Myanmar's controversial census, its first in over 30 years, has begun, with the government performing a last-minute backflip on its previously-stated position that would have permitted the stateless Rohingya minority to identify themselves as such on the form.
In early 2014, the administration repeatedly indicated that the Muslim Rohingya population would be allowed to nominate their ethnicity, despite the officially-held view that denies them citizenship and considers them illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh.
“The Rohingya issue is a recent case. We have conducted censuses in 1973 and 1983, and each person was permitted to refer to themselves by the ethnicity of their choice. We intend to do the same at the upcoming census,” Dr Nyi Nyi, director general of the Department of Population, told the Democratic Voice of Burma on January 27.
However, Daw Khin Khin Nyo, the department’s deputy director, confirmed the about-turn to VICE News on Tuesday and voiced her view that allowing people to nominate themselves as Rohingya was never really part of the deal. “There are no Rohingya races in the country. They want to call themselves as Rohingya so they can live in our country but they are Bengalis,” she said.
The United Nations Fund for Population (UNFPA), which has been providing technical assistance on the census, expressed disapproval at the apparent change of heart on Tuesday and said that Myanmar’s government had “explicitly agreed” to the condition that each person would be able to declare their own ethnicity.
Waves of brutal violence in Rakhine State over the past two years have seen hundreds killed (including both ethnic Rakhine and Rohingya), and upwards of 140,000 people remain displaced. In June 2012, the first major surge of violence came following widely circulated reports about the rape and murder of a Buddhist woman. The culprits, it was alleged, were three Rohingya men. Nine Muslim pilgrims were killed when a bus was besieged by Buddhist vigilantes, in a reportedly reprisal attack.
Violence then rippled out across the region and a state of emergency was declared. Thousands of homes were razed and entire villages emptied. The official death toll estimate was 88 — 57 Rohingya and 31 Buddhists — yet rights groups believe the figure is almost certainly higher. A second wave of bloodshed occurred in October 2012. While Rakhine communities have undoubtedly suffered, the Rohingya minority's statelessness and policies that govern them (including restrictions on movement) mean they are in a unique and unfortunate position — many are still confined to IDP camps and unable to work. Thousands have fled to escape persecution.
The rising prominence and popularity of the 969 movement, spearheaded by the controversial monk Ashin Wirathu, has in no small part been responsible for promoting the idea that the Buddhist nationality is under siege by a nefarious Islamic agenda. The group has gained some serious political clout, and is behind the push for a bill restricting interfaith marriage that is currently being prepared for parliament's consideration.
False flag operation
On March 26, international NGOs and UN agencies came under attack by a mob. This was reportedly in response to an employee of the Malteser International aid agency removing a Buddhist flag from the front of their facility in Sittwe in order to maintain the organization's secular, non-political position. The flag was put back in place after just a few minutes, but the incident had been enough to raise the hackles of the group, who eventually damaged or destroyed some 14 properties.
In Sittwe, the Rakhine capital, the Sasana flag has become increasingly visible in recent weeks. While the flag is an international Buddhist symbol, here it has been co-opted to indicate solidarity with a Buddhist-nationalist hardline faction-backed campaign to boycott the census over the Rohingya issue. These groups have been active demonstrators, taking to the streets to call for the government to expel NGOs and the UN from the region.
'Entire villages have not been counted as Rohingya residents rejected the term “Bengali,” and were not given the option to leave the space blank.'
Many believe the looting after the flag incident was also the result of simmering anti-NGO sentiment, which has been galvanized by Buddhist-nationalist rhetoric.
On March 26, a 13-year-old girl was killed by a stray bullet when police fired warning shots to disperse a crowd that had gathered in downtown Sittwe. “The feeling there was tense... [the Rakhine] are very worked up about [the perception of] their culture being threatened, and being overrun by Bengalis,” a foreign tour operator in the area told VICE News. “They see themselves as the buffer zone between Bangladesh and Burma, with very porous borders. They feel under threat. Now they are also expressing a very negative attitude towards foreigners.”
The looting saw many organizations pull all but essential staff from the region — something that has had significant repercussions for the state. Doctors Without Borders was removed from the state in February, after protestors decried the organization’s perceived bias towards the Rohingya, leaving almost 750,000 people without medical care. Aid workers told Reuters on Tuesday that at least 20,000 people in camps near Sittwe will run out of drinking water within 10 days, while food will run out within two weeks.
An integrity problem
As data collection began in Rakhine State, a source on the ground in the northwestern Muslim-majority town of Maungdaw said Tuesday that village leaders have been leaned on heavily to encourage the use of the term “Bengali.”
So far, he believes, entire villages in remote areas have not been counted as residents categorically rejected the term “Bengali,” and were not given the option to leave the space blank.
At his village, he said “at least 40 lon htein (riot police officers)” from Maungdaw town had accompanied enumerators and waited in trucks, despite previous statements that there was no plan to increase security.
While much of the focus is on Rakhine State, the census is also proving something of a bungle elsewhere in the country. Some 29 civil society organizations from Kachin State, in the north of the country, declared that they would not accept results of the census while hostilities between the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and Myanmar's military continue, and while thousands of people remain displaced as a direct result of this confrontation. The state-run New Light of Myanmar reported on Tuesday that data collection in both Kachin and Shan State was being hampered “due to [the] threats and bans of KIA troops.”
When asked about claims that enumeration would not be carried out in swathes of Kachin State, Daw Khin Khin Nyo told VICE News: “Do not worry for that. The Union Ministers and high-ranking officials are involved in negotiations." UNFPA representatives declined to comment on the matter, saying they were not yet aware of this.
We can't say we weren't warned
In the lead-up to the census, a chorus of international observers, civil society organizations, and ethnic armed group representatives sounded concerns that the count could serve to inflame existing ethnic and religious tensions — particularly in Rakhine State.
Human Rights Watch called on Myanmar to postpone what it called “a flawed census,” highlighting that many ethnic groups worry the categories used in the count could be used to dilute their influence.
Myanmar's designated list of “135 national races” (an integral part of the 1982 citizenship law under General Ne Win's socialist regime) was controversial from the outset. While some groups found unnecessary divisions being drawn between closely associated tribes, while others were absorbed into groups they don't necessarily identify with.
During a visit to London, the ICRC’s head of operations for Asia and the Pacific, Alain Aeschlimann, spoke of the continuing tension and fear between communities.
The Naga people, from the Indian border regions, are designated as a subdivision of the Chin State ethnic makeup. Yet Nagaland has a history of relative autonomy, and many consider the region separate from both Myanmar and India.
A February 12 conflict alert from the International Crisis Group warned the questions on ethnicity were “needlessly antagonistic and divisive.” It also pointed to a widely-held belief that the last census, conducted under Ne Win's regime, had deliberately understated the country's Muslim population. Any perceived leap in the Muslim population could therefore feed into existing fears held by many Rakhine Buddhists — and others around the country.
Estimates of Myanmar's current population are based on an extrapolation of the birth rate and previous census data, with the generally accepted figure hovering somewhere around the 60 million mark.
With the data collection period wrapping up on April 10, the Myanmar government and UNFPA may have some tough decisions to make given the imminent possibility of flawed and non-representative findings. Preliminary results of the census are expected by July this year, with final data slated for release in early 2015.
Follow Kayleigh Long on Twitter: @ayleighk
Photos via Reuters