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Myanmar ploughs ahead with census despite growing ethnic tensions

By Joshua Carroll
Anadolu Agency
March 19, 2014

Some fear census information could be used to facilitate state oppression

YANGON, Myanmar -- The notorious anti-Muslim monk Ashin Wirathu arrived in Myanmar’s violence-torn Rakhine state last week, flanked by columns of subordinates wielding dainty ceremonial umbrellas. Children beat drums to mark his appearance. 

His visit was timed to coincide with the country’s upcoming census. The monk, who describes himself as the “Burmese Bin Laden,” is a potent symbol of the daunting challenges facing Myanmar’s first headcount in 30 years. 

The UN-backed project is threatening to reignite violence between Buddhists and Muslims, particularly in Rakhine, and questions on the census form about religion and ethnicity are churning up tensions across the country. And as the government tries to secure a nationwide ceasefire with militias, tens of thousands of people living in rebel-controlled land will be off-limits for the census. 

Still, an army of 150,000 census-takers will spread out beginning Sunday across crumbling colonial cities, vast mountain ranges and remote refugee camps, each armed with nothing more than 41 questions and a black 2B pencil. Some will likely face resistance. 

In northern Rakhine, Buddhist nationalists object to the local Muslim population being allowed to list themselves under their ethnic name, Rohingya. Instead, they want Rohingya to be forced to register as Bengali, a name used to reinforce the notion that the group is formed of illegal immigrants who do not deserve citizenship. 

Wirathu, after giving a sermon in the capital Sittwe in which he warned that Muslims were threatening to overwhelm the local population, headed 60 kilometers east to join a nationalist protest in Myebon on Sunday against the census. “There is no such name as Rohingya in our country,” he told local reporters. 

The last census was conducted in 1983 under a brutal military dictatorship known for manipulating figures to suit its own ends. Rights groups claim it deliberately undercounted Muslims. More accurate figures could reveal a much larger Muslim population than the 4 percent previously reported. 

“This could be exploited by nationalist extremists who are inciting hatred and violence against Muslims,” the European Burma Network said in a statement calling for the census to be postponed. Other international groups have also called for a postponement. 

Burma Campaign UK said the census is “not worth dying for,” and a coalition of 28 international groups representing ethnic Karen people in Burma have warned that it could undermine the peace process. 

K'nyaw Paw, secretary of the Karen Women’s Organization, believes the Burmese military might use the information to “crush” ethnic rebels. It “will give the numbers of ethnic armed groups, the numbers of the family of ethnic armed groups, and the situation of people who support ethnic armed groups,” she told The Anadolu Agency. “It will make it very easy for them to develop a strategy.” 

Daniel Gray of the UK-based risk analysis firm Maplecroft agreed.

"Giving the state detailed information on the whereabouts and particulars of politically active citizens is likely to facilitate more effective state oppression," Maplecroft said.

But Myanmar desperately needs a headcount. Estimates of its population vary from 48 million to 65 million, a divergence greater than the number of people living in The Netherlands. And the census should help the reform-inclined government to develop the impoverished country, telling it where hospitals, schools and new roads are needed most. 

Supporters argue it is an integral part of reform in a nation crippled for five decades by an opaque dictatorship. The United Nations Population Fund, which along with the UK, Germany and others is paying for most of the $75 million project, says the census will help unify the fractured country. 

Janet Jackson, the UN Population Fund’s senior representative in Myanmar, described the census as “timely and historic” at a press conference last month. “This is a chance, at least for the next ten years, for each person to tell their story.” 

But it is not certain the data will be accurate. Despite sweeping reforms since president Thein Sein took office in 2011, many people remain apprehensive about giving personal information to a government that contains key figures from the former military junta -- including Thein Sein himself. 

Some parts of the country could be off-limits to census takers. In northern Kachin state, where the majority is Christian, rebels battling the government said this month they will refuse access to territory under their control, which contains about 80,000 people. 

Kachin groups say many in the state resent being divided into 12 official ethnic subcategories by the government – a practice they say is designed to dilute their ethnic identity and political power.

Others, including the Palaung people of Shan state, have complained of the opposite problem: being bundled together with larger neighboring ethnic groups instead of being allowed their own category. 

At the root of the complaints is the use of a much-derided list of 135 officially recognised ethnicities drawn up in 1982. It split Myanmar’s eight major ethnic groups into subcategories, and excluded other minorities like the Rohingya altogether. 

Thein Sein acknowledged in a statement last month that the census may have approached ethnicity in the wrong way, but maintained his determination to go ahead with it. 

In eastern Shan state, minority groups have made clear their lack of trust in the official census by vowing to hold their own, once the government census-takers leave. 

“We aim to determine the exact populations of different ethnic groups under our own terms,” said Win Myint, a Shan state minister. 

The Rohingya are excluded from the list of 135 ethnicities used in the census. Instead they will have to identify themselves under the “other” category. 

The immigration minister, Khin Ye, along with Jackson, met this month with Rakhine and Rohingya leaders in Sittwe to discuss the census. The immigration minister encouraged the Rohingya to record their ethnicity as Bengali and said putting "Rohingya" could lead to more violence, according to Islamic community leaders who attended the meeting. 

Sittwe was one of the first flash points in a series of ethnic riots that started in mid-2012 and have since erupted across the country. The majority of the tens of thousands displaced and hundreds killed are Muslims of varying ethnicities. 

Since the violence, the mostly stateless Rohingya of northern Rakhine have been subject to restrictions on movement enforced by armed police and checkpoints.

“We are not looking to form an autonomous state,” said Noor Alarm, a religious and community leader. “We are Rohingya and we are going to put Rohingya on the census, whether the Rakhines like it or not.”

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