YANGON – The President of Myanmar Thein Sein has personally signed off on a population control law that ethnic and women’s rights groups have condemned as sexist and racist.
The State-run media reported Saturday that Thein Sein approved the Population Control Healthcare Bill – under which women will be forced to wait three years between having children – the day before.
Ultra-nationalist Buddhist monks, who preach that Muslims are attempting to “breed” Buddhists out of existence, had pushed for the law as part of a group of four bills aimed at preserving Myanmar’s predominant religion.
The other proposed laws cover religious conversion, inter-religious marriage and monogamy.
The country has struggled with outbreaks of religious rioting since a democratic reform process began in 2011.
Critics say the new laws will increase tensions and risk being used selectively against ethnic minorities including Muslims such as the persecuted Rohingya minority.
In January, rights groups released a statement saying the laws would breach international human rights law and Myanmar’s own constitution, which says all citizens have the “right to freely profess and practice religion.”
The statement added: “Religion, family planning… and marriage are subjects integral to the private lives of people. The government cannot and should not control these areas of people’s lives through laws.”
A chorus of international voices has called for the draft laws to be scrapped. Last year Human Rights Watch accused Myanmar’s government of “stoking communal tensions” by considering them.
Meanwhile, A generation of young Rohingya Muslims are disappearing on boats to escape persecution and despair in Myanmar, leaving frantic parents behind clutching on to little more than photographs and fading hope that their children are safe.
Fragments of news of the boat people crisis gripping Southeast Asia has filtered into Ohn Daw Gyi displacement camp on the fringes of the Rakhine state capital Sittwe in western Myanmar, stirring panic among families from the stateless Rohingya minority.
Tun Hla Shwe’s 19-year-old daughter and her two small children have been missing on the seas for more than two months.
“We heard about the stranded boats. Some people said the crew throw people into the sea if they die. They do it if children die. When I heard about it, I thought that my two grandchildren may die,” he told AFP of the infants, aged two and four.
“They cannot even stand it if they don’t have a snack every five minutes. It has been more than two months. If they don’t eat anything they will die,” he said, breaking into sobs.
Tens of thousands have taken to the sea in recent years from Myanmar and Bangladesh, risking everything with people smugglers for the chance of a better future in Malaysia and beyond.
It is the largest regional exodus since Vietnamese fled in droves following the end of the Vietnam war.
But unwanted at home, they often encounter exploitation abroad, a trail of misery facilitated by a web of traffickers.
Many are Rohingya in Buddhist-majority Myanmar fleeing discrimination, poverty and the threat of violence in Rakhine state, where communal bloodshed and waves of arson attacks swept tens of thousands from their homes three years ago.
The displaced now live in camps in scrubland currently baking under a tropical sun and soon to bear the brunt of another monsoon season.
The Rohingya are not recognised in Myanmar where they are largely viewed as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, denied citizenship status by the government, and face a raft of restrictions on their movement and family size.