Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and Islamic leaders expressed dismay over decisions by authorities in western Myanmar to restore a two-child limit on a Muslim minority group, a policy that does not apply to Buddhists and follows accusations of “ethnic cleansing.”
The order makes Myanmar perhaps the only country in the world to level such a restriction against a particular religious group and is likely to bring further criticism that Muslims are being discriminated against in the Buddhist-majority country. However, some Buddhists welcomed the plan for addressing their fear of a population explosion among the Muslim minority known as Rohingya.
Authorities in strife-torn Rakhine state said this past weekend that they were restoring a measure imposed during past military rule that banned Rohingya families from having more than two children. Details about the policy and how it will be enforced have not been released, sparking calls for clarity and concerns of more discrimination against a group the UN calls one of the world’s most-persecuted people.
“If true, this is against the law,” said Aung San Suu Kyi, the opposition leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate.
Aung San Suu Kyi has faced criticism for failing to defend the Rohingya following two waves of deadly sectarian violence last year. She told reporters on Monday that she had not heard details of the latest measure but, if it exists, “It is discriminatory and also violates human rights.”
The policy applies to two Rakhine townships that border Bangladesh and have the highest Muslim populations in the state. The townships, Buthidaung and Maungdaw, are about 95 percent Muslim. Nationwide, Muslims account for only about 4 percent of Myanmar’s roughly 60 million people.
The central government has not made any statement about the two-child policy since Rakhine state authorities quietly enacted the measure a week ago. Calls seeking comment from government spokesmen were not returned.
The US government also registered deep concern. In Washington, US Department of State spokesman Patrick Ventrell said on Tuesday that the US opposes coercive birth limitation policies and urges Myanmar “to eliminate all such policies without delay.”
Those comments come just a week after Burmese President Thein Sein visited the White House and US President Barack Obama called for an end to violence against the Muslim group, and for their rights and dignity to be recognized.
Longstanding antipathy toward the Rohingya erupted last year into mob violence in which Rakhine Buddhists armed with machetes razed thousands of Muslim homes, leaving hundreds of people dead and forcing 125,000 to flee, mostly Muslims. The New York-based group Human Rights Watch has accused the government and security forces in Rakhine of fomenting an organized campaign of “ethnic cleansing” against the Rohingya, who are regarded as aliens.
Since the violence, the religious unrest has expanded into a campaign against Muslim communities in other areas, posing a serious challenge to Thein Sein’s reformist government as it attempts to implement democratic reforms after nearly half a century of harsh military rule.
Myanmar’s government does not include the Rohingya as one of its 135 recognized ethnic minorities. It considers them to be illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and denies them citizenship. Bangladesh says the Rohingya have been living in Myanmar for centuries and should be recognized there as citizens.
Rakhine state spokesman Win Myaing said over the weekend the policy was meant to stem population growth in the Muslim community, which a government-appointed commission last month identified as one of the causes of the sectarian violence. He said authorities have not determined how the measure will be enforced, but it will be mandatory.
“This is the best way to control the population explosion which is a threat to our national identity. If no measure is taken to control the population, there is a danger of losing our own identity,” said Burmese National Affairs Minister for the Yangon Region Zaw Aye Maung, an ethnic Rakhine member of parliament.
He said restricting the number of children in the poorer Muslim community will benefit them because smaller families are better able to feed, clothe and educate their children.