Myanmar takes flak for new population measure seen assailing Rohingyas

(Photo: REUTERS / Soe Zeya Tun)Ashin Wirathu (C), Buddhist monk and leader of the 969 Movement, takes part in protest against visiting United Nations Special Rapporteur on Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, in Yangon January 16, 2015. Rakhine activists and hundreds of Buddhist monks demonstrated against the United Nations for urging Myanmar's government to give Rohingyas citizenship, local media reported

Myanmar has approved a contentious population control measure strongly supported by some Buddhist organizations despite vehement objections by local women's rights groups and the international community.

Myanmar President Thein Sein signed the Health Care for Population Control Law on May 19, State media reported, the Myanmar Times said.

The measure allows local authorities to ask the president to implement the law if their "resources are unbalanced because of a high number of migrants in the area, a high population growth rate and a high birth rate."

The law requires women to have birth-spacing of least 36 months between the birth of a child and is viewed by critics as targeting ethnic minorities .

While it adheres to guidelines prescribed by the World Health Organization, critics of the measure noted that the law is vague on whether it was mandatory for all women.

The law is likewise silent on punishments should a woman disregard the law.

In an interview with Myanmar Times, Deputy Health Minister Thein Thein Htay lauded the new law, saying it will help the country improve the state of women's reproductive health by slashing the high maternal mortality rate.

Citing official figures, the health executive said one-in-250 Myanmar women suffer from maternal death, while one in every 19 children under five years old die.

Rights groups lambasted the measure, saying the law will certainly be enforced on the Muslim Rohingya minority, which have been persecuted by extremist Buddhist nationalists.

"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, the Asia director of Human Rights Watch, in an interview with Myanmar Times.

Nationalist Buddhist monks from the Committee for the Protection of Nationality and Religion drafted the law, which is one of four other bills pending at parliament.

The other bills cover other aspects of religion such as regulating conversions and interfaith marriages, and banning extra-marital affairs.

One of the strongest campaigners is the Mandalay-based monk Wirathu, who said the law serves the purpose of prioritizing women's health and "stopping the Bengalis that call themselves Rohingya, who are trying to seize Rakhine State."

"The target is the Rohingya," said Khon Ja, a member of the Kachin Women's Peace Network, who lobbied against the law. She conceded, though, that the law could indeed apply to any ethnic community.

The plight of the Rohingya minority has caught worldwide attention after droves left Myanmar on boats.

Southeast Asian countries such as Malaysia and Thailand initially turned away Rohingyas, saying they could no longer handle the growing number of refugees.

But governments in the area reconsidered their decision after the Philippines expressed willingness to take in refugees and there was an international outrcy.

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