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Myanmar census data on Muslim population raises doubts

By Kyaw Ye Lynn
Anadolu Agency
July 24, 2016

Decline in enumerated Muslim population raises questions about exclusion of Rohingya, nationalists’ anti-Muslim campaigns

YANGON, Myanmar -- Controversial data on religion withheld by Myanmar’s government for two years has shown a decline in the country’s Muslim population, raising questions about the exclusion of a stateless community as well as anti-Muslim campaigns driven by a nationalist monk-led group.

The results of the Myanmar Population and Housing Census were released earlier this week, after having been on hold since 2014 due to fears that they may inflame tensions between the country's Buddhist and Muslim populations.

Figures released Thursday show that the country's Muslim population has fallen from 3.9 percent of the overall population in the 1983 census to just 2.3 percent -- a figure that does not include around 1.09 million mostly Rohingya Muslims in western Rakhine State -- who were not enumerated.

The data starkly contrasts with predictions by the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion -- a group better known as Ma Ba Tha which has accused Muslims of attempting to "Islamize" the country of around 51 million people -- that Muslims would account for at least 10 percent of the population.

Countrywide, 89.8 percent registered as Buddhist -- a minor decline -- while the Christian population increased from 3.9 percent in 1983 to 6.3 percent in 2014.

The deputy director for Asia at Human Rights Watch (HRW) told Anadolu Agency that Ma Ba Tha has repeatedly shown that the group is prepared to manufacture false information, twist facts and instigate violence in pursuit of “their goal to drive Muslims out” of Myanmar.

“This made-up estimate of more than 10% [Muslim population] is just another element of their propaganda,” Phil Robertson said by email Friday.

“The only place where the representation of Muslims is truly skewed is national parliament… where there is not one single Muslim-faith legislator in either the upper or lower house,” he added.

When asked to comment on how the census data showed no increase in Myanmar’s Muslim population, a staff member at Ma Ba Tha’s headquarter said the group’s chairman monk has yet to make a statement.

“Sayadaw [abbot] is busy with other matters, and would not make any comment right now,” the staff member, who requested to remain unnamed as he was not authorized to speak to media, told Anadolu Agency by phone Friday.

Since communal violence broke out between ethnic Buddhists and Muslims in troubled Rakhine in 2012, nationalists have claimed "a rise in the Muslim population due to high birth rates" as justification for their campaigns to “protect” race and religion in the country.

With this in mind, the previous quasi-civilian government had delayed releasing the results for fear of inflaming tensions between the country's majority Buddhist and minority Muslim populations.

Given that the some 1.09 million Rohingya Muslims from Rakhine were not enumerated -- mostly because they were not allowed to identify as "Rohingya" and instead had to register as "Bengali" (a term that suggests that they are not Myanmar nationals, but interlopers from neighboring Bangladesh) -- the unofficial number of Muslims in the country would reach at least 4.3 percent.

An official from the country's official Muslim body told Anadolu Agency that the Muslim population would certainly exceed 4 percent, insisting that previous censuses showed the minority had been residing in Rakhine for decades.

“Muslims in Rakhine state were counted in 1973 and 1983 census, and Muslims made up 3.9 percent of total population. And 4.3 percent in 2014 census,” said Tin Maung Than, secretary-general of the Islamic Religious Affairs Council Myanmar.

“A 4.3 percent Muslim population is reasonable and logical as we have no knowledge of the Muslim population in the country declining,” he said by phone Thursday.

“It would be ridiculous if Muslims in Rakhine State are labeled as immigrants,” he insisted, underlining that the Council has several documents to prove that Muslims inhabited the region since Myanmar was under British rule -- from which the country gained independence in 1948.

“I am not talking about the ethnicity. But I personally believe people who live in the country for half-century deserve citizenship,” said Tin Maung Than.

Rohingya in Rakhine, described by the United Nations as one of the world’s most persecuted minorities, have been effectively denied citizenship by a nationality law enacted in 1982 by Ne Win, a military strongman who staged a coup and whose 1962-1988 leadership saw the adoption of xenophobic policies.

Whereas anyone born in Myanmar had been considered a citizen under the 1948 Citizenship Law, it was replaced by legislation in 1982 that restricts citizenship for communities whose ancestors reportedly entered the country after the first Anglo-Burmese war broke out in 1823.

Rights groups have pressured the government to amend the 1982 Citizenship Law, saying it is not compatible with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or with the country’s legal obligations under international treaties.

HRW’s Phil Robertson called on the new government, led by Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, to end discrimination and abuses against the Rohingya by allowing them to self-identify as a group, and taking action to fundamentally amend the “rights-abusing” Citizenship Act of 1982.

“What we have continually said to the Burmese [Myanmar] national government is they have an international obligation to recognize the Rohingya as citizens,” he told Anadolu Agency.

Despite no such measures having been taken, nationalists have already accused the first elected civilian government since 1962 of planning to grant citizenship to Muslims in Rakhine by amending the law.

Minister of Labor, Immigration and Population Thein Swe, however, told a press conference Thursday that the government has made no such plan.

“I want to assure [there is] no need to worry about that issue,” he was quoted as saying by 7 Day Daily, a local newspaper.

“Amending such an important law is not that easy a matter.”

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