(New York) – Burma’s parliament should vote down a draft population law that authorities could use to repress religious and ethnic minorities, Human Rights Watch said today. Burma’s donors and other concerned governments should publicly call on the government to withdraw the bill.
The Population Control Healthcare Bill directs authorities to impose restrictions on “birth spacing” that violate the right to privacy and a women’s right to choose when to have children. It would require that there be a 36-month interval between each child and could allow forced contraception. The drafting process did not involve participation by women, especially those from ethnic and religious minorities, who will be most affected by the law.
“Activists with a racist, anti-Muslim agenda pressed for this population law, so there is every reason to expect it to be implemented in a discriminatory way,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “The population bill as well as the other ‘race and religion’ bills under consideration are likely to escalate repression and sectarian violence.”
The Population Control Healthcare Bill was drafted under pressure from members of the Race and Religion Protection Organization, or Ma Ba Tha, an organization of influential Burmese Buddhist monks with an ultra-nationalist and anti-Muslim agenda. Ma Ba Tha members and others have made public statements calling for the laws to protect Buddhist women from Muslims. The bill is being considered in a climate of widespread anti-Muslim sermons from senior members of the organization who have referred to Muslims as “mad dogs.” The Ma Ba Tha collected more than one million signatures in a nationwide petition to turn heat on the government to pass the bill.
Specifically, the bill instructs the government to “organize married couples to practice birth spacing,” which is defined as “the practice of having at least a 36-month interval between one child birth and another for a married woman.” Such an inflexible definition of birth spacing prevents women from choosing how and when they want to have children based on their age, health, and other circumstances. Human Rights Watch is particularly concerned that the bill does not incorporate an explicit guarantee that all contraceptive use should be voluntary with the full and informed consent of a user, who should also have comprehensive information about a range of contraceptives.
The bill is one of four in a package of “Race and Religion Protection Laws” introduced in Burma’s parliament in November 2014. The bill was debated in Burma’s national parliament and passed over the objections of the opposition National League of Democracy. It was sent to President Thein Sein on April 6, 2015. On April 9, he returned the bill to the parliament with minor changes. Under Burmese law, if passed again it automatically becomes law seven days after passage.
Human Rights Watch expressed concern that the population law, if enacted, would be used against the Muslim Rohingya minority in Arakan (Rakhine) State. The Rohingya have for decades been the target of systematic persecution, being effectively denied citizenship, subjected in 2012 to ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity, and denied basic rights causing a growing exodus of Rohingya to flee the country by boat.
The official government “Rakhine Investigation Commission” formed to investigate the issues underlying the 2012 violence included in its 2013 report a section (12.27) that referred to the “rapid population growth of the Bengalis [a discriminatory and pejorative term used to refer to Rohingyas].” The commission noted the Rakhine Buddhist population’s “wish” for the government to “promote family planning and birth spacing programmes amongst the Bengalis [which Arakanese Buddhists and Burmese said] … would alleviate their fears of Bengali control and support the goal of peaceful coexistence.” While calling for such family planning measures, the commission reiterated that such measures should be voluntary and cautioned that “[a]n approach by force would … have repercussions on the country’s reputation.”
The bill has been met with strong opposition from a number of Burmese civil society organizations, with 180 civic groups in December 2014 issuing a joint statement asserting the proposed bill breached Burma’s commitments under international human rights law.
The Burmese government has not provided a safe environment for women’s rights groups and others to voice their concerns. The prominent ultra-nationalist monk U Wirathu has denounced and intimidated critics of the law as “traitors.” National League for Democracy members were among the only members of parliament to criticize the bill and vote against its passage. Other parliamentarians took photographs of them standing up to vote against the bill, a clear effort to intimidate them.
Government officials have denounced the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in Burma for critiques of the race and religion laws, including the population control bill. In her recent report to the Human Rights Council, the special rapporteur called the bill “an illegitimate interference by the State in the right of a woman to determine the number and spacing of her children.”
“Seeking ‘population control’ measures in an environment of repression and discrimination would dangerously embolden Buddhist ultra-nationalists and abusive local authorities,” Adams said. “The government should ensure that all new laws meet international human rights standards. Passing the population bill would make a mockery of the claim that Burma is still on the path to reform.”