Human rights groups have decried government restrictions placed upon the families and children of the Rohingya group, amid confusion over an apparent ban in northern Rakhine State on Muslim families having more than two children.
A Rakhine State government spokesman last week retracted an earlier statement that a two-child policy had been put in place in Buthidaung and Maungdaw townships.
But rights groups and non-government organisations said existing restrictions on marriage and family planning do great harm to members of the Rohingya community, who are normally referred to as Bengalis in Myanmar.
“Local government authorities and the Na Sa Ka [border security force] oversee a web of tight regulations governing Rohingya,” Human Rights Watch said in a statement last week. “These include restrictions on travel, birth, death, immigration, migration, marriage and land ownership.”
Citing the need for “population control”, Muslim couples are sometimes forced to wait years for their marriage licence to be approved and are often forced to pay bribes to make it happen.
Several sources said that when marriage applications are rejected, Na Sa Ka officials use this as an opportunity to extort bribes from the “unregistered” couple.
But criticism of the government’s policies in northern Rakhine State has not only come from abroad. The Rakhine Investigation Commission said in its report released on April 29 that the requirement to get permission to marry “provide[d] a loophole for corruption” and has had “little practical impact”.
“The majority of the Bengali population marry in secret without the necessary administrative approval and children born under these circumstances remain unregistered,” the report said, adding that about 60,000 children in Rakhine State are unregistered as a result.
The United Nations Refugee Agency’s representative in Myanmar, Hans ten Feld, said these unregistered children have no access to even the most basic civil documents, such as identity cards and marriage certificates. In Rakhine State and elsewhere, a National Registration Card is needed to enrol in primary school and travel between states and regions.
“In short, given the pervasive administrative restrictions in day-to-day life, such as the need to present the [national registration card] pass [at] checkpoints, to access the market, to visit another state and as a vital proof of age in case of arrest/detention, unregistered children are [being] deprived of their basic rights,” Mr ten Feld told The Myanmar Times.
As with unregistered couples, families with unregistered children find themselves targets of extortion by the Na Sa Ka.
Vickie Hawkins, the Yangon representative for Médecins Sans Frontières in Yangon, said that in addition to harming the livelihoods of children and families the policies have ruinous effects on the health and safety of women in the region.
“We do see patients coming into our clinics with [illnesses] that are the consequence of unsafe abortions. ... We feel there is a link between these cases and the restrictive laws concerning [family planning],” she said, adding that the organisation’s doctors in Rakhine State have seen these types of cases consistently since it started working there 14 years ago.
U Shwe Maung, the Pyithu Hluttaw representative for Buthidaung, said policies that persecute a single group can have consequences for the entire country. “These laws only incite hatred. ... This kind of violence and discrimination will hold back the process of reforming the country.”