RANGOON — Nationalist Buddhist monk U Wirathu visited strife-torn Arakan State and joined large protests against the upcoming census over the weekend. Local Arakanese Buddhists oppose the census because it will allow the stateless Rohingya minority to register their ethnic identity as they wish.
On Sunday, protests against the UN-supported census where held in nine townships in Arakan State.
U Wirathu, who heads the controversial 969 movement, which is accused of spreading hate speech against Muslims, told The Irrawaddy he participated in order to voice support for the protests.
“I joined the protest in Myebon [Township] and encouraged protesters because there is no such Rohingya name in our country,” he claimed. “But they are trying to create and have this this name—it is not fair.”
Arakanese politicians and many among the Buddhist community have expressed anger over the fact that the census offers the Muslim minority the opportunity to choose an ethnicity as they wish, in accordance with international census standards.
Arakanese MPs said they opposed these standards for collecting census data as it seems to contradict the government position that there is no Rohingya group in Burma.
“It’s time they make a clear statement about whether this government will use the Rohingya name or not in the census list, because otherwise there will be more protest in our region,” said Pe Than, a MP with the recently formed Arakan National Party.
He said the Arakanese community would decide to boycott the census if their grievances are not addressed, adding that the Muslim minority should only be registered under the name “Bengalis.”
Nyo Aye, an Arakanese women’s activist who helped organize Sunday’s protest, also said 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 census, organized with the help of the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), will start at the end of March 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 called “Bengalis,” to suggest most are illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh. Rohingya Muslims claim nonetheless, that they have lived in northern Arakan State for generations.
The UNFPA has said that respondents who do not identify with one of the 135 ethnicities can describe themselves as “other” and orally report their desired ethnic affiliations to the enumerator. These responses would later be sub-coded during data processing. This option would allow Rohingyas to register their ethnic identity as they wish.
Minister of Immigration and Population Khin Ye reportedly told the Arakanese MPs that he could not change the census procedures, but assured them that it would not change the government’s position regarding the Rohingyas.
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 local Arakanese Buddhists worry that government recognition of the Rohingya population would precede an eventual shift in demographics in Arakan State, and with that a loss of political power and cultural identity.
U Wirathu said he first arrived in the state capital Sittwe on March 10 and has since held a number of sermons for the Arakanese Buddhists in Kyauktaw and Pauktaw, Ponnagyun townships. The monk said he would give another sermon in Thandwe town in southern Arakan on Monday night.
Thandwe was the scene of the most recent outbreak of anti-Muslim violence, in October. At the time, the local Kaman Muslims—who, unlike the Rohingyas, are citizens of Burma—have complained that the violence was whipped up by visiting 969 monks.
U Wirathu said he had been welcomed by the Arakanese Buddhist community, adding that he instructed them during his sermons to become more media-savvy when expressing their views on the inter-communal conflict with the Rohingyas.
“I told them they need more media training, so, they will know how to handle the media. I even told them how media plays an important role,” the Mandalay-based monk said. Asked if his anti-Muslim sermons risks inflaming tensions in the volatile region, Wirathu said, “Where ever I go, there has been no problem. I tell people to solve conflict within the rule of law.”