LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Myanmar's religious and ethnic minorities may be targeted, abused and suppressed by a proposed population control law which could be a serious setback for the country's maternal health advances, according to a U.S.-based human rights group.
The bill introduces the practice of birth spacing, requiring women to wait three years between pregnancies, which can curb maternal and child deaths, the Physicians for Human Rights said.
While Myanmar has one of the highest infant mortality rates in Southeast Asia, World Bank figures show, the government has taken action, including access to education and contraception to improve maternal and child health, the rights group said.
Yet the group said it was concerned that the bill, passed by Myanmar's parliament earlier this month and awaiting President Thein Sein's approval to become law, could strip women of the freedom and right to choose how they have children.
"We want to encourage lower fertility rates but it can't be done coercively or by suppressing the growth of marginalized groups," Widney Brown, Physicians for Human Rights' director of programs, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.
"If this bill is signed and applied selectively in areas where religious or ethnic minorities are already subjected to persistent and pervasive discrimination, we face a heightened risk of grave human rights violations."
Women could be forced into abortions and both men and women could be sterilized if the bill comes into force, Brown said.
"Without a clear non-coercion and non-discrimination clause, the bill should never have moved forward."
The Muslim Rohingya population in Myanmar's western Rakhine state are at particular risk of abuse, having been subjected to restrictions on marriage, registration of births, and many other human rights violations, Physicians for Human Rights said.
The bill could be an attempt to keep the Rohingya from having any children at all, Brown added.
Almost 140,000 of Myanmar's 1.1 million Rohingya, most of whom are stateless, remain displaced after deadly clashes with Buddhists in Rakhine in 2012.
The U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, said in a report published last month she had witnessed "abysmal" conditions at a camp where displaced Muslims were being held "for their own security".
Lee said the population control bill and proposed laws on religious conversion, inter-faith marriage and monogamy could worsen ethnic tensions following a government plan in February to revoke temporary identification "white cards" for minorities.
Myanmar's parliament voted earlier that month to grant white card holders, mostly Rohingya, the vote in a possible constitutional referendum, paving the way for their participation in a general election later this year.
But Buddhists protested against the plan in Yangon, the biggest city in Myanmar, arguing many of the white-card holders were illegal aliens. Shortly after the protest, the government announced it would revoke the white cards.
Reporting By Kieran Guilbert; Editing by Tim Pearce