Burma’s New Population-Control Law Calls Recent ‘Reforms’ Into Question

By Patrick Goodenough | May 20, 2015 | 4:31am EDT
President Obama meets with Burmese President Thein Sein at the parliament building in Rangoon on Monday, November 19, 2012. (Official White House photo by Pete Souza)

(CNSNews.com) – Burma’s president is about to sign a law giving the government far-reaching powers in determining the size and spacing of families.

This comes six months after Burma hosted a regional summit attended by President Obama, something that was seen as a further step towards Burma’s return to international respectability.

The U.S. and other Western governments have hailed the formerly military-ruled nation’s supposed transition to democracy, and Obama in late 2012 became the first American president to visit the Southeast Asian nation.

Earlier that year his administration announced an easing of sanctions in recognition of reforms, but a senior U.S. official stressed that the move could be “reversed quickly if there is backtracking.”

The new law, passed by Burma’s parliament last week, is the first of four controversial bills dealing with population control, religious conversions, interreligious marriage and polygamy.

Critics say that, together, they threaten to target religious and ethnic minorities in the Buddhist-majority country, also known as Myanmar, where minorities like Rohingya Muslims and Kachin and Karen Christians have long faced discrimination.

The Rohingyas’ plight in particular has drawn attention in recent weeks, as thousands of people have taken to the sea to seek refuge in neighboring countries, only to be turned away by Thai, Indonesian and Malaysian authorities. (Indonesia and Malaysia relented on Wednesday.)

Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken is due to visit Burma on Wednesday for talks with the military-backed government and civil society leaders. Early this month he hosted Burma’s parliamentary speaker in Washington, where according to the State Department he raised concern about the four draft bills.

The population control law empowers the government to limit reproductive rates in certain parts of the country if it determines that regional development is being negatively affected by birth rates or population size. Rohingya have already long been prohibited from having more than two children, although the restriction has been unevenly enforced.

A contentious provision calls for women to wait three years between births – a spacing which officials are attempting to justify by pointing to a 2005 World Health Organization recommendation that couples space births two to three years apart “to reduce the risk of adverse maternal and child health outcomes.”

The package of four laws was drafted on the instructions of President Thein Sein, a retired military general, after a radical nationalist Buddhist group garnered more than two million signatures in support of the initiative.

Advocates of the measure deny it will be abused, but critics say no matter how it is enforced it will violate the right to privacy as well as a woman’s right to choose when and how many children to have.

Campaigners moreover suspect religious and ethnic minorities will be targeted as authorities make decisions about birth limits in specific regions.

“Activists with a racist, anti-Muslim agenda pressed for this population law, so there is every reason to expect it to be implemented in a discriminatory way,” said Human Rights Watch’s Asia director, Brad Adams.

“Passing the population bill would make a mockery of the claim that Burma is still on the path to reform.”

State Department spokesman Jeff Rathke said Tuesday the measure “could provide a legal basis for discrimination through coercive, uneven application of birth control policies.”

Rathke said the four laws, if enacted, “could be enforced in a manner that would undermine respect for reproductive rights, women’s rights, and religious freedom.”

His statement did not directly call on Thein not to sign the law, however. Rather it urged the government to ensure that it was applied in a way that ensures the protection of all people and upholds international human rights commitments.

Marriage restrictions

The other three bills in the package are also controversial.

One would require a non-Buddhist man to convert to Buddhism before marrying a Buddhist woman unless the woman is able to obtain official permission to marry outside the family faith. A man convicted of persuading his Buddhist wife to change her religion could serve prison time.

After nearly 100 Burmese human rights groups joined in opposing the proposed marriage law, some organizers were threatened with harm and denounced by Buddhist ultra-nationalists as traitors.

“The dangerous impact of these bills has already been demonstrated when some women who spoke out against the bills were subject to sexual harassment and death threats,” Rathke said in Tuesday’s statement.

 The U.S. government has designate Burma as a “country of particular concern” for serious religious freedom violations since 1999. Countries on the CPC blacklist may face sanctions or other measures designed to encourage improvements.

Heritage Foundation research associate Olivia Enos said in a brief last month the U.S. government should actively oppose the four race and religion laws in Burma, continue to list Burma as a CPC, maintain the arms embargo, and urge Burma to recognize Rohingya as citizens.

“The introduction of the four … bills only confirms the international community’s suspicions that Burma is backsliding,” Enos said. “As the leader on international religious freedom, the U.S. should encourage Burma to respect the religious liberty of all its peoples.”

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