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Burma mobs put census in doubt as western aid workers flee violence

Foreign aid workers arrive in Yangon's airport after flying in from Sittwe, where mobs have been rampaging through streets. (Photograph: Gemunu Amarasinghe/AP)

By Kathleen E. McLaughlin
March 27, 2014

Angry Buddhist protesters rampage through streets as country's first census for 30 years opens up ethnic tensions

Burma's first census for 30 years is at risk of being derailed before it has even started, as renewed unrest in the country's west threatens to send foreign aid workers fleeing, making conditions impossible for counters.

The government is planning a 12-day marathon operation from Sunday in which 100,000 teachers will fan out across Burma to count the population and draw out information such as childbirth and employment rates as well as migration figures.

But the count has threatened to open further the ethnic rifts that have repeatedly spilled over into deadly violence in the west of the country. Western aid workers have been targeted by angry Buddhist protesters, triggering a strict curfew and warnings from international groups they were were formulating evacuation plans.

"These are unarmed schoolteachers," said David Mathieson, a senior Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch, of the census team. "I wouldn't be inclined to send them out if they might have their skulls cracked.

"It's still not too late for the government to call off the entire process," he said.

There is little doubt Burma is in need of a proper census, having last tallied its population in 1983. Even the number of people – believed to be around 60 million – is unknown. But the census is controversial because it opens up the thorny issue of ethnicity and crucially gives the marginalised Muslim Rohingya minority a chance to have their presence in Burma validated for the first time.

There are more than a million Rohingya in Burma, and 140,000 have lived in camps in Rakhine since ethnic riots and clashes with Buddhists nearly two years ago. They will not be counted as Burmese citizens on the census, nor will they be listed among the 135 officially designated ethnic categories. But the census will acknowledge they exist by allowing an "other" category, allowing people to identify themselves as Rohingya.

"We are the Rohingya. We have no other race name. We simply have no choice but to write in our proper name," said Rasheed, deputy principal of an Islamic school in one of the camps. "We are losing every one of our rights, our health care, our education. We are being discriminated against from every corner," he continued. "We have asked our people to stay here and to cooperate with the census and hope that it could help us eventually."

But the validation of the Rohingya has angered Buddhists and sparked new protests in which hundreds assailed the offices and homes of international aid workers.

So great is the desire to be formally recognised in the head count, that in recent days the massive outflow of Rohingya refugees has slowed to a trickle.

Although around 30,000 people fled the camps via trafficking boats last year, and as many as 10,000 more already this year, outflow has all but stopped in recent weeks, said fishermen on the shore. Though life in the dusty camps is often unbearable, the Rohingya want to stay until they are counted.

At one of the largest Rohingya displacement camps, a group of educated men who were once merchants in downtown Sittwe gathered over tea and samosas to discuss how they would cooperate with the census takers and encourage others to have their voices heard.

"Life in this camp has no future," said U Maung Dru, 52. "There is no clinic, no education, many people do not have enough food."

"We hope that after this census, we might have some human rights in the future."

International watchdog groups have warned the census could lead to unrest and violence since it was announced last month.

The Transnational Institute, a global thinktank based in Amsterdam, has called this the most significant census of Burma's people since that conducted by the British government in 1931.

"However, by using flawed designations that date from the colonial era and ignoring the considerable complexity of the present political situation in Myanmar, the census is likely to raise ethnic tensions at precisely the moment that peace negotiations are focused on building trust," the group wrote.

The international crisis group has also warned about dangers presented by the census, calling last month for Burma's government and the United Nations (which is helping lead the count and funding part of the census) to scale back questions about ethnicity. The current 41-point census is "overly complicated and fraught with danger," ICG said in an alert.

"Myanmar is one of the most diverse countries in the region, and ethnicity is a complex, contested and politically sensitive issue, in a context where ethnic communities have long believed that the government manipulates ethnic categories for political purposes," the crisis group said.

But an official from the UN population fund (UNFPA) said Burma's development depends on a complete and accurate census.

"Myanmar has not conducted a census for 30 years, and hence lacks information that is essential to planning for inclusive development … that can benefit all ethnic groups," said Janet Jackson, UNFPA country representative in Burma. "Postponing the census now would likely mean a delay of several more years in making this data available to planners, undermining development efforts and the reform process."

Jackson said census takers and community leaders have had extensive training to help mitigate any risks. The overarching goal of the census is to help Burma's government plan the future for everything from infrastructure and roads to schools and hospitals.

"The census is a critical step in the country's development process," said Jackson. "It has the potential to enable evidence-driven, transparent and responsive planning and policy-making for the first time in the country's history."

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