Last month, the local Burmese authorities in Arakan State banned Rohingya Muslims from having more than two children and one wife. Officials in the western state, where hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced by ethnic conflict, decided to revive the long-dormant restriction and reaffirm it in response to the current political situation.
On Tuesday, hundreds of Arakanese took to the streets to uphold the ban. They even urged the government to extend the law to cover the entire state. Speaking to The Irrawaddy, demonstration leader Tha Pwint argued his support for the measure by saying that “we need to have something to keep their population in check.” As it stands now, the directive applies only to two Arakan townships where Muslims comprise 94 percent of population.
The announcement has prompted a great deal of anguished debate. Some politicians who have previously tried to capitalize on anti-Rohingya sentiment are beginning to appreciate that such policies also have costs — especially when it comes to Burma’s international reputation. If these views gain strength, they could help to minimize senseless violence.
Supporters of the ban argue that keeping the number of Rohingya under control is a matter of national security. It’s an issue, they believe, that takes precedence over the protection of human rights. Advocates of the restrictions defend them by cherry-picking examples from other countries: China’s one-child policy, Vietnam’s two-child policy, and so forth. What the comparison tends to overlook, however, is that these countries chose these policies as family planning measures. That has little to do with the Arakan law, which targets only one small group for reasons that have little to do with total population control. (The Rohingya make up approximately one percent of Burma’s population.)
The advocates also invoke “national security” without clearly defining what they mean by the concept. A well-known supporter of the ban claims that one major national security issue at stake is illegal immigration and the corruption of a weak state that allows it to grow. Oddly though, the two-child policy doesn’t apply to Chinese immigrants, who have been a source of tension in the past. With this exception, it is hard to buy the notion that illegal immigration is the true underlying concern.
The real problem then, is not illegal immigration, or xenophobia, but Islamophobia. Advocates of this ban want to protect the dominant Burman Buddhist population. But they fail to recognize the reality that Burma is a multi-national state that can only survive if it offers equal rights to all of its citizens regardless of ethnicity or religion.
They see the issue in zero-sum terms where the growth of the Rohingya population will infringe upon the rights of Buddhists. The resulting policy reaction is one that legitimizes exclusion and violence. In the national security mentality of these advocates, the security provider is none other than the state (i.e. the military). In order to wipe the Rohingya out, they don’t mind delegating power back to the once-abusive patron under the justifications of “national interests” and their half-baked understanding of “realpolitik.”
A good example of this is the ‘969’ movement, a loosely organized Buddhist group that agitates for the protection of Buddhist privileges and strongly advocates the two-child limit. The group makes no distinction between Rohingya and other non-Rohingya Muslims in the country. The group calls for a boycott against businesses run by Muslims and distributes anti-Muslim propaganda, including pamphlets, religious sermons, DVDs, and Facebook posts. The group has also been accused of instigating recent anti-Muslim violence.
Political leaders in Burma appear to be balancing between the populist anti-Muslim stance and a more liberal position that also offers the benefit of placating the international community.
President Thein Sein’s spokesperson, for example, has distanced the government from the two-child policy by dismissing it as a local initiative. “We will look into it,” he has told the press — and that’s as far as the government is willing to go. The government, which desperately needs international acceptance and actively seeks assistance, was quick to affirm that it would take international standards into consideration when it implements a population policy in the future. Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi also weighed in, saying, with the caution characteristic of her approach to this issue: “If this [reported policy] is true, then it is against the law.” Aung San Suu Kyi, who is a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, has faced criticism for failing to defend minority rights.
The political or moral considerations behind the various stances are, however, ultimately irrelevant. What is important is that the government, at all levels, must act firmly and clearly in the defense of the rights of its citizens, regardless of their backgrounds.
The response of the international community has been commendable. The United Nations says that imposing a two-child limit on a Muslim minority group would be discriminatory and a violation of elementary human rights. The United States has also made it clear that it opposes any such “coercive and discriminatory birth limitation policy.”
Both reformist incumbents and opposition groups must be reminded that any democratization process entails defining the demos, those who constitute the citizenry of the country. This is a fundamental point that has nothing to do with national security. The government must address the two potentially explosive questions integral to any democratic transition: Who is a citizen of the state, and how are the rules of citizenship defined? How history ultimately judges Burma’s transition will depend on how well and fairly they address these questions.
This article first appeared on June 7, 2013 on Foreign Policy’s Transitions Blog.
Min Zin is a PhD candidate at the University of California, Berkeley. This commentary originally appeared on the Foreign Policy blog “Transitions.” The views expressed here are those of the author.