Upper House Passes Controversial ‘Population Control’ Bill

By Zue Zue 20 February 2015

RANGOON — Burma’s Upper House on Thursday passed the Population Control Bill, a piece of controversial legislation that aims to establish government control over women’s reproductive rights and grants authorities the power to identify regions where women will be encouraged to have only one baby every three years.

The bill was passed in the Upper House, which is dominated by the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and a bloc of military lawmakers, with 154 votes in favor and 12 opposed.

The bill is in the most advanced stage among a package of four bills dubbed the “Race and Religion Protection” legislation, which the government has been drafting after coming under pressure from an influential group of nationalist Buddhist monks, the Ma-Ba-Ta, who have been accused of spreading anti-Muslim hate speech and whipping up nationalism.

Deputy Attorney General Tun Tun Oo, whose office is involved in drafting the bills, told The Irrawaddy that the new bill would help improve health care services for women in impoverished regions.

“The bill is aimed at providing full health care services and education [for women] in poor regions. It is only for those who want to observe [rules] out of their own volition,” he said, adding, “The law carries no restrictions nor punitive actions against those do not want to obey” government rules on child birth.

Tun Tun Oo said families in areas considered by the government to be too poor to sustain certain population growth rates would have to comply with the new rules on child birth. “The bill has no restriction for those who can afford to raise [their children],” he added.

Khin Maung Yi, chairman of the Upper House Bill Committee and a USDP member, said, “We drafted this bill together with concerned organizations in line with international norms. The World Health Organization does suggest a 36-month-period of birth spacing. But there is no problem if this provision is not followed—there is no prohibition or penalty.”

Opposition lawmakers and human rights activists, however, criticized Upper House support for the bill, saying that it violated women’s basic rights, while the vaguely-worded legislation would give local authorities broad powers to apply population control measures in areas of ethnic or religious minorities.

Aung Kyi Nyunt, an Upper House lawmaker with the National League for Democracy, said the bill violated Burmese citizen’s individual rights as stipulated in the Constitution and contravened the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), to which Burma is a party.

He said he believed the Population Control Bill violated CEDAW Article 16(e), which states that women have full rights “to decide freely and responsibly on the number and spacing of their children and to have access to the information, education and means to enable them to exercise these rights.”

Susana Hla Hla Soe, from the Karen Women’s Action Group, said in a reaction there was no practical need for the bill as Burma is not experiencing rapid population growth, but rather a slowing.

Aung Myo Min, executive director of Equality Myanmar, said on Friday that he believed the bill had not been altered from the draft that had been circulated by the government in December. He warned that if passed into law it could have far-reaching consequences for women.

“Superficially it looks like it could be good, but… if you look closely they can use the law in specially designated areas… it gives full powers to local authorities to implement that [bill],” he said. “There are no criteria; the local authorities can make any decision. It can mean big interference on public life… the state interferes in the family life of the woman.”

In December, a group of 180 civil society groups voiced their concern over the “Race and Religion Protection” bills. A brief legal analysis by the groups said the Population Control Bill would violate CEDAW and the Convention on the Rights of a Child, while it warned that children born not in line with the rules of the bill would be at risk of not being registered by local authorities.

“The entire draft laws, including the definitions, are not clear, and could be viewed as being designed to target the country’s minority and ethnic populations,” the NGOs also said.

Aung Myo Min said the Race and Religion Protection bills were proposed because the government and ruling party were playing nationalist politics. “Now the nationalist movement is stronger, and so they want to use that law to gain more popularity and attack any movement or other political party that does not support that law,” he said.

The Ma-Ba-Ta gathered more than 2 million signatures in support of the Race and Religion Protection bills last year and President Thein Sein responded in December by forming a commission to draft the four bills and prepare them for parliamentary vote.

The Population Control Bill, some activists believe, could also be an attempt at controlling the Muslim majority areas of northern Arakan State, where approximately one million stateless Rohingya live. In 2013, local authorities in the area tried to introduce a two-child limit in Muslim-majority areas, claiming that the impoverished region had too high population growth rates.

Additional reporting by Paul Vrieze.