News / Asia

Burma's First Census in 30 Years Completed Amid Controversy

Volunteers attend a census training course at a school in Rangoon, March 23, 2014.
Volunteers attend a census training course at a school in Rangoon, March 23, 2014.
A group of women dressed in green sarong-like longyis and simple white blouses stand around a table piled with census forms entering neat notations on spread sheets by hand.
The women will have to go through 37,579 family census forms in the next 24 hours, according to officials, using hand calculators to tally the total numbers because they have no access to computers.
The scene underscores the challenges of carrying out a census in this poor and sprawling nation dominated by Buddhists.
The census - the first in three decades - has long been mired in controversy, much of it concerning the counting of Rohingya, Muslims who lives in western Rakhine state and often described by the United Nations as one of the most persecuted minorities in the world.
Officials say some 100,000 school teachers have fanned out across Burma, also known as Myanmar, on foot collecting data for the census, expected to count from 48 million to 65 million citizens.
On the final day of the census, estimated by rights groups and other groups to cost $74 million, volunteers went door-to-door in Rangoon, Burma's commercial capital.
Trucks with loudspeakers blared reminders for people to be counted and shops, buildings, ferries and busses were plastered with posters encouraging people to take part.
Susu Win, a volunteer tallying numbers in Rangoon, said she worked 12 hours a day and interviewed, on average, 100 families.
“The biggest problem is that we had to climb eight, nine floors in four to five buildings a day with no elevators,” she said.
Rights organizations and ethnic groups in Burma have called for the census to be postponed until it can be carried out fairly and safely.
The government had promised international sponsors that ethnic groups could choose their classification.
But a day before the census kicked off, presidential spokesman Ye Htut indicated that use of the term Rohingya would be prohibited.
In Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine state, Buddhists protested against the use of the term Rohingya, saying it would give them legitimacy.
The government describes the Rohingya as Bengalis and says many are illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh.
Rohingya Stress Ethnic Origin
Rohingya activist Wai Wai Nu, who says her family has been in Burma for centuries, said census-takers at her Rangoon home refused to list her as Rohingya, saying it was not permitted.
When she demanded written proof, she was told it was a verbal order.
The 27-year-old activist said the vast majority of Rohingyas insisted on being recorded by their ethnicity.
“Our ethnic identity is very important to us for getting equal rights with other people in Myanmar,” she said.
Repression during nearly 50 years of military rule kept ethnic tensions in check in one of Asia's most diverse countries. But these have burst into the open since 2011, when a quasi-civilian government took power.
The country has endured several spasms of violence pitting Rakhine Buddhists against Rohingya. At least some of the attacks were blamed on Buddhist extremist groups.
Critics argue that Myanmar's government and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) knew the census would be problematic before it began, but ignored the concerns.
Rights groups say the government is deliberately preventing the Rohingyas from being counted.
“The writing was on the wall and everyone knew it,” said Matthew Smith, executive director of Fortify Rights, a rights group based in Southeast Asia.
“The government never had any intention of recognizing the Rohingya ethnicity through the census.”
Trouble broke out last month, when 400 rioters in Sittwe, Rakhine's regional capital, damaged offices, homes, warehouses, and vehicles belonging to aid groups and the U.N.
International aid workers withdrew.
The problem is not limited to the Rohingyas.
The government and UNFPA have been criticized for basing the census on 135 officially recognized ethnic groups. Critics say that is outdated and inaccurate.
Ethnic groups say their political representation and claims to ethnicity could be compromised if they are undercounted.
According to Human Rights Watch, several armed ethnic rebel groups said they would bar census-takers from their territory.
Questions have been raised about the validity of the census.
“If UNFPA and the government heeded warnings to at least remove the ethnic and religious questions, then a partial census would have been better than none at all,” said Smith.
“At this point, it would've been better for the country if the enumerators stayed home.”

You May Like

Video Americans, Tourists, Reflect on Meaning of Thanksgiving

VOA garnered opinions from several people soon after November 13 Paris attacks, which colored many of their thoughts

Video Thais Send Security Concerns Down the River

In northern Thailand, the annual tradition of constructing floating baskets to carry away the year’s bad spirits highlights the Loy Krathong festival

Video Tree Houses - A Branch of American Dream

Workshops aimed at teaching people how to build tree houses have become widely popular in America in recent years

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continuesi
Ayesha Tanzeem
November 25, 2015 10:46 PM
One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continues

One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video Islamic State Unfazed by Losses in Iraq, Syria

Progress in the U.S.-led effort to beat Islamic State on its home turf in Iraq and Syria has led some to speculate the terror group may be growing desperate. But counterterror officials say that is not the case, and warn the recent spate of terror attacks is merely part of the group’s evolution. VOA National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more.

Video Taiwan Looks for Role in South China Sea Dispute

The Taiwanese government is one of several that claims territory in the hotly contested South China Sea, but Taipei has long been sidelined in the dispute, overshadowed by China. Now, as the Philippines challenges Beijing’s claims in an international court at The Hague, Taipei is looking to publicly assert its claims. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.

Video Syrian Refugees in US Express Concern for Those Left Behind

Syrian immigrants in the United States are concerned about the negative tide of public opinion and the politicians who want to block a U.S. plan to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees. Zlatica Hoke reports many Americans are fighting to dispel suspicions linking refugees to terrorists.

Video After Paris Attacks, France Steps Up Fight Against IS

The November 13 Paris attacks have drawn increased attention to Syria, where many of the suspected perpetrators are said to have received training. French President Francois Hollande is working to build a broad international coalition to defeat Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video US, Cambodian Navies Pair Up in Gulf of Thailand

The U.S. Navy has deployed one of its newest and most advanced ships to Cambodia to conduct joint training drills in the Gulf of Thailand. Riding hull-to-hull with Cambodian ships, the seamen of the USS Fort Worth are executing joint-training drills that will help build relations in Southeast Asia. David Boyle reports for VOA from Preah Sihanouk province.

Video Americans Sharpen Focus on Terrorism

Washington will be quieter than usual this week due to the Thanksgiving holiday, even as Americans across the nation register heightened concerns over possible terrorist threats. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports new polling data from ABC News and the Washington Post newspaper show an electorate increasingly focused on security issues after the deadly Islamic State attacks in Paris.

Video World Leaders Head to Paris for Climate Deal

Heads of state from nearly 80 countries are heading to Paris (November 30-December 11) to craft a global climate change agreement. The new accord will replace the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change that expired in 2012.

Video Uncertain Future for Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Illinois

For the trickle of Syrian refugees finding new homes in the Midwest city of Chicago, the call to end resettlement in many U.S. states is adding another dimension to their long journey fleeing war. Organizations working to help them integrate say the backlash since the Paris attacks is both harming and helping their efforts to provide refugees sanctuary. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

Video Creating Physical Virtual Reality With Tiny Drones

As many computer gamers know, virtual reality is a three-dimensional picture, projected inside special googles. It can fool your brain into thinking the computer world is the real world. But If you try to touch it, it’s not there. Now Canadian researchers say it may be possible to create a physical virtual reality using tiny drones. VOA’s George Putic reports.

Video New American Indian Village Takes Visitors Back in Time

There is precious little opportunity to experience what life was like in the United States before its colonization by European settlers. Now, an American Indian village built in a park outside Washington is taking visitors back in time to experience the way of life of America's indigenous people. Carol Pearson narrates this report from VOA's June Soh.

Video Even With Hometown Liberated, Yazidi Refugees Fear Return

While the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar has been liberated from Islamic State forces, it's not clear whether Yazidi residents who fled the militants will now return home. VOA’s Mahmut Bozarslan talked with Yazidis, a religious and ethnic minority, at a Turkish refugee camp in Diyarbakır. Robert Raffaele narrates his report.

Video Nairobi Tailors Make Pope Francis’ Vestments

To ensure the pope is properly attired during his visit, the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops asked the Dolly Craft Sewing Project in the Nairobi slum of Kangemi to make the pope's vestments, the garments he will wear during the various ceremonies. Jill Craig reports.

Video Cross-Border Terrorism Puts Europe’s Passport-Free Travel in Doubt

The fallout from the Islamic State terror attacks in Paris has put the future of Europe’s passport-free travel area, known as the "Schengen Zone," in doubt. Several of the perpetrators were known to intelligence agencies, but were not intercepted. Henry Ridgwell reports from London European ministers are to hold an emergency meeting Friday in Brussels to look at ways of improving security.

Video El Niño Brings Unexpected Fish From Mexico to California

Fish in an unexpected spectrum of sizes, shapes and colors are moving north, through El Niño's warm currents from Mexican waters to the Pacific Ocean off California’s coast. El Nino is the periodic warming of the eastern and central Pacific Ocean. As Faiza Elmasry tells us, this phenomenon thrills scientists and gives anglers the chance of a once-in-a-lifetime big catch. Faith Lapidus narrates.

Video Terrorism in Many Forms Continues to Plague Africa

While the world's attention is on Paris in the wake of Friday night's deadly attacks, terrorism from various sides remains a looming threat in many African countries. Nigerian cities have been targeted this week by attacks many believe were staged by the violent Islamist group Boko Haram. In addition, residents in many regions are forced to flee their homes as they are terrorized by armed militias. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Study: Underage Marriage Rate Higher for Females in Pakistan

While attitudes about the societal role of females in Pakistan are evolving, research by child advocacy group Plan International suggests that underage marriage of girls remains a particularly big issue in the country. VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem reports how such marriages leads to further social problems.

VOA Blogs

Day in Photos

A dog, with his fur dyed green and wearing antlers made out of red fabric, poses for a photograph before participating in the Thanksgiving Day Parade in El Paso, Texas, United States, Nov. 26, 2015.

A dog, with his fur dyed green and wearing antlers made out of red fabric, poses for a photograph before participating in the Thanksgiving Day Parade in El Paso, Texas, United States, Nov. 26, 2015.