A not-so-veiled effort to limit the population of this Muslim ethnic minority is the systematic denial of marriage licenses. Children born out of wedlock are rendered stateless, without citizenship or education.
SITTWE — Kyaw Kyaw Oo, 25, takes me to a safe place to talk — and because he fears the authorities here in Myanmar, he's not using his real name. A Rohingya, one of the world's most persecuted minorities, he has been waiting for permission to marry his girlfriend.
"I graduated three years ago, and I applied for permission to get married two years ago," he says. "I heard that if you pay a large amount of money, you can get permission immediately."
Failure to get a permit before marrying can result in a lengthy jail sentence. "One of my friends applied for the marriage permit," he says. "His documents were approved, but he didn’t have any money to pay the officials. So he didn't get his documents. But he went ahead with the marriage. The authorities found out and arrested him and put him in jail for seven years."
Myanmar, also known as Burma, is a country of many faiths, but Buddhism is the majority religion, whereas the Rohingya are Muslim. In 1994, the government issued an order restricting marriages for Rohingya. According to the Arakan Project, which records human rights abuses against them, marriage permits are only granted after paying bribes and long delays.
"For me, it's very clear that this is a tactic from the government to control the population," says the Arakan Project's Chris Lewa. "In one parliamentary session, the Ministry of Immigration explained that preventing marriages was a way to reduce population."
And as a result, there are many cases of illegal marriages among the Rohingya, he says. "We find that many young couples run to Bangladesh because they can't marry in Burma, and their parents can't pay the fee. In other cases, the couples continue their relationship without a permit. When the girl becomes pregnant, she has to abort the baby because it's living proof that they had an illegal marriage."
The government punishes Rohingya children by putting them on a "black list" if their parents don't have a marriage permit. This year alone, about 7,000 Rohingya children were born unregistered, according to the government. In total, there are an estimated 40,000 unregistered Rohingya children.
"The government has not issued a birth certificate for Rohingya children since the mid-1990s," Lewa says. "This means it will be difficult for families to prove that they were born inside the country. If a child is not registered, he can never get a identity card, he can't travel, and can't go to school. When he becomes an adult, he can't marry because he has no document."
In a letter to the United Nations, President Thein Sein said that the Burmese government was prepared to address the sensitive issue of Rohingya citizenship. He also promised to look at other issues such as work permits and granting freedom of movement for the Rohingya. But he didn't say anything about the marriage restrictions.
The Arakan Project is urging the government to tackle this issue. "They keep the children in hide-outs or send them out of the country," Lewa says. "We've heard stories of Rohingya children being left alone in Bangladesh refugee camps. It's a very sad situation for the children and the mothers. This marriage issue is a gross human rights abuse against the population."
Rohingya parents who do receive permission to marry are required to sign an agreement not to have more than two children.