RANGOON — The Arakan State government has asked Muslim leaders in Sittwe to urge their fellow followers of Islam not to identify their “race” in Burma’s upcoming census, with authorities worried that allowing Rohingya Muslims to self-identify as such could spark a violent backlash from Buddhists in the troubled region.
State authorities including police Col. Tun Oo met Muslim community leaders on Tuesday morning and told them that the request was intended to defuse tensions in the state, which has seen protests by Arakanese Buddhists against the census in recent weeks that continued in Sittwe on Tuesday. The census, Burma’s first in more than 30 years, will officially begin next week.
The protestors oppose the UN-backed census because it allows Rohingya to identify themselves as they wish, conferring legitimacy on a term that many Arakanese Buddhists—and Burma’s government—do not recognize. The government refers to Rohingya as “Bengalis,” implying that they are illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh.
Speaking to The Irrawaddy on Tuesday, Tun Oo said state authorities were concerned that the security situation could further deteriorate in a state that has been wracked by several bouts of intercommunal violence since June 2012.
“We are really worried about it leading to more violence, as there is tension and a lot of protests here against the census,” he said. “This is why we requested at the meeting that Muslim leaders tell their people not to fill in a race type for the census.”
Tun Oo said that because they did not have the authority to make an official statement regarding the census procedure, state authorities had sought out the leaders as a means of “indirectly” coaxing Muslims into compliance with the omission request.
“Our government and even Immigration Minister Khin Yi cannot officially state [a request] not to put the name ‘Rohingya’ on the census because this is an international-standard census. This is why we tried to negotiate an indirect way with Muslim leaders, but we were not successful,” Tun Oo said.
Some Muslim leaders expressed disappointment at the state authorities’ request, which contravenes an assurance given by Khin Yi that Rohingya would be allowed to identify themselves as members of the contested term.
Aung Win, a Rohingya rights activist who attended Tuesday’s meeting, said a handful of Muslim leaders stood up at the gathering and questioned the state authorities’ request.
“I found a lot of our people here talking a lot about how they are not happy about it. Whatever happens, they will fill in ‘Rohingya,’” Aung Win said.
“They told us to leave the race section blank—that now we cannot say what our race is on the census. But Khin Yi and people from UNFPA [the United Nations Population Fund] told us before that we can do it freely,” Aung Win said.
Meanwhile, Arakanese community leaders have threatened to boycott the census if their grievances are not addressed—specifically, that the state’s Muslim minority should only be allowed to identify as “Bengalis” in the census.
Nyo Aye, an Arakanese activist who helped organize the protests in Sittwe, said last week that the Arakanese community would reject the census unless its data collection methodology is changed. “If there is no response from the government … we are ready to boycott the census,” she said.
The 12-day census, organized with UNFPA assistance, is scheduled to begin on March 30 and requires respondents to select their ethnicity and religion. They can choose an ethnicity from a classification list of 135 minorities drawn up in the 1982 Citizenship Law by the then-military government.
The Rohingya are omitted from the list and set apart as a group without citizenship, despite claims from many among the Muslim minority that they have lived in Arakan State for generations.
The UNFPA has said respondents who do not identify with one of the 135 ethnicities can describe themselves as “other” and orally report their desired ethnic affiliation to the enumerator. These responses would later be sub-coded during data processing, allowing an option for Rohingyas to register their ethnic identity as they wish.
Minister of Immigration and Population Khin Yi reportedly told Arakanese MPs that he could not change the census procedures, but assured them that it would not change the government’s position regarding the Rohingya.
Government data from 2010 put Arakan State’s population at about 3.34 million people, of which the Muslim population accounts for 29 percent.
Many Arakanese fear government recognition of the Rohingya population would precede an eventual shift in Arakan State’s demographics that would threaten Buddhist predominance.