As Myanmar’s President recently signed a population control bill, rights groups caution that the new law entrenches already widespread discrimination and risks fueling further violence against religious minorities.
On Saturday President Thein Sein signed off on the law which requires a three year spacing for some women between child births. It was passed by parliamentarians last month despite objections from rights groups who say that the bill will undermine reproductive rights, women’s rights and religious freedom.
Amnesty International warned that the bill could become a blueprint for state population control. The rights organization says that the law plays into fears that minority groups are having more children than the Buddhist majority. An almost complete lack of human rights safeguards means that the bill could even pave the way for state-enforced contraception, abortions or sterilizations.
Calling it ‘’extremely disappointing’’ that President Thein signed this bill into law, Amnesty spokesperson Olof Blomqvist told me that Amnesty was also concerned that the last version that Amnesty International reviewed contained no safeguards or protection against potential discrimination on grounds of gender, ethnicity or religion. Blomqvist also cautioned that this law could show a trend toward population control similar to that in China: ‘’At worst, this law could become a blueprint for state population control – but one targeting minority groups in particular. It appears to play into stereotypes that certain minority groups are having more children than the Buddhist majority. Family planning is to be encouraged, but should never be imposed by the state.’’
A legal review by Amnesty of the The Population Control Healthcare Bill – ostensibly aimed at improving living standards among poor communities – found that it lacks human rights safeguards. The bill establishes a 36-month “birth spacing” interval for women between child births, though it is unclear whether or how women who violate the law would be punished. The lack of essential safeguards to protect women who have children more frequently potentially creates an environment that could lead to forced reproductive control methods.
Amnesty said that the new law is another blow to women who already face already multiple types of discrimination and human rights abuses in Myanmar, which is a patriarchal society. ‘’Just one example is how women continue to bear the brunt of violations by the Myanmar Army in the armed conflicts in ethnic minority areas. Amnesty International continues to receive reports of rape and other forms of sexual violence that are almost never investigated. Thankfully, women human rights advocates are very outspoken in Myanmar. Despite the numerous insults – and even death threats – they have received for taking position against hard-line Buddhist groups, they continue to courageously work against gender based discrimination,’’ Blomqvist commented.
United to End Genocide called the President’s actions ‘’troubling’’ and said this law is the latest in a long history of policies of persecution aimed at the minority Rohingya and other Muslims in Burma. ‘’The extremist nationalist Buddhist monks behind the bill, the so-called Committee for the Protection of Nationality and Religion, are the same that have been stoking violence against Muslims and have been clear that this bill is meant to target Muslims as well,’’ Daniel Sullivan, Director of Policy and Government Relations at End Genocide commented.
He added that what is even more disturbing is that Burma’s President signed the bill just as the number two diplomat at the U.S. State Department (US Deputy Secretary of State Anthony Blinken) visited Burma, a major slap in the face of the Obama administration that appears to have gone without reaction.
‘’The persecution of the Rohingya is a root cause of the recent crisis at sea and the continued discovery of over 100 mass graves in trafficking camps in Malaysia and Thailand. Addressing those atrocities requires addressing the conditions in Burma that are causing so many to risk their lives at sea and at the hands of human traffickers. Signing a bill that adds further discrimination against the Rohingya does just the opposite,’’ Sullivan said.
In March, Amnesty International’s Asia Pacific Director Richard Bennett advised against passing the law: “If these drafts become law, they would not only give the state free rein to further discriminate against women and minorities, but could also ignite further ethnic violence.”
These laws play into harmful stereotypes about women and minorities, in particular Muslims, which are often propagated by extremist nationalist groups. The laws come during a disturbing rise in ethnic and religious tensions, as well as ongoing systematic discrimination against women, in Myanmar. In this context, where minority groups – and in particular the Rohingya – face severe discrimination in law, policy and practice, the draft laws could be interpreted to target women and specific communities identified on a discriminatory basis.
In the wake of the on-going Rohingya refugee crisis, this development is seen by human rights activists as a smokescreen and say that the Myanmar government is avoiding the root cause of discrimination entrenched in law: ‘’There is a reason why so many thousands of Muslim Rohingya in Myanmar are desperate enough to risk their lives on dangerous boat journeys to escape the conditions they face at home. The Rohingya have suffered decades of institutionalised discrimination where they are denied citizenship. Waves of violence between Muslims and Buddhist dating back to 2012 has left tens of thousands of mainly Rohingya displaced in Rakhine state, where they live in camps in squalid conditions. Myanmar’s authorities must do everything they can to address the root causes of this crisis and improve the situation facing the Rohingya in Myanmar – not potentially further entrench discrimination by passing laws such as the Population Control Health Care Bill,’’ Blomqvist said.
Amnesty also said that the bill does not comply with international human rights law and standards, including Myanmar’s legal obligations as a state party to the UN Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
‘’Myanmar is entering a crucial year with elections in November. The country is facing a range of serious political and economic issues – ranging from widespread poverty to questions over the progress of political reforms that were introduced in 2011. The proposed “protecting race and religion” laws are a distraction from these serious issues – they should never have been tabled in the first place and must be scrapped. Myanmar’s authorities should work for reconciliation between religious and ethnic groups and address the range of pressing issues facing the country – not play into hatred and fear, and seek to cement already widespread discrimination,’’ Bennett said.