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In Myanmar Census, Rohingya Seek Mark of Approval

Displaced Muslims wait outside a humanitarian center for aid at a camp on the outskirts of Sittwe, Rakhine state, in western Myanmar on Feb. 26. (Photo: Agence France-Presse/Getty Images)

By Shibani Mahtani
March 26, 2014

SITTWE, Myanmar – Names in Myanmar have always been a point of contention. After years of rule by a military junta that changed the country’s name from Burma, many still can’t even agree on what it should be called.

But a new naming conundrum raised by an upcoming census is threatening to further destabilize the country’s troubled Rakhine state, home to the bulk of Myanmar’s much-maligned Rohingya Muslim minority.

When enumerators begin collecting census data later this month, they will ask responders to pick from a list of 135 ethnic groups, or opt for code number 914 for “others,” which will allow them to write in their own.

Rohingya will not be among the choices, so many say they will self-identify.

“I will use Code 914 to fill out that I am Rohingya, because that is my ethnicity,” said Saw Naing, a Muslim man in Buthidaung township in northern Rakhine state.

Think tanks and others have warned, however, that the survey’s questions on ethnicity will only deepen tensions in already fractured states like Rakhine, where ethnicity and religion are exceptionally sensitive.

The census, an ambitious $75 million undertaking, is Myanmar’s first in more than three decades. Officials say the data collected from the survey, which is being overseen by the United Nations Population Fund and the government, will help in planning aid programs and setting budget allocations.

U.N. and government officials say they aim to count every single person within the country’s borders. That includes the Muslim Rohingya, a group the government has not officially recognized as native to Myanmar, and, as such, is denied most rights offered to citizens, such as access to healthcare and land ownership.

Because the Rohingya are not included in Myanmar’s 1982 citizenship law, they are considered stateless, lacking the rights afforded to citizens either in Bangladesh, where the Myanmar government claims they are from, or Myanmar, which they claim as their homeland.

Buddhists in that state say the Rohingya should be called “Bengali,” a term favored by most in Myanmar, including the government. The majority of Burmese consider the Rohingya illegal foreigners, and they say the term Bengali accurately identifies them as immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh. This term also will not be among the list of available ethnicities on the census.

On March 16, according to local media reports, Buddhist monks and residents in 13 towns across Rakhine state held protests opposing the use of the word Rohingya anywhere in the census since they say including it as an option will legitimize the Rohingya’s existence in the country. A similar protest is being planned in Yangon later Wednesday.

Last week, the Venerable Wirathu – a monk and leader of the “969 movement” that has been credit for the rise of anti-Muslim sentiment across the country – toured Rakhine state passing out pamphlets that urged Buddhists there to demonstrate against the census.

Meanwhile, Myanmar’s Minister of Immigration, Khin Yi, has said repeatedly that the census will be used primarily to target aid programs. He says Rohingya will not be offered as an option because it is not identified as an official ethnicity by law and has warned that Rohingya who identify themselves as such by write-in could face arrest for providing false information.

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