Coerced Birth Control Reflects Broader Persecution of Muslim Minority
(Bangkok) – Burma’s government should publicly revoke a discriminatory population control regulation that restricts Rohingya Muslims to having two children. Implementation of this policy is consistent with the wider persecution of the largely stateless Rohingya, violating international human rights protections, and endangering women’s physical and mental health.
The Arakan State spokesperson, Win Myaing, told the media on May 26 that local authorities had reaffirmed a 2005 regulation for Rohingya Muslims in Buthidaung and Maungdaw townships in northwestern Arakan State along the Bangladesh border. The discriminatory two-child rule has been enforced alongside regulations that require Rohingya couples seeking to marry to obtain permission from the authorities by paying hefty bribes. Couples often have to wait for extended periods, sometimes as long as two years, before receiving permission. Officials have also forced many women to undergo pregnancy tests as part of the marriage application process.
“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 Human Rights Watch. “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.”
Rakhine State Spokesperson Win Myaing claimed local officials sought to implement a recommendation by the government Inquiry Commission on the Sectarian Violence in Rakhine State, a 27-member body appointed to examine the causes of last year’s deadly violence between ethnic Arakanese (Rakhine) Buddhists and Rohingya and Kaman Muslims. The commission’s summary report, released on April 29, 2013, called for “implementation of family planning programs amongst Bengali [Rohingya] communities” to address its “rapid population growth.” However, the report said that “government and other civil society organizations should refrain from implementing mandatory measures which could seem unfair and abusive.” The commission included political leaders of Arakanese Buddhists but did not include any Rohingya members.
The two-child regulation is a further example of state persecution of the Rohingya, Human Rights Watch said. Government security forces, local Arakanese political party officials, and Buddhist monks participated in crimes against humanity during a campaign of ethnic cleansing against Rohingya and other Muslims in June and October 2012. To date, no one has been held accountable for these crimes. Should further widespread or systematic attacks be carried out against the Rohingya population, enforcement of the two-child policy could amount to crimes against humanity.
Renewed Call for Two-Child Policy Latest Form of State Persecution
The 2005 two-child regulation was an addition to longstanding discriminatory marriage restrictions on Rohingyas in Arakan state. Advance permission to marry came from the Na Sa Ka (in Burmese, Nay Sut Kut Kwey Ye), a corrupt interagency border guard force comprising military, police, immigration, and customs. Rohingya couples seeking to marry have had to give a written undertaking that they will have no more than two children. Flouting the two-child restriction is punishable with fines and imprisonment.
To avoid paying fines or being arrested, Rohingya women who became pregnant before getting official approval to marry or after having two children have resorted to unsafe and illegal abortions. Some underwent multiple unsafe and self-induced abortions at home. Article 312 of the Burmese penal code criminalizes all instances of abortion except those that are carried out to save a woman’s life, already posing a tremendous barrier for women seeking abortion services. These barriers to safe abortion services are exacerbated for Rohingya women because of the marriage restrictions and two-child policy. Rohingya also face severe restrictions on their right to freedom of movement, requiring advance travel permission from the Na Sa Ka even to seek emergency medical treatment. Permission is frequently refused unless bribes are paid. Unsafe abortions are a leading cause of maternal deaths in Burma.
“Fear of punishment under the two-child rule compel far too many Rohingya women to risk their lives and turn to desperate and dangerous measures to self-induce abortions,” Adams said.
The 800,000 to one million Rohingya in Burma are particularly vulnerable to government abuse because most are denied citizenship under Burma’s discriminatory 1982 citizenship law. Rohingya children born out of wedlock or in a family that already has two children do not receive any status whatsoever from the government, making them ineligible for education and other government services, unable to receive travel permissions, and they are later not permitted to marry or acquire property. They are subject to arbitrary arrest and detention.
To evade these regulations, Rohingya women pay bribes to register them with other legally married adults, or keep their children hidden and unregistered to avoid being fined or imprisoned. In instances that the Na Sa Ka learns of families having more than two children, these children are sometimes placed on a government blacklist. The Inquiry Commission estimated that the number of unregistered Rohingya children was 60,000. Because of these restrictions, “the majority of the Bengali [Rohingya] population marry in secret without the necessary administrative approval and children born under these circumstances remain unregistered.”
Local government authorities and the Na Sa Ka oversee a web of tight regulations governing Rohingyas, Human Rights Watch said. These include restrictions on travel, birth, death, immigration, migration, marriage, and land ownership. Na Sa Ka officials enforce these restrictions by frequently detaining, beating, and extorting money from Rohingya. In 2012, Na Sa Ka arbitrarily detained an estimated 2,000-2,500 Rohingya for “offenses” both serious and trivial, including repairing homes without official permission and owning “unregistered” livestock, according to informed sources.
In all instances, contraception should not be used with the objective of “population control,” least of all by selectively targeting ethnic minorities, Human Rights Watch said. Contraceptive services together with other reproductive and sexual health services should be provided in a non-discriminatory and non-coercive manner to all women. Women and men should have the option of adopting contraception of their choice and deciding on the size of their family.
In March 2012, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, which monitors state compliance with the Convention on the Rights of the Child, called upon Burma to “abolish the local order restricting marriages for Rohingya people and cease practices which restrict the number of children of Rohingya people.”
Parliamentary opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi on May 27 said about the two-child policy that, “it is not good to have such discrimination. And it is not in line with human rights.”
Human Rights Watch called upon the government of Burma to:
· Immediately revoke the regulation establishing a two-child limit for ethnic Rohingya in Buthidaung and Maugdaw townships in North Arakan State, and other coercive or discriminatory policies, rules, regulations or laws regarding population;
· Repeal provisions of the penal code that criminalize abortion, especially those provisions that punish women and girls who have had an abortion;
· Provide unfettered access for international humanitarian agencies to provide medical and other services to all persons in need in Arakan State, with special focus on needs of internally displaced persons and other populations with restricted freedom of movement; and
· Investigate and appropriately prosecute all persons, regardless of position or rank, implicated in serious human rights abuses in Arakan State since 2012.
“Governments who care about reform in Burma need to speak out about the persecution of Rohingya Muslims,” Adams said. “If this policy had been announced by a Burmese government official before the reform process began, donors would have denounced it in the strongest terms. Now, when the international community’s influence is much greater, governments and donors need to find their voices.”