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Burma to Review Birth Restrictions for Muslim Rohingyas

  • Daniel Schearf

An internally displaced Rohingya woman holds her newborn baby surrounded by children in the foreground of makeshift tents at a camp for Rohingya people in Sittwe, northwestern Rakhine State, Burma, May 13, 2013.

An internally displaced Rohingya woman holds her newborn baby surrounded by children in the foreground of makeshift tents at a camp for Rohingya people in Sittwe, northwestern Rakhine State, Burma, May 13, 2013.

Burmese authorities said they will review a policy in western Rakhine state that imposes birth limits on Muslims to control population growth. The policy, which limits Muslim Rohingyas to only two children has been condemned by rights activists and Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

In a Skype interview with VOA, Burmese presidential spokesman Ye Htut said central authorities first learned of the two-child limit for Muslim Rohingya from reports in foreign media. "We didn't have any information about this order. Only, we saw it on the international media," Ye Htut stated."So, we will check with the state government on this issue."

Restrictions only for Muslims

The birth restriction on Muslims and a limit of one wife, when the religion allows for four, were first reported last week in Burmese media.

Authorities in western Rakhine state say it is being implemented in two districts on the border with Bangladesh, where Rohingya Muslims are in the majority.

The birth limits are only for Muslims and date back to the previous military government, although enforcement varied.

State spokesman Win Myaing said the new push on the limitations is part of efforts at family planning recommended by a presidential commission in April to reduce tensions between Buddhists and Muslims.

But Human Rights Watch Deputy Asia Director Phil Robertson said, since 2005, Rakhine state border guards have sought to more strongly implement the rules.

"I think what they're trying to do is control the terms of debate, that they are saying this is 'what we've done and it's justified by the national government of Burma.' It falls on the national government of Burma to now respond and say whether this is their policy or not," added Robertson.

The Rakhine Commission is investigating the root cause of clashes between Buddhists and Muslims last year that left 200 dead and 140,000 displaced, most of them Rohingyas.

Controlling over population

The commission said a fast-growing Muslim population had raised Rakhine Buddhists' fears that they could soon be outnumbered and overruled in Burma's emerging democracy. It recommends better assimilating Muslims and family planning to limit the growth. But the commission warns any non-voluntary measures could cause more tensions.

Spokesman Ye Htut said President Thein Sein has not yet decided if he wants to support the birth restrictions. He said he will announce a position after talking to Rakhine authorities and studying the commission's recommendations.

"Up to now, we cannot say whether we support or not because we have to review all the recommendations made by the Rakhine commission on every issue. So, I cannot make that comment on particular case, whether we will (be) doing or not," said Ye Htut.

Human Rights abuse?

Rights groups condemned the two-child policy as one of many ongoing abuses against the Rohingya, who are not recognized as citizens in Burma despite many living there for generations.

Human Rights Watch said Rohingya's who want to register their marriage must promise to only have two children. Any more than two, or children born out of wedlock, are not able to go to school or receive government services.

The rights group said anyone caught breaking the two-child rule faces fines and jail time. To avoid the punishment, it said some Rohingya women have resorted to unsafe abortions.

Ye Htut dismisses the concerns of Human Rights Watch and its call for the policy to be abolished. "Most of their comment[s] are based on their one-sided information. So, what we are now trying to do is to implement the recommendation by the Rakhine commission and we will consider every aspect on these issue[s] from a human rights aspect and other local law and order, and also from the international norm[s] and standard[s]," Ye Htut said.

Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi on Monday said the two-child limit is discriminatory and a violation of human rights.