A new law in Myanmar that could be used to force women in the country to have children at least three years apart has come under fire by rights group, which have decried it as anti-Muslim. The Health Care for Population Control bill was signed into law last week by President Thein Sein, according to media reports.
“This law targets one religion, one population, in one area,” Khin Lay of the Yangon-based Triangle Women Support Group reportedly said on Monday, referring to the minority Muslim population in the country. However, the government has denied the allegations, reportedly calling it a law aimed at improving maternal and child health.
While the World Health Organization recommends having at least a two-year gap between pregnancies, in Myanmar -- where several Buddhist ultra-nationalist groups have stoked anti-Muslim sentiments by accusing the Muslim population of having extremely high birth rates -- the passage of such a law has become a highly controversial move.
“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,” Brad Adams, the Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said, in a statement released before the bill was passed. “The population bill as well as the other ‘race and religion’ bills under consideration are likely to escalate repression and sectarian violence.”
The law is expected to primarily affect women belonging to the minority Rohingya community. The Burmese government has long claimed that the nearly 1.3 million Rohingya Muslims, who reside primarily in the northern tip of Rakhine state, are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, making them essentially stateless. In recent years, this has resulted in frequent and violent clashes between the majority Buddhist and the minority Muslim population in Rakhine, killing hundreds and forcing thousands to flee the country to neighboring nations like Malaysia and Indonesia.
Rights groups have also expressed concerns over the vagueness of the law, which reportedly calls for the establishment of designated “health zones” where married couples would be helped in practicing birth spacing. However, it is not yet clear what, if any, punishments would be given to those who violate the law and whether pregnant women would be pressured to have an abortion.
“We are particularly concerned that the Health Care for Population Control Bill could provide a legal basis for discrimination through coercive, uneven application of birth control policies, and differing standards of care for different communities across the country,” the U.S. State Department said, in a statement released last week.