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.
    Reuters
    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

    New EU Asylum Rules Could Boost Rightists

    New regulations will seek to correct EU failures in dealing with migrant crisis, most notably inability to get member states to absorb a total of 160,000 refugees

    More Political Turmoil Likely in Iraq as Iran Waits in the Wings

    Analysts warn that Tehran, even though it may not be engineering the Sadrist protests in Baghdad, is seeking to leverage its influence on its neighbor

    Forced Anal Testing Case to Appear Before Kenya Court

    Men challenge use of anal examinations to ‘prove homosexuality’; practice accomplishes nothing except to humiliate those subjected to them, according to Human Rights Watch

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Tensions Rising Ahead of South China Sea Rulingi
    X
    May 03, 2016 5:16 PM
    As the Philippines awaits an international arbitration ruling on a challenge to China's claims to nearly all of the South China Sea, it is already becoming clear that regardless of which way the decision goes, the dispute is intensifying. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.
    Video

    Video Tensions Rising Ahead of South China Sea Ruling

    As the Philippines awaits an international arbitration ruling on a challenge to China's claims to nearly all of the South China Sea, it is already becoming clear that regardless of which way the decision goes, the dispute is intensifying. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.
    Video

    Video Painting Captures President Lincoln Assassination Aftermath

    A newly restored painting captures the moments following President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in 1865. It was recently unveiled at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, where America’s 16th president was shot. It is the only known painting by an eyewitness that captures the horror of that fateful night. VOA’s Julie Taboh tells us more about the painting and what it took to restore it to its original condition.
    Video

    Video Elephant Summit Results in $5M in Pledges, Presidential Support

    Attended and supported by three African presidents, a three-day anti-poaching summit has concluded in Kenya, resulting in $5 million in pledges and a united message to the world that elephants are worth more alive than dead. The summit culminated at the Nairobi National Park with the largest ivory burn in history. VOA’s Jill Craig attended the summit and has this report about the outcomes.
    Video

    Video Displaced By War, Syrian Artist Finds Inspiration Abroad

    Saudi-born Syrian painter Mohammad Zaza is among the millions who fled their home for an uncertain future after Syria's civil war broke out. Since fleeing Syria, Zaza has lived in Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan and now Turkey where his latest exhibition, “Earth is Blue like an Orange,” opened in Istanbul. He spoke with VOA about how being displaced by the Syrian civil war has affected the country's artists.
    Video

    Video Ethiopia’s Drought Takes Toll on Children

    Ethiopia is dealing with its worst drought in decades, thanks to El Nino weather patterns. An estimated 10 million people urgently need food aid. Six million of them are children, whose development may be compromised without sufficient help, Marthe van der Wolf reports for VOA from the Metahara district.
    Video

    Video Little Havana - a Slice of Cuban Culture in Florida

    Hispanic culture permeates everything in Miami’s Little Havana area: elderly men playing dominoes as they discuss politics, cigar rollers deep at work, or Cuban exiles talking with presidential candidates at a Cuban coffee window. With the recent rapprochement between Cuba and United States, one can only expect stronger ties between South Florida and Cuba.
    Video

    Video California Republicans Weigh Presidential Choices Amid Protests

    Republican presidential candidates have been wooing local party leaders in California, a state that could be decisive in selecting the party's nominee for U.S. president. VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports delegates to the California party convention have been evaluating choices, while front-runner Donald Trump drew hundreds of raucous protesters Friday.
    Video

    Video Kurdish Football Team Helps War-Torn City Cope

    With the conflict still raging across much of Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast, between the rebel PKK and the Turkish state, many Kurds are trying to escape the turmoil by focusing on the success of their football team Amedspor in Diyarbakir. The club is increasingly becoming a symbol for Kurds, not only in Diyarbakir but beyond. Dorian Jones reports from southeast Turkey.
    Video

    Video ‘The Lights of Africa’ - Through the Eyes of 54 Artists

    An exhibition bringing together the work of 54 African artists, one from each country, is touring the continent after debuting at COP21 in Paris. Called "Lumières d'Afrique," the show centers on access to electricity and, more figuratively, ideas that enlighten. Emilie Iob reports from Abidjan, the exhibition's first stop.
    Video

    Video Florida’s Weeki Wachee ‘Mermaids’ Make a Splash

    Since 1947, ‘mermaids’ have fascinated tourists at central Florida’s Weeki Wachee Springs State Park with their fluid movements and synchronized ballet. Performing underwater has its challenges, including cold temperatures and a steady current, as VOA’s Lin Yang and Joseph Mok report.
    Video

    Video Somali, African Union Forces Face Resurgent Al-Shabab

    The Islamic State terror group claimed its first attack in Somalia earlier this week, though the claim has not been verified by forces on the ground. Meanwhile, al-Shabab militants have stepped up their attacks as Somalia prepares for elections later this year. Henry Ridgwell reports there are growing frustrations among Somalia’s Western backers over the country’s slow progress in forming its own armed forces to establish security after 25 years of chaos.
    Video

    Video Nigerians Feel Bite of Buhari Economic Policy

    Despite the global drop in the price of oil, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari has refused to allow the country's currency to devalue, leading to a shortage of foreign exchange. Chris Stein reports from Lagos businessmen and consumers are feeling the impact as the country deals with a severe fuel shortage.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora