The current census of the Burmese population is failing to include thousands of Rohingya Muslims due to a standoff over semantics – on one hand, enumerators refuse to record the subjects as “Rohingya” on their questionnaires, while in other cases the householders refuse to answer any further census-related questions if their request to record their ethnicity as such is ignored.
Speaking to DVB on Monday, Rohingya activist and community leader Aung Win said that enumerators in the Sittwe neighbourhood of Bumay, when faced with a Rohingya family, had been writing in “Bengali” – the preferred term for the stateless minority among many Burmese – while other census-takers had left blank the column: “Question 8 – Ethnicity”. He said in either case, the Rohingyas refused to continue to answer the survey.
However, the following day, Aung Win said that the approach had changed in Rohingya homes in Sittwe’s Thay Chaung neighbourhood. He said that on Tuesday, it was the enumerators who refused to continue the survey.
“When the census-collectors enter homes in these [Rohingya] areas, they immediately ask the people: ‘What is your race?’ When the people say ‘Rohingya’, they walk out.”
He said that the same version of events had been relayed to him by Rohingya residents in Maungdaw and Budithaung on Tuesday.
Chris Lewa, coordinator of the Arakan Project, a Rohingya support group, said that she had received similar reports from residents in Maungdaw.
“Local Arakan authorities have been putting pressure on Rohingya community leaders to get their people to take part in the census, and they have threatened those who do not participate with punishment,” she said.
“I have been told that when people identify themselves as ‘Rohingya’, the enumerators just stop writing,” Lewa told DVB on Tuesday. “I also hear that they are taking photographs of those who proclaim their ethnicity as ‘Rohingya’.”
She added that she believed “tensions are mounting”.
A source in the Aung Mingalar enclave of Sittwe, where more than 4,000 Rohingyas are sheltered, albeit under strict security conditions, said that the census enumerators had yet to conduct the survey in that neighbourhood. However, he said on condition of anonymity, many people were anxious because reports from Maungdaw indicated that census-collectors were arriving at the doorsteps of Rohingya households accompanied by police, military personnel and immigration officials in a bid to force the Muslims to comply with the census conditions whereby they register themselves as “Bengalis”.
Oo Hla Saw, the general-secretary of the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party, said he backed the enumerators’ actions. “Actually there are some Muslims identifying their ethnicity in the census as ‘Bengali’ and some as ‘Kaman’,” he said. “However, others are bitter and defiant, and insist on calling themselves ‘Rohingyas’, a term that is recognised by neither the Arakan State government nor the central government.”
The Arakanese politician continued: “If they refuse to cooperate with the schoolteachers who are collecting the data, then there is little more they [the enumerators] can do but to turn around and walk out. This is my understanding of the situation.”
He pointed out to DVB that although there were some hiccups with the census in some places, it went smoothly in other areas.
William Ryan, the regional communications adviser to the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), which is a major international backer of the census, confirmed to DVB that he had been made aware of reports alleging that Rohingyas had not been counted in the census in some parts of Arakan State.
Ryan said the UNFPA was looking to the Burmese government to protect the rights of the populace and conduct the census according to international standards.
In a statement on Tuesday, UNFPA said it is “deeply concerned about the Myanmar [Burmese] Government’s decision not to allow census respondents who wish to self-identify their ethnicity as Rohingya to do so.
“In its agreement with the United Nations on the 2014 census, the Government made a commitment to conduct the exercise in accordance with international census standards and human rights principles. It explicitly agreed with the condition that each person would be able to declare what ethnicity they belong to, including those who wish to record their identity as of mixed ethnicity. Those not identifying with one of the listed ethnic categories would be able to declare their ethnicity and have their response recorded by the enumerator.”
The nationwide census, Burma’s first in more than 30 years, started on Sunday, 30 March, and is due to conclude on 10 April. Teams of more than 80,000 enumerators – made up mostly of schoolteachers who have been trained to conduct the survey during school holidays – are accompanied by domestic and international observers as they fan across the country.