Opposition parties in Myanmar are divided in their views over a controversial law limiting Muslim Rohingya families to two children each, with some saying they are against compulsory family planning and others defending it as essential to control runaway population growth amid limited resources.
The policy in restive Rakhine state was initially introduced in 2005 and reaffirmed earlier this month for Rohingyas in Buthidaung and Maungdaw townships along the Bangladesh border, drawing widespread condemnation as “discriminatory” from rights groups and the international community.
Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi had slammed the policy last week, saying it violated human rights, while President Thein Sein’s administration said that it will re-examine the regional law.
On Monday, a senior leader from Aung San Suu Kyi ‘s National League for Democracy (NLD) said simply enforcing a limit on the number of children per family would not address cultural traditions that contribute to high birth rates amongst the Rohingyas.
“Local people are saying that the birth rate should be controlled in the state, but issuing an order to limit the number of children will not solve the problem,” NLD Vice Chairman Tin Oo told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
“We should further discuss and coordinate on this issue,” he said.
Tin Oo suggested a debate in parliament to help address the issue, including how authorities might respond to Rohingya families who have more than two children.
Flouting the policy is punishable by fines and imprisonment, rights groups say.
“I hope we can make strides towards solving this problem after submitting it for debate in parliament and coordinating with [NGOs and other groups],” he said.
Thu Wai, a former political prisoner and chairman of the opposition Democratic Party, said that while traveling in Rakhine state he had encountered several large Rohingya families struggling to make ends meet, but cautioned that implementing a law to restrict births was not the way to improve the situation.
He said while many problems could be addressed through the law, the Rohingya should be taught the benefits of smaller family units.
“I think the authorities should show them why things will be better for them if they limit the size of their families. Teaching people is better than ordering them to do something.”
Support for policy
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.
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.
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, said the ethnic group’s “rapid population growth” had been a factor fueling the unrest.
National Democratic Force (NDF), another opposition party, backed the two-child policy, saying it may only be a temporary measure.
Party Chairman Khin Maung Swe claimed the policy is not a violation of human rights, and that by limiting births in the Rohingya community the government would be helping the ethnic group to become more prosperous.
“The Muslims make up 94 percent of the population in Maungdaw, when other parts of Rakhine state between 50-60 percent of the population is Muslim,” said Khin Maung Swe, who served as a member of the Rakhine Inquiry Commission.
“We shouldn’t only see the birth control plan from a human rights point of view. We should also think about providing a sufficient amount of food for the entire population,” he said.
Khin Maung Swe said that unchecked population growth in the Rohingya community would take a larger percentage of resources away from Myanmar’s overall population.
“I think the Rakhine state government announced this policy because of this reason, and the policy may only be a temporary one,” he said.
“This policy is part of a plan to provide more development for everyone. We also should look at this from a political point of view—how will other nationalities be affected if the Rakhine state government allows [Rohingyas] to have as many children as they want?”
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.
The two-child policy has drawn condemnation from rights groups such as New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW), which last 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 last 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.”
Presidential spokesman Ye Htut said on Friday that the central government was aware of the charges but declined to comment until carrying out an investigation, which he said would include a study of international birth policies and advice from the Rakhine Inquiry Commission.
Reported by Khin Khin Ei for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.