Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, rights groups and Islamic leaders expressed dismay on Monday over plans by authorities in western Myanmar to revive a two-child limit on Muslim Rohingya families, a policy that does not apply to Buddhists and comes amid accusations of ethnic cleansing.
Over the weekend, authorities in strife-torn Rakhine state said they were restoring a measure imposed during past military rule that banned Rohingya families from having more than two children.
Details about the policy and how it will be enforced have not been released, sparking calls for clarity and concerns of more discrimination against a group the UN calls one of the world's most persecuted people.
"If true, this is against the law," said Suu Kyi, the opposition leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate. Suu Kyi has faced criticism for failing to defend the Rohingya following two waves of deadly sectarian violence last year.
She told reporters she had not heard details of the latest measure but, if it exists, "It is discriminatory and also violates human rights."
The policy applies to two Rakhine townships that border Bangladesh and have the highest Muslim populations in the state. The townships, Buthidaung and Maungdaw, are about 95% Muslim.
The order makes Myanmar perhaps the only country in the world to level such a restriction against a particular religious group, and is likely to bring 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.
For years, the Rohingya in Myanmar have faced a variety of heavy-handed restrictions. They needed permission to travel outside their villages, couples were required to have permission to marry, and were then limited to having two children. Any offspring that exceeded the regulation were "blacklisted" and refused birth registrations, and denied the right to attend school, travel and marry, according to a report by the Arakan Project, a Thailand-based advocacy group for the Rohingya.
Longstanding hatred toward the Rohingya erupted last year into mob violence in which Rakhine Buddhists armed with machetes razed thousands of Muslim homes, leaving hundreds of people dead and forcing 125,000 to flee, mostly Muslims.
The New York-based group Human Rights Watch has accused the government and security forces in Rakhine of fomenting an organized campaign of "ethnic cleansing" against the Rohingya.
Since the violence, the religious unrest has expanded into a campaign against Muslim communities in other areas, posing a serious challenge to President Thein Sein's reformist government as it attempts to implement democratic reforms after nearly half a century of harsh military rule.
Rakhine state spokesman Win Myaing said over the weekend the policy was meant to stem population growth in the Muslim community, which a government-appointed commission last month identified as one of the causes of the sectarian violence. He said authorities have not determined how the measure will be enforced, but it will be mandatory.
Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch called the development "outrageous," noting that the commission's report stated that any form of population control must be "voluntary" and conform to human rights standards.
"When one ethnic group starts talking about birth control for another group, it's quite chilling," he said. "This is a step precisely in the wrong direction - going exactly the wrong direction from reconciliation and respect for human rights."
Robertson expressed concern that the state government was trying to formalize what was previously more of a de facto practice.
"Now there is a movement to codify this by the state government," he said. "They're deepening the commitment of the government in these policies. It is a major step."
The government has not made any statement about the two-child policy since Rakhine state authorities quietly enacted the measure a week ago. Calls seeking comment from government spokesmen have not been returned.
Although Muslims are the majority in the two townships in which the policy applies, they account for only about 4% of Myanmar's roughly 60 million people.
Myanmar's government does not include the Rohingya as one of its 135 recognized ethnic minorities. 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.
"This restriction violates human rights," said Nyunt Maung Shein, head of Myanmar's Islamic Religious Affairs Council. "Even if it existed under the military regime, it should be considered inappropriate under the democratic system."
He cautioned that the measure could backfire and inflame already tense relations in Rakhine state.
"The authorities should be very cautious," he said. "If this is a step to ease tension between the communities, it will not produce the desired effect."