Two Rohingya political parties issued a plea to the government last Friday not to be categorised as “other” in the upcoming census, claiming they are “bona fide citizens” and entitled to be recognised as an ethnic minority group in Burma.
Members of ethnic minorities unrecognised by the government, such as the Rohingya Muslims and ethnic Chinese, will be classified as “other” – along with foreign nationals – although there will also be an option to self-identify during the census. The census will take place from March 30 to April 10 and it will be the first to take place in Burma for more than three decades.
“The structure of the census is totally unacceptable to us… We are simply asking for equal rights for all ethnic minority groups,” said the president of Democracy and Human Rights Party (DHRP) Kyaw Min on 10 January during a joint press conference with the National Democratic Party for Development (NDPD).
“It should be a basic right for the Rohingya to be recognised as a minority group in Burma, even if the deeply flawed 1982 Citizenship Law excludes them… It’s a frankly racist policy, and the census process is endorsing it,” said David Scott Mathieson, a senior researcher on Burma at Human Rights Watch.
Khin Maung Myint, head of the NDPD’s foreign relations committee told DVB that the parties have not received an official response from the government about their request for Rohingyas to be given a specific code number in the census, but said they will continue to issue the plea “right up until the day before [the census].”
The government refers to Rohingya as “Bengalis” on the purported justification that they illegally migrated to Burma during British colonial rule. However, Rohingyas argue they have been living in Burma since the Mrauk-U dynasty of the 15th century.
“Referring to us as “Bengalis” is an attempt to downgrade our status and ethnicity. The term came into existence about 20 or 30 years ago, during the last years of General Ne Win’s rule. We’ll never accept it because we’ve been living in Rakhine State for centuries – anyone can check the historical records written by international scholars,” Khin Maung Myint told DVB.
The parties have met with the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), which is assisting the government with the census; however UNFPA said it cannot support the Rohingya’s request because it is providing technical input only.
“Some of the ethnicities recognised by the government number in the low thousands, yet there are 1.5 million Rohingya people in Myanmar,” said Khin Maung Myint.
The government’s tough stance is in tune with many in the Buddhist majority country, where sectarian violence erupted between Muslims and Buddhists in Rakhine State in 2012.
Ko Zarni, 29, told DVB, “They want to be our country’s citizens, yet they hate our country’s citizens, such as [Buddhists] in Rakhine [Arakan] State. This isn’t just my point of view – all citizens of [Burma] believe that they are bad people and that they hate Buddhists.”
“The exclusion of the Rohingya from the census is yet another indication that the supposed democratic reforms in Burma have less purchase than many optimists believe. You don’t propound progress when you’re leaving behind a long persecuted minority and denying their eligibility for citizenship,” said Mathieson.