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Myanmar Census: Risk or Reward for Rohingya Muslims?

(Photo: AFP)

March 9, 2014

In the desolate camps of western Myanmar many homeless Muslims are determined to assert their identity as Rohingya after years of persecution, in a census some fear will spark further turmoil.

Myanmar's first census in 30 years -- which starts at the end of March with United Nations help -- will provide new data on the country, until now relying on figures from a flawed population tally in 1983.

But observers warn that controversy over rigid official definitions of ethnicity and entrenched mistrust of authorities after decades of junta rule risk damaging the country's fragile peace efforts and further inflaming religious tensions after waves of anti-Muslim violence.

Questions of identity go to the very heart of divisions in Rakhine State, where long-held animosity between Buddhist and Muslim communities erupted into bloodshed two years ago, leaving scores dead and displacing 140,000 people -- mainly among the stateless Rohingya.

Violence has already flared in the camps on the outskirts of the state capital Sittwe as anxieties over the possible impact of the census run high.

Eindarit, 36, lay beaten and bandaged in a wooden shack following an effort to prevent dozens of fellow Rohingya from fleeing Myanmar by boat.

"He asked them not to leave because we have to take part in the census," said Hla Mint, a 58-year-old retired policeman and de facto local leader, speaking his behalf.

But it ended in violence. Eindarit was badly wounded, losing most of his teeth. The attack left him requiring strapping to his jaw.

"He was cut with knives on his head and hands and beaten with a pipe," Hla Mint said, blaming the clash on local human traffickers.

The incident adds weight to observers' fears that the census is stirring up new divisions in the already combustible state.

"I think this is going to create a huge mess. Everyone is extremely worried this is going to erupt into a new stage of violence," said Chris Lewa, of the Arakan Project, which campaigns for Rohingya rights.

Myanmar's 800,000 Rohingya -- who are stateless, and considered by the U.N. to be one of the world's most persecuted minorities -- face restrictions that hamper their ability to travel, work, access health and education and even to marry.

Many Rohingya are deeply distrustful of the government -- which maintains that most in the community are illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh -- and fear it could use its census findings to somehow extinguish their potential citizenship claims.

The survey form does not have a dedicated box for Rohingya, who are not one of the country's 135 official ethnic minorities -- despite the fact many can trace their ancestry back generations in Myanmar.

But they can still identify themselves as Rohingya in the census -- there is a box for "other" with space to write any group or name they wish to be identified as, which some see as a breakthrough in their efforts to assert their identity.

Many of Rakhine's Muslim population were listed as Bengali in the last census.

"We are labelled 'Bengali, Bengali' all the time. Evidence that we were born here, that we have been staying here, is crucial to us," Hla Mint told AFP.

The census "risks inflaming tensions at a critical moment" in Myanmar's democratic transition, according to a recent study by the International Crisis Group (ICG), which added that controversial sections on religion and ethnicity should be dropped in favor of a focus on key demographic data.

It said the results, many of which will be released before Myanmar holds its first national polls since the end of junta rule, had "direct political ramifications" because the country has some constituencies carved out along ethnic minority lines according to population size.

But the government and United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) have rejected those suggestions.

They say information on ethnicity is needed as part of efforts to provide a crucial snapshot of the country for national planning.

UNFPA's Myanmar chief Janet Jackson said most ethnic armed groups -- apart from Kachin rebels near the Chinese border -- had accepted the census.

She told AFP that efforts are under way to ensure everyone is counted in Rakhine "sensitively and with calm", adding the survey would not be linked to citizenship.

The U.N. aims to find census-takers among Rakhine's Muslim population to ease inter-communal mistrust.

But divisions fester and in Sittwe, Buddhist politicians expressed deep animosity towards their Muslim former neighbors.

"There is no such thing as the Rohingya ethnicity... it is just a term. Ethnic Rakhines know their intention. It is a political aim," said Shwe Maung, a senior member of the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party.

The ICG said the previous census was believed to have deliberately under-reported the size of Mynamar's Muslim population, at four rather than 10 percent.

Consequently, this census could show a misleading "three-fold increase" in the Muslim population, "a potentially dangerous call to arms" for extremists in the Buddhist-majority nation, the study said.

For Muslims trapped between risking defiantly identifying themselves as Rohingya and the ongoing precariousness of statelessness, the path ahead is fraught with uncertainty, said Rohingya politician Kyaw Min.

"The future is very dark, gloomy -- very dangerous," he told AFP.

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