By Michael Cook
Editor’s note. This first appeared at bioedge.org. The country of Myanmar was formerly known as Burma.
Late last month government authorities in the largely Buddhist country reaffirmed a 2005 policy which punishes Rohingya women who bear more than two children with hefty fines and loss of legal rights for the children.
After a long silence on the issue, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi [ a prominent dissident] has condemned the measures. She has told the media that if reports of the policy were true, it was illegal. “It is not good to have such discrimination. And it is not in line with human rights either.”
According to al-Jazeera, a government spokesman, Win Myaing, explained that the regulations were meant to dampen sectarian tensions. The Rohingya live mostly in two towns, which are islands in a sea of Buddhists. “The population growth of Rohingya Muslims is 10 times higher than that of the Rakhine (Buddhists),” he said. “Overpopulation is one of the causes of tension.”
The Rohingya number between 800,000 and 1 million, most of them living near the border with Bangladesh. They have been the target of legal discrimination and sectarian violence. Human Rights Watch has accused the Myanmar government of conducting a campaign of “ethnic cleansing” against the Rohingya.
Tensions between Buddhist Burmese and the Muslim Rohingya go back centuries but were greatly heightened during the British colonial period and the Japanese occupation in World War II. Since 1982 Myanmar has not even acknowledged that they are citizens.
In 2005 local authorities began to enforce a two-child policy. Rohingya couples who wish to marry must seek government approval – a process which can take up to two years. They must agree to have no more than two children. More children are punishable with fines and imprisonment. As a result unsafe abortions are common among women who become pregnant before they are legally married or who are carrying a third child.
According to Human Rights Watch, “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.”