation from rights groups such as New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW), which this week called on Myanmar to immediately revoke it.
“Implementation of this callous and cruel two-child policy against the Rohingya is another example of the systematic and wide ranging persecution of this group, who have recently been the target of an ethnic cleansing campaign,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at HRW.
“President Thein Sein says he is against discrimination. If so, he should quickly declare an end to these coercive family restrictions and other discriminatory policies against the Rohingya.”
The United Nations deputy spokesman Eduardo del Buey on Thursday said the decision to restore the two-child limit on Rohingyas would be discriminatory and called on authorities in Rakhine state “to remove such policies or practices.”
Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.