This month, hundreds of ethnic Arakanese Buddhist protesters marched through the streets of Sittwe calling on authorities to enforce a two-child limit on Rohingya Muslims—that is, to demand a discriminatory population control regulation that restricts Rohingya from choosing how many children they have.
President Thein Sein had a chance to speak out against Arakan State’s overtly discriminatory policy and order local authorities to revoke it. But instead he remained silent—prompting speculation among Burma watchers that, despite earlier claims from his office that he was still deciding whether to support the policy or not, he was fully in favor of it.
Last week, the president reinforced that when Burma’s Minister of Immigration and Population Khin Yi publicly endorsed the two-child limit. Once again, the president did not say a word. His silence is deafening and dangerous.
Arakan State’s discriminatory two-child limit for Rohingya Muslims was first introduced in 2005 in the western state’s Buthidaung and Maungdaw townships. Since last year’s sectarian strife, between Arakanese and Rohingya and other Muslim minorities, there have been renewed calls for its enforcement since mid-May.
The lone political voice in opposition to the two-child policy has been Aung San Suu Kyi. But when she pointed out that the policy violated human rights, Arakanese members of her National League for Democracy (NLD) party quickly decried her, and demanded the policy’s implementation.
Support for the two-child limit is often couched in the kind of progressive rhetoric used by Khin Yi, who claimed the policy was introduced to “benefit the ‘Bengali women’”—using a term meant to disparage Rohingya—who he said had large numbers of children for whom they could not provide adequate nutrition, schooling and other care. But the barely concealed rationale for the policy is the fear among the majority Arakanese that Rohingya women have a disproportionately high birth rate that will over time alter the demographics of Arakan State.
To claim that the two-child policy is intended to advance the rights of women who are confined to a life of poverty because they have so many children is both erroneous and dangerous. According to a 2007 Fertility and Reproductive Health Survey jointly conducted by the Ministry of Immigration and Population and the United Nations Population Fund, a lack of education, poor health awareness and access to contraception were factors influencing decisions about family size. The survey found that women with greater levels of education opt to have fewer children. It also found that awareness about modern methods of contraception and access to them was the poorest in Arakan State, where only 32 percent of women who were married at the time of the survey reported using any form of modern contraception, demonstrating the desperate unmet need for such services there.
The 2007 survey shows that the largest suppliers of contraceptives in the country are government hospitals (25 percent), drug stores (22 percent), private clinics (13 percent) and government nurses and midwives (11 percent). But because the government effectively denies Rohingya citizenship and as a result severely limits their freedom of movement and access to government services, they are often forced to rely on traditional methods of contraception—the withdrawal method or abstention.
Last year the Rohingya in Arakan State were targets of a government-supported campaign of “ethnic cleansing” that involved crimes against humanity, greatly exacerbating the lack of access to services. At least 140,000 Rohingya and other Muslims were displaced and many fled to camps, where conditions are poor. The government has done little to facilitate access to humanitarian assistance as documented in August 2012 and April 2013 Human Rights Watch reports. On many occasions Arakanese have threatened and obstructed foreign aid workers and humanitarian agencies’ work. According to UN aid workers, Arakanese midwives routinely shun Rohingya, refusing to provide them care. In May, the international aid agency Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) issued a statement saying entire villages were cut off from basic services. MSF said pregnant Rohingya women were dying needlessly because they had no access to health care.
Such preventable deaths, poor health and high birth rates have little to do with Rohingyas being content with “overpopulation” and poverty or plotting to change the demographics of Arakan State by producing babies. These are outcomes of oppressive and short-sighted government policies.
Rather than addressing the education and health care needs of the Rohingya, for nearly two decades Burmese authorities have imposed a system of pre-marriage government authorization for Rohingyas, administered by the Nasaka, an abusive inter-agency border security force.
The system is plagued by corruption and long delays, where Rohingya couples wait years to get marriage approval and pay hefty bribes. The two-child rule that was added by Arakan authorities in 2005, which required couples to state in writing that they would not have more than two children, has done irreparable damage to women and children. Flouting the two-child restriction is punishable with fines and imprisonment.
Many Rohingya women who get pregnant while they wait for government approval to marry or beyond the two-child limit abort pregnancies using unsafe ways to prevent getting caught. For example, a Rohingya woman who fled from Burma and is residing in a camp in Bangladesh described how her daughter got pregnant before getting an expensive marriage license, was frightened about getting caught, tried to abort her pregnancy at home, and died. After giving her a root drink, a relative gave the pregnant woman a “rough abdominal massage” to help her abort. She started having fits and bled to death.
Rohingya women who chose to have their babies illegally were either forced to register their children with other Rohingya parents who had not exhausted their “limit” or were left with no choice but to give birth and hide their children. Hidden or unregistered children get no government benefits. They are excluded from all services.
Supporters of Burma’s two-child policy for Rohingya say it is neither discriminatory nor a violation of human rights, and some have wrongly cited India, the Philippines and China as examples to bolster their case.
India has no mandatory policy that directly limits the number of children, but seven states introduced eligibility criteria for local government elections that prevent those with more than two children from running for local office. At least three of those states have revoked such criteria, and the Indian central government has written to state authorities asking the holdouts to revoke any such policies.
India is in fact moving away from approaches to family planning that might create a coercive environment. It refocused its family planning program in July 2012 to expand access to contraceptives through a door-to-door campaign, emphasizing birth spacing rather than sterilization. In May, the Indian government issued orders that all women and girls should be provided access to free maternal health care under government schemes irrespective of their age or the number of children they have.
The Philippines also has no policy restricting the number of children. In December 2012 the Philippines Congress overcame decades-long opposition to reproductive rights by the Roman Catholic Church and enacted a law that allows for the expanded provision of reproductive health services, including the distribution of contraceptives. The law states that “each family shall have the right to determine its ideal family size,” and casts an obligation on the state to “equip each parent with the necessary information on all aspects of family life, including reproductive health and responsible parenthood, in order to make that determination.”
Only China has a policy limiting the number of children a couple may have, and China’s brutal one-child policy is globally condemned. It has long been used to force women to abort pregnancies, abandon children and incur heavy fines. But even China’s policy was not used as a method of targeting and controlling an ethnic minority—it was enforced across China. In recent years the Chinese government has taken some steps to relax its one-child policy.
Ultimately, the Burmese government needs to address the abuse and discrimination against the Rohingya by ending discrimination in citizenship and related access to services. President Thein Sein should stop being a silent spectator and revoke the two-child policy once and for all. He should demonstrate his commitment to human rights by expanding access to health care and education for the Rohingya, and press Parliament to grant them citizenship rights on an equal basis with all other people in Burma.
Aruna Kashyap is a researcher in the Women’s Rights Division of Human Rights Watch. Follow her on twitter @aruna_kashyap.