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Enumeration of Rohingya a "complete failure", census observers say

By Tim Mclaughlin
August 19, 2014

Independent observers of the nationwide census conducted earlier this year have called the enumeration of Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State a "complete failure", saying the process fell short of international standards because the minority group was barred by the government from self-identifying.

The Myanmar Census Observation Team has warned that the omission of the Rohingya in the count could leave significant holes in data on the marginalised group.

"The exclusion of the Rohingya/Bengali population from the census enumeration poses serious methodological problems," a report from the 47-member group said.

"The resulting undercount will not only have a negative impact on the census results at the state and region levels but also at the national level if the missing population is not included, based on a proper count."

The UN Population Fund (UNFPA) supported the Ministry of Immigration and Population-administered census, which ran from March to April. It was the first nationwide count to be conducted since 1983.

Originally the government had said that it would allow for Rohingya to choose "Other" on the question of ethnicity, then self-identify. But on the eve of the census the government back-tracked, saying that it would not count those who attempted to identify as Rohingya.

The government does not recognise the term Rohingya. The group is not one of Myanmar's 135 official ethnic groups, and Rohingya are barred from becoming citizens under the 1982 Citizenship Law. The government uses the name Bengali to refer to the group.

This refusal to accept self-identification, the Census Observation Team said, led to enumerators not collecting any data, or collecting only partial data, from some households that identified as Rohingya.

The UNFPA accused the government of reneging on its commitment to the census process when it announced in March that it would not accept Rohingya as an ethnicity.

"In its agreement with the United Nations ... the government made a commitment to conduct the exercise in accordance with international census standards and human rights principles," the UNFPA said in a statement at the time.

"It explicitly agreed with the condition that each person would be able to declare what ethnicity they belong to."

Data on ethnicity collected during the census will not be released until after the 2015 elections, according to Daw Khaing Khaing Soe, the director of the Ministry of Immigration and Population's census technical team.

The government has insisted that the delay is due to data-input difficulties after a higher-than-expected number of people chose not to identify as one of the 135 listed ethnic groups during the census.

But critics of the census have said that there are political motives behind withholding the data - particularly a fear that it could inflame tensions in Rakhine and other ethnic states.

Members of the independent observer team visited all 14 states and regions of the country, where they observed a total 2193 census interviews being conducted. The census cost over US$70 million, with much of the funding coming from international donors, notably the British, Norwegian, Australian and Swiss governments.

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