Despite fierce campaigning by women rights groups and an international outcry, Burma has introduced a birth control law which opponents say is aimed at ethnic minorities.
The controversial bill is one of four pieces of legislation driven by nationalist Buddhist monks who fear that the Muslim population is growing too quickly.
Under the law signed by president Thein Sein, governments of the 14 states and regions can request a presidential order so that local authorities can “organise” women to have a gap of 36 months between births.
The World Health Organisation recommends a similar policy to reduce child mortality. However, the law explicitly states that factors taken into consideration, as well as mortality rates and food shortage, can be “a high number of migrants in the area, a high population growth rate and a high birth rate”, that are seen negatively impacting regional development.
This has reinforced concerns of international observers that the law is aimed primarily at controlling birth rates of the Muslim community – which has been subject to birth-control policies in the past – and non-Buddhists more widely.
Burma’s attorney general Tun Shin, who is reported to be a London-educated Christian, will oversee the laws and will be supported by Khin Yi, a retired brigadier-general who was previously chief of police.
The Health Care for Population Control act does not identify any specific group within Burma’s web of ethnic communities and religions. But as the plight of thousands of Rohingya Muslim fleeing persecution unfolds, the US and human rights organisations have stepped up their criticism.
US deputy secretary of state Antony Blinken said at a press conference in Yangon on Saturday that he was “deeply concerned” about the four laws, that “could exacerbate ethnic and religious divisions.” He said the population law could be enforced in such a way as to undermine the reproductive rights of minorities.
Blinken lobbied president Thein Sein about the law on a visit last week while it had already been “discreetly” signed. “We are particularly concerned that the 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 US State Department said.
The three other laws would impose restrictions on religious conversion and inter-religious marriage and prohibit extra-marital affairs.