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Minorities in Myanmar's first democratic census excluded

(Photo: AK Rockefeller)

By Laura Gispert
April 21, 2014

Myanmar’s slogan for its first census after 30 years, ´Let us all Participate´, was an auspicious promise for ethnic minorities within the country. It was the pledge that everyone in Myanmar, former Burma, is allowed to choose their own ethnicity on the questionnaire. The last census took place in 1983 when the country was ruled by a military regime. Many parts of the country were out of reach, because of ongoing armed conflicts. 

In recent days, President Thein Sein was praised by the international media for finally making a democratic sign with respecting all ethnic groups and counting all habitants. However, as the census was completed a couple of days ago, the benevolent voices about the country in southeast Asia fell silent as the slogan was nothing more than just propaganda. 

Despite the census guideline- everyone who is present in Myanmar territory on the night of census would be counted, regardless of citizenship, ethnicity, age or status- several ethnic minorities, such as Gurkha, Pakistani and Rohingya were excluded on the eclectic list of 135 ethnic groups on the questionnaire and the 100,000 volunteers were not allowed to record these habitants as ´others´. The Ministry of Immigration and Population that conducted the census dropped this agreement a few hours before it started, when they announced that ´Rohingya´ would not be accepted by census takers. “If a household wants to identify themselves as ‘Rohingya’, we will not register it,” government spokesman Ye Htut told reporters in Yangon, the industrial capital. How senseless as riots between the government and the numerous ethnic groups cause probably the biggest threat to Myanmar’s future peace and stability.

Yet the government has lost an opportunity to get profound knowledge about the real numbers of Rohingya. Instead, when some Muslims, mostly in Rakhine State in West Myanmar, identified themselves as Rohingya, the questioning was stopped and the interviewers left the house. Others were registered by the volunteers as ´Bengalis´ although they refused to be listed under this term as it is pure nonsense to link the Rohingyas with the neighbor Bangladesh. When people asked why there is no ´Rohingya´ on the census list a staff from the Ministry of Immigration and Population replied: “because there is no Rohingya in our country”. A more plausible reason for removing ´Rohingya´ from the questionnaire is that the government needed to calm down violent protests from other ethnicities, who do not accept Rohingya as one.

In fact, approximately 1.5 million Rohingyas have lived in the west of Myanmar close to the Bangladesh border for centuries. Many members of the religious minority were born in Burma to families who arrived generations ago. It is likely that the Rohingyas came to Myanmar around a thousand years ago as a nation named Rakhaings who converted to Islam. In contrast, the government considers them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. In Myanmar the Rohingyas have neither rights, nor a nationality. As they are stateless and unwanted the UN declared the group as one of the most persecuted minorities in the world.

In the last two years, Muslim neighborhoods have been targeted by rampaging Buddhist mobs. Up to 280 people have been killed and another 140,000 forced to flee their homes. Reasons for these clashes are on the one hand religious distinctions between Buddhism and Islam and on the other hand the anxiety of the Burmas for the increasing number of Rohingyas , fearing they might become the majority in the country soon. 

When the UK Ambassador in Myanmar talked about the situation of Rohingyas in an official statement U Ye Htut took issue with Britain’s usage of the term. The spokesman said: “It’s unreasonable for the British to now urge recognition of the term. It appears they are trying to intervene in our internal affairs and we don’t accept it.” The UK Ambassador’s attempt came too late anyway. The UN and nine other countries such as Australia, the UK and Germany donated 50 million USD although they knew that Myanmar was going beyond the basics of name, age and occupation with touching the taboo of ethnicity.

Generally speaking, there is nothing wrong with a census as Myanmar has not had one for the last 30 years, which makes political planning nothing more than a game of chance. Unfortunately though, this census failed across the board. When a census has not only botched its aim but even enlarged the gap between the ethnicities within the country, the interviewers should have stayed at home.

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