YANGON, Myanmar – Authorities in Myanmar’s western Rakhine state have imposed a two-child limit for Muslim Rohingya families, a policy that does not apply to Buddhists in the area and comes amid accusations of ethnic cleansing in the aftermath of sectarian violence.
Local officials said Saturday that the new measure would be applied to two Rakhine townships that border Bangladesh and have the highest Muslim populations in the state. The townships, Buthidaung and Maundaw, are about 95 percent Muslim.
The unusual order makes Myanmar perhaps the only country in the world to impose such a restriction on a religious group, and is likely to fuel further criticism that Muslims are being discriminated against in the Buddhist-majority country.
China has a one-child policy, but it is not based on religion and exceptions apply to minority ethnic groups. India briefly practiced forced sterilization of men in a bid to control the population in the mid-1970s when civil liberties were suspended during a period of emergency rule, but a nationwide outcry quickly shut down the program.
Rakhine state spokesman Win Myaing said the new program was meant to stem rapid population growth in the Muslim community, which a government-appointed commission identified as one of the causes of the sectarian violence.
Although Muslims are the majority in the two townships in which the new policy applies, they account for only about 4 percent of Myanmar’s roughly 60 million people.
The measure was enacted a week ago after the commission recommended family planning programs to stem population growth among Muslims, Win Myaing said. The commission also recommended doubling the number of security forces in the volatile region.
“The population growth of Rohingya Muslims is 10 times higher than that of the Rakhine (Buddhists),” Win Myaing said. “Overpopulation is one of the causes of tension.”
Sectarian violence in Myanmar first flared nearly a year ago in Rakhine state between the region’s Rakhine Buddhists and Muslim Rohingya. Mobs of Buddhists armed with machetes razed thousands of Muslim homes, leaving hundreds of people dead and forcing 125,000 to flee, mostly Muslims.
Witnesses and human rights groups say riot police stood by as crowds attacked Muslims and burned their villages.
New York-based Human Rights Watch has accused authorities in Rakhine of fomenting an organized campaign of “ethnic cleansing” against the Rohingya.
Since the violence, religious unrest has morphed into a campaign against the country’s Muslim communities in other regions.
Containing the strife has posed a serious challenge to President Thein Sein’s reformist government as it attempts to make democratic reforms after nearly half a century of harsh military rule. It has also tarnished the image of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been criticized for failing to speak out strongly in defense of the country’s embattled Muslim community.
The central government has not made any statement about the two-child policy, which was introduced at a local level. Calls seeking comment Saturday from two government spokesmen were not immediately returned, but Rakhine state official Myo Than said all local policies require “consent from the central government.”
Win Myaing said authorities had not yet determined how the measures – which include a ban on polygamy – will be enforced. The policy will not apply yet to other parts of Rakhine state, which have smaller Muslim populations.
In its report issued last month, the government-appointed commission wrote: “One factor that has fueled tensions between the Rakhine public and (Rohingya) populations relates to the sense of insecurity among many Rakhines stemming from the rapid population growth of the (Rohingya), which they view as a serious threat.”
Predominantly Buddhist Myanmar does not include the Rohingya as one of its 135 recognized ethnicities. It considers them to be illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and denies them citizenship. Bangladesh says the Rohingya have been living in Myanmar for centuries and should be recognized there as citizens.
China has been carrying out a planned birth policy since the late 1970s, generally limiting one child to urban couples and no more than two to rural families, to stem rapid population growth that Beijing believes is not sustainable economically and environmentally.