RANGOON — The Burmese government claims that more than 6,000 Muslim households in Arakan State have agreed to be registered as “Bengali” in the nationwide census, after they were told they could not self-identify their ethnicity.
The government controversially declared at the last minute that members of the group who call themselves Rohingya would not be allowed to do so in the census, following protests from ethnic Arakanese Buddhists who did not want the term recorded.
Enumerators conducting the United Nations-backed census have reportedly passed over any households where the residents insisted on calling themselves Rohingya, effectively leaving out of the census a group numbering in the hundreds of thousands in Arakan State.
A front-page story in the state-run New Light of Myanmar newspaper Friday claimed that some families had volunteered to be counted as “Bengali,” quoting an unnamed official from the Immigration and Population Ministry.
“(But) over 6,000 families, mostly from Buthidaung, Maungtaw and Sittway townships, have been registered because they accepted themselves as Bengalis in the national census,” the newspaper said.
According to the newspaper, the ministry insists that rather than self-identify their ethnicity, people must be listed as they were in previous censuses. The newspaper, which did not use the word Rohingya in the article, said that “Bengalis” registered themselves as such in Burma’s 1931, 1973 and 1983 censuses, “and also registered themselves as Bengalis when the current government collected data in Rakhine [Arakan] State in May, 2012.”
The United Nations Population Fund said it was concerned that the Burmese government decided not to allow the Rohingya to self-identify their ethnicity, in what it called in a statement a “departure from international census standards.”
Although some Muslims living in Arakan State continue to insist that they will not agree to be listed as Bengali, Myint Kyaing, director general of department of immigration and population, told The Irrawaddy that families had come forward to take part in the census under the government’s terms.
“It is more than 6,000 now, although we haven’t finalized the data yet. They themselves come to census administration offices,” Myint Kyaing said.
Aung Win, a Rohingya activist based in the Arakan State capital of Sittwe, said that in his area, a local Muslim from the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) had drawn up a list of Rohingya residents, but said that members of the Muslim minority had not voluntarily participated in the census.
“Someone who is a member of the USDP from our Muslim community collected a list of people, including their names, and handed it to the government. In fact, it is not true that the Muslim community agreed to participate in the census. It is not wish of our people,” said Aung Win.
He added that the man and his family, who are from Sittwe’s Ohn Daw Gyi village, had gone into hiding after people in the Rohingya community were angered by his actions.
Hla Maung, a Rohingya community leader in Maungdaw Township, also insisted that Muslim people in the area were still refusing to take part.
“I don’t think what the government said is possible. We will not accept to be collected as Bengali,” he told The Irrawaddy, estimating that the Muslim population of Maungdaw Township alone was about 300,000.
“We are not Bengali. Bengali refers to those from Bangladesh. We have been living here for a long time.”
The New Light of Myanmar said that the nationwide census-taking process, which began March 30, was 90 percent complete. But in Arakan State and Kachin State—where fighting has once again broken out this month between the government army and the Kachin Independence Army—collection has been extended beyond the initial 12-day period.
Some 6,000 people have been displaced by clashes near the Burmese-Chinese border, where soldiers sent to the region to provide security for census enumerators have allegedly been involved in fighting.
Additional reporting by Lawi Weng.