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Burma's Rohingya Face Census Dilemma

  • Gabrielle Paluch

Burma, also known as Myanmar, is conducting its first census in more than three decades, at a time when ethnic and religious tensions are high. Census workers are expected to record each person’s race and religion, which pose problems for ethnic Rohingya Muslims who are not recognized as Burmese citizens.

Burma's government does not officially recognize some ethnic groups that have long lived within its borders. But the upcoming census requires they be counted under one of the country’s officially recognized ethnicities.

Stateless ethnic Rohingya Muslims, most of whom are living in conflict-stricken Rakhine state, are among those who will have to identify as "other," and write in their ethnicity.

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Population Minister Khin Yi suggests that those who write in “Rohingya” could face prosecution for providing misinformation. He refers to the Rohingya as Bengali, reflecting government policy that considers them foreigners from Bangladesh. He does not expect problems in Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine.

"We did not do a test census in Sittwe, in Rakhine state because at the time there was a conflict between the two communities," he said. "We have since discussed with the two communities, Rakhine and Bengali, and they accept the census process, because the census process is all inclusive. Those who don't participate will lose their chance."

Observers worry that the ethnic and religious identification questions could worsen ostracism of some communities. But U.N. technical advisors say it is too late and too expensive to change the questionnaire.

In the lead up to the census, the extremist anti-Muslim monk Wirathu has delivered well-attended speeches in Rakhine state about protecting race and religion, and has led protests advocating a census boycott.

Here, Wirathu is accusing Muslims of targeting monks, and terrorizing good people. He says authorities should kick out international aid groups that help Muslims. He also says Muslims should be denied citizenship and marriage rights.

Many fear identifying as Rohingya will threaten their potential citizenship eligibility, but not identifying as Rohingya will leave their community underrepresented.

Zaw Aye is a minister for Rakhine Nationalities affairs, who is concerned about ongoing violence in his hometown. He says the situation will improve if people stop identifying themselves as Rohingya.

"Putting the name of a people that don't exist will cause violence," he said. "But if they're counted as Bengalis, there won't be any problems."

Kyaw Min is a Rohingya politician who says many fear identifying as Rohingya will threaten their legal status, but not identifying as Rohingya will leave their community underrepresented.

" I am Rohingya, I will enlist as Rohingya, I think the enumerators will also write me in as Rohingya, because they have the duty according to census law.," said Min. "Claiming an ethnicity is not the question of violence. Who will initiate the violence, it is the question."

Burma’s nationwide census begins at the end of this month

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