RANGOON — Nationalist monk U Wirathu on Monday lashed out against calls for Burma’s Parliament to oppose controversial legislation that would restrict birth rates at the discretion of local authorities, claiming the bill was designed with the dual purpose of protecting women’s health and “stopping the Bengalis.”
The comments, made to The Irrawaddy during a telephone interview, supported criticisms that the legislation was intended to target minorities, particularly stateless Rohingya Muslims in western Burma’s Arakan State, also known as Rakhine.
“If the bill is enacted, it could stop the Bengalis that call themselves Rohingya, who are trying to seize Rakhine State,” Wirathu said. The Burmese government and much of the general public refuse to recognize the term Rohingya, referring to the group as Bengalis to imply that they are illegal immigrants.
In recent weeks, the persecuted minority has been at the center of a regional crisis, as thousands are believed to have fled by boat to seek refuge in neighboring countries, often to find themselves caught in an expansive human trafficking circuit.
The Population Control Bill, which was approved by Burma’s Union Parliament last week and now awaits the President’s approval, is one of four bills known collectively as the Protection of Race and Religion package, proposed by the nationalist Buddhist organization Ma Ba Tha.
New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued a statement on Saturday calling on lawmakers to reject the bill on the grounds that it violated women’s rights and could be used to target minorities. The vote, however, had already been cast in favor without garnering much attention from the media.
Of particular concern, the group said, was a provision mandating that women wait three years between birthing children, which human rights activists and women’s advocates view as an assault on female reproductive rights.
HRW also pointed out that the drafting process did not involve participation by ethnic and religious minority women, who would likely be most affected should the bill become law.
Wirathu, a radical monk closely associated with Ma Ba Tha and largely viewed as an anti-Muslim agitator, defended the legislation as a health measure that women need not be involved in drafting.
“[The Population Control Bill] was drafted for healthcare. The World Health Organization [WHO] also advised a three-year interval between each child,” he said, an apparent reference to 2005 research recommending birth spacing to reduce infant and child mortality. “Will it only be legal when women join the discussion? Did women have any participation in Sharia Law?”
Under the bill, divisional and state governments are granted the ability to request a presidential order limiting reproductive rates if it is determined that population growth, accelerating birth rates, or rising infant or maternal mortality rates are negatively impacting regional development.
An “imbalance between population and resources, low socio-economic indicators and regional food insufficiency because of internal migration” can also be cited in invoking the law.
The legislative package, which includes provisions that would restrict interfaith marriage, polygamy and religious conversion, have been lambasted by human rights groups and women’s rights advocates since it was first proposed in 2013.
Critics claim the legislation undermines women’s right to freedom of faith and family planning, while leaving ethnic and religious minority women particularly vulnerable to abuse by authorities.
Western governments have warned that enacting the laws would not be in keeping with the country’s transition toward democracy.