Census-taking in Sittwe, Arakan State, will go ahead as of March 31, as a boycott organised by the All Rakhine Committee for the Census (ARCC) has been called off.
The group met with Immigration Minister Khin Yi on Saturday in the wake of last week’s mob violence in Sittwe — where international aid offices were ransacked and looted as an anti-census protest turned ugly.
As per ARCC demands, the Ministry of Information has now instructed census enumerators, who as of Sunday began their task in a selection of townships in Arakan State, not to enter the word “Rohingya” on any census form, regardless of what the subject might indicate.
According to Presidential spokesperson Ye Htut, the term “Rohingya” will not be available to those surveyed.
“It will be acceptable if they write ‘Bengali’,” Ye Htut is reported to have said. “We won’t accept them as ‘Rohingya’.”
Aung Win is an activist and community leader in Aung Mingalar, a Rohingya enclave of 4,000 in Sittwe that exists under strict curfew and 24-hour police protection.
Speaking to DVB on Sunday evening, Aung Win said that enumerators have not yet reached Aung Mingalar but have already interviewed Rohingya families in other areas of Arakan State. He said that in those cases, enumerators have either entered the code for Bengali — 1410 — or left the space blank.
Asked for a reaction by DVB Aung Win said that “we are not boycotting, but we are not satisfied and we have no choice but to move forward with the international community”.
Burma’s western Arakan State is home to the vast majority of the nation’s Rohingya Muslim population, estimated at around 800,000. In Arakan, protests calling for a boycott of the census have been ongoing for several weeks as the government previously rejected calls to forbid the term “Rohingya” from being entered on census questionnaires.
Rakhine Buddhists prefer to use the term “Bengali”, as it reinforces the notion that the Rohingya are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Neither term features on the government’s list of 135 “official races” which provides the basis for citizenship, as per a 1982 ruling.
“As soon as we received confirmation that our needs have been met we stopped our boycott,” ARCC representative Than Htun told DVB on Sunday.
Yet while the shift by the government seems to have facilitated the count going ahead in Arakan state, the government’s new standpoint may now contradict commitments made to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and donor nations.
“In accordance with international standards and human rights principles and as a part of its agreement with the UN and donors, the government has made a commitment that everyone who is in the country will be counted in the census and that all respondents will have the option to self-identify their ethnicity,” the UNFPA stated shortly before the government’s back-flip.
“This commitment cannot be honoured selectively in the face of intimidation or threats of violence,” the UNFPA statement of 28 March read.
The shift by the government has drawn the ire of the UK, who with a contribution of US$16 million is the principle donor to the $60 million census project.
The British Embassy in Rangoon responded to the government’s move by stating that: “The [Burmese] 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 may not be met.”
Mark Farmaner, director of Burma Campaign UK, believes that the politicisation of ethnicity in Burma is a breach of human rights in itself.
“The problem is not that Rohingya and others are not listed as recognised ethnic groups,” said Farmaner. “The problem is that there is a list at all. All ethnicities should be allowed to self-identify in the census, but this should not be connected with citizenship rights.”