Described by its promoters as a healthcare bill aimed at improving maternal health and child welfare, Myanmar’s new population control law “ targets one religion, one population, in one area," according to Khin Lay of the Yangon-based Triangle Women Support Group.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) said the new law clearly targets the Rohingya who live in western Rakhine state, where they are not recognised as citizens and instead referred to as “Bengalis” or illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
"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 Brad Adams, head of Human Rights Watch's Asia office. "The population bill as well as the other 'race and religion' bills under consideration are likely to escalate repression and sectarian violence," he added.
Three similar bills relating to monogamy, religious conversion and interfaith marriage are currently being debated by parliament.
The Rohingya are considered by the United Nations to be one of the world’s most persecuted minorities. Tens of thousands of Rohingya have fled Myanmar in recent years, to escape sectarian violence as well as suffocating restrictions preventing them from travelling and working. In Thailand and Malaysia, authorities are discovering mass graves of migrants.
The legislation came under pressure from the Buddhist ultra-nationalist group the Committee for the Protection of Nationality and Religion, known as Ma Ba Tha. The group has stoked anti-Muslim sentiment by saying Muslim communities have high birth rates and will eventually overrun the predominately Buddhist country even though they currently represent less than 10 percent of the population.
The new Myanmar legislation would allow regional governments to introduce family planning regulations to lower birth rates in their states. Under the legislation, local authorities can survey their regions to determine if “resources are unbalanced because of a high number of migrants in the area, a high population growth rate and a high birth rate”. They can then ask the central government to impose laws making it compulsory for women to wait “at least 36 months” after giving birth before having another child.
Noble Peace Prize-winner, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi is yet to comment on the current migrant crisis, a silence observers attribute to fears over alienating voters in the Buddhist-majority nation ahead of elections slated for November.