x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Myanmar government calls for family planning programmes to stem population growth among Muslims

Concerns expressed by Buddhists in the state over the rising population of Muslims they see as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh had 'undermined peaceful coexistence' between the two communities, government panel says in report.

YANGON // A government commission investigating sectarian violence in Myanmar has called for introducing family planning programmes to stem population growth among minority Muslims.

The panel partly blamed the rising population of Muslims in Rakhine state for clashes between Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims in June and October that left nearly 200 people dead.

Concerns expressed by Buddhists in the state over the rising population of Muslims they see as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh had "undermined peaceful coexistence" between the two communities, the panel said in a report. It said the introduction of family planning education should be voluntary, but "would go some way to mitigating" towards ameliorating the crisis.

But the report offered no concrete solutions for returning some 125,000 displaced Rohgingya Muslims to their homes, saying the widespread segregation of Buddhists and Muslims is a temporary fix that must be enforced for now. "While keeping the two communities apart is not a long-term solution, it must be enforced at least until the overt emotions subside," the report said.

Two outbreaks of unrest forced tens of thousands of people, mostly Muslims, to flee burning homes. The violence appeared to begin spontaneously, but by October had morphed into anti-Muslim pogroms across Rakhine state that spread last month into central Myanmar.

The report also called for a crackdown on hate speech and stepped-up aid for the displaced ahead of monsoon rains expected in May, and urged the government to determine the citizenship status of all those living in Rakhine state.

The issue has posed a major challenge to the government of president Thein Sein, who took office after a long-ruling military junta stepped down two years ago and has since embarked upon a series of widely praised reforms.

Most Rohingya are effectively stateless despite the fact that some have lived in Myanmar for generations. Predominantly Buddhist Myanmar does not include Rohingya as one of 135 recognised ethnicities.

The report did not use the word Rohingya, instead conforming to the government practice of calling the Rohingya "Bengalis", a reference to their reported South Asian roots.

Shwe Maung, a Rohingya member of parliament from Rakhine state, objected to the commission's terminology, saying that the word "Bengali" fails to reflect reality and people's sense of their own identity.

"The report is unfair," he said. "The usage and recommendations are similar to what Rakhine ethnic people have been demanding."

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said the report "fails to address the need for accountability for ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity that happened in last June and October".

Doubling the number of security forces "without first ensuring implementation of reforms to end those forces' impunity is a potential disaster".

Mr Robertson said family planning initiatives could be problematic if they are not implemented carefully.

"It's quite chilling to start talking about limiting births of one particular group," he said. "Will coercive measures get taken on the ground even if the union government says people can take this voluntarily?"