Census Raises New Questions over Legitimacy of Birthrate Law

By Yen Saning 15 June 2015

RANGOON—Newly released census data revealing steady birthrates has renewed speculation over the motivations behind a recently enacted population control law, as some critics have implored lawmakers to offer a fact-based explanation for how the new provisions might be put to use.

The Population Control Law, which was signed by President Thein Sein in late May, has drawn criticism from the outset for what rights groups view as curbs on reproductive rights and the law’s potential to target minorities.

First proposed by the nationalist Buddhist organization Ma Ba Tha, the law was part of a highly contested group of four bills called the Protection of Race and Religion package. The population Control Law was the first to pass, granting local authorities the right to petition for permission to impose three-year birth spacing in select communities. The remaining three bills call for restrictions on interfaith marriage, religious conversion and monogamy.

The Population Control Law, which carries no punitive measures, was proposed and rushed through Parliament on the grounds that it would reduce maternal and infant mortality rates. The law was passed with such expediency, in fact, that it was approved before Burma even had concrete data about fertility and child mortality; results of the country’s first census in more than three decades were published several days after it was signed into law.

While predicated on improving women’s health, the law was widely viewed as a means of controlling minority populations. A leading proponent of the legislation, the firebrand monk U Wirathu, has even admitted that the law could serve the added purpose of preventing growth among the Rohingya population, a Muslim minority in western Burma that are predominantly stateless.

Census data firmly supports that explanation: the results show average fertility rates in Burma, with no major discrepancies in comparison with other countries in the region, yet the Rohingya account for the only substantial group of persons in Burma for whom policymakers still have no concrete information.

Backtracking on its promises to international donors, the Burmese government did not allow Rohingya to identify as such in census surveys, demanding that they instead called themselves “Bengali.” According to the census report, the government “made this decision in the interest of security and to avoid the possibility of violence occurring due to communal tensions.” As a result, the Rohingya population was not enumerated, and was estimated by the Ministry of Immigration and Population to number about 1.1 million. All other census data—detailed information about health, education and housing—does not exist for the marginalized group, just as their preferred name cannot be found anywhere within the 277-page document, where future researchers would be able to reference it.

In short, no one actually knows if birth rates are higher among the Rohingya population than they are elsewhere, precisely because the government did not allow that information to be quantified. What is known is that birthrates in most states and regions are actually quite normal: 2.29 children per woman, rising to 4.03 among married women. The report indicates that women are generally now marrying later, hence they are having slightly fewer children, as has happened in much of the world.

The drop in fertility is neither extreme nor abnormal for the region, nor is the rate so high as to warrant birthing restrictions. Moreover, critics argue that such restrictions would likely be ineffective without access to quality healthcare and safe birth control methods. On the contrary, it has been argued that limiting births could lead to unsafe abortions or misuse of contraceptives.

In keeping with global trends, women in rural areas have more children (an average of 2.5 compared to 1.8 in urban areas). State and divisional variations also adhere to this trend; fertility is lowest in Rangoon and Mandalay divisions, while they are comparable in all other parts of the country except for Chin State, which has the highest birthrate at 4.4.

When confronted with the information, one of the law’s principal architects said only that it should be there in case it is ever needed, explaining that in areas where child mortality is high, women “lack knowledge” or are far from a hospital, “the local authorities can report it to the state, and the state can enforce this law.”

In contrast, an activist named Salai Isaac Khen, the ethnic Chin director of the Gender and Development Initiative, argued that communities with little access to health and education would be better served by more schools and hospitals, instead of using resources to prevent them from procreating. Assessing actual needs of communities, he suggested, is a more appropriate task for local government.

“I think that township authorities are not in a position to determine whether a law like this should be used or not,” Salai Isaac Khen told The Irrawaddy, explaining his belief that, if anything, minority populations should receive support for population growth. Chin State, he pointed out, currently has the highest birth rate in the country, though its total population remains low at less than half a million.

“The population should not be lower, it should be growing,” he said, remarking that pre-reform policies are believed to have already diminished minority populations. “Looking at [the data from] all states and divisions, the population must grow.”