RANGOON — Burmese officials said the government has made a last-minute change to its position on registering the ethnicity of the Muslim minority in northern Arakan State during the current national census, saying enumerators would refuse to register any respondent who identifies themselves as Rohingya.
The decision means the government is backing away from earlier promises that the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA)-funded census would be implemented in accordance with international standards, which allow any respondents to identify their own ethnicity.
The move was welcomed by Arakanese Buddhist leaders, but immediately led to problems during census operations among Rohingya households around the Arakan State capital Sittwe on Monday.
Thousands of census registration teams, comprising school teachers, began conducting interviews among households all across Burma on Sunday to implement the first national census in the former military-run country in decades.
But Presidential spokesman Ye Htut said of the registration teams, “If we ask a family about their ethnicity and they say Rohingya, we will not carry out, [or] accept it.”
“If they say Bengali or any other ethnicity it’s fine, but if they say Rohingya we will not register it,” he told reporters on the sidelines of a meeting between President Thein Sein and political party leaders on Saturday.
Zaw Aye Maung, the Rangoon Division Minister for Arakan Affairs, a function occupied by an Arakanese national representing the Arakanese in Rangoon, said Immigration Minister Khin Yi had made similar promises to Arakanese community leaders.
“Our people do not need to do a boycott anymore, because Minister Khin Yi came and personally told me that his president agreed to some of the measures that our people asked for,” he said Saturday.
Arakanese Buddhists had threatened to boycott of the census because Rohingya would be allowed to register their own ethnicity under the UN census methodology.
The UNFPA told The Irrawaddy on Monday that government’s decision worried the organization, which has reportedly covered most of the US$75 million in cost of implementing Burma’s census.
“UNFPA is deeply concerned by what’s going on and it doesn’t conform with the expectations that we had about how the census would be conducted,” UNFPA spokesman William Ryan said when asked about Ye Htut’s remarks.
The UK Embassy also said it was troubled over the government’s new approach to implementing the census.
“The government has committed to run the census in line with international standards, including allowing all respondents the option to self-identify their ethnicity. We are concerned by recent reports that this commitment may not be met,” the embassy said in a statement released over the weekend.
Northern Arakan State has been the scene of tensions and outburst of bloody violence between local Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims. Shortly before the census was due to start last week Buddhists mobs attacked the offices of the United Nations and international NGOs, apparently in relation to anger over the census methodology.
The Arakanese community and the Burmeses government object to the Muslim group calling themselves native Rohingya and refer to them as “Bengalis,” to suggest most are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
Over the weekend, Minister Khin Yi and President’s Office Minister Aung Min visited Sittwe to assuage the Arakanese community’s concerns.
Nyo Aye, an Arakanese women’s activist who has been campaigning against the census and international NGOs that support the Rohingya, said the Arakanese welcomed the government’s change of position and had cancelled their boycott of the census.
“Aung Min promised us that we do not have to worry about the Rohingya having their name on the census,” Nyo Aye said, adding that Arakanese authorities sent an official letter stating that census teams would not register any household that self-identifies as Rohingya.
She said enumerators had successfully carried out household interviews in among Sittwe’s Buddhist residents on Sunday and Monday.
Among the Muslim minority, however, the government’s new approach to the census immediately caused problems, as dozens of Muslim households intent on registering as Rohingya were immediately passed over by census teams, a local Muslim leader said.
“They went by the houses one by one and asked what type of race are you? They did not carry out the census [questionnaire] when households said they are Rohingya,” said Aung Win, a Rohingya community representative, adding that he had joined government officials on Monday to observe census teams in Bume and Ma Gyi Myaing, two Muslim-majority villages on the outskirts of Sittwe.
“Everybody in these two [villages] said they are Rohingya,” he said, adding that only two Kaman Muslim households were successfully registered in the villages.
Aung Win said the census teams had arrived early Monday morning in the company of about 300 armed policemen who were brought in with about 10 army trucks to carry out interviews among the roughly 1,500 Muslim inhabitants of the two villages.
Aung Win predicted the census teams would encounter the same problems in the coming days as they attempt to register household information, including ethnicity, in the camps in northern Arakan State, which hold some 140,000 Rohingya, as well as in Muslim-majority townships of Maungdaw and Buthidaung.
“Our people are saying that if they let them fill in Rohingya on the census [questionnaire] they will sit down and do it. If not, they will boycott it,” he said.
Hla Maung, a Muslim resident of Maungdaw town, said, “Today, some census officials came to our town, and we, the community leaders, told them: ‘If you don’t allow us to fill in Rohingya we will not join the census.’ But they said that the township authorities do not allow this.”
The 12-day census began 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 Rohingya to register their ethnic identity as they wish.
Many Arakanese fear government recognition of the Rohingya population would precede an eventual shift in Arakan State’s demographics that would threaten Buddhist predominance.
Government data from 2010 put Arakan State’s population at about 3.34 million people, of which the Muslim population accounts for 29 percent.
Additional reporting by Simon Lewis.