Enumerators fanned out across Myanmar yesterday for a census that has been widely criticized for stoking religious and ethnic tensions, after the Burmese government denied members of a long-persecuted Muslim minority the right to identify themselves as “Rohingya.”
Meanwhile, administrators in some parts of the country — including rebel-controlled areas in Kachin and Wa states — said they were barring census-takers because they worry the data set will be used for political purposes.
Myanmar only recently emerged from a half-century of military rule and self-imposed isolation. No one knows how many people live in the predominantly Buddhist nation. The most accepted estimated, around 60 million, is based on extrapolations from the previous count in 1983 that experts say was hugely flawed, leaving out many religious and ethnic minorities.
More than 100,000 enumerators — most of them schoolteachers wearing white blouses, green traditional sarongs called longyi and khaki waistcoats — started going door-to-door at 7am yesterday.
They hope to reach 12 million households by the time they finish their job on Thursday next week.
Their long, complicated survey — a collaboration between the government and the UN Population Fund — includes sensitive and highly controversial questions about race and ethnicity that human rights groups have repeatedly warned are especially inappropriate in the country’s transition to democracy.
They are especially worried about Rohingya Muslims in the western state of Rakhine, who have been the targets of Buddhist mob attacks in the past two years that have left about 280 people dead and sent an estimated 240,000 fleeing their homes nationwide.
Tens of thousands are living in apartheid-like condition in crowded camps where they have little or no access to jobs, education or medical care.
On Saturday, Burmese presidential spokesman Ye Htut said that Rohingya would not be allowed to identify themselves as such on the census.
“If a household wants to identify themselves as ‘Rohingya,’ we will not register it,” he said after meeting with Burmese President U Thein Sein and political parties, adding that people could call themselves “Bengali.”
Some Rohingya contacted by reporters, speaking on condition of anonymity because they fear reprisals, said they would refuse.
The British embassy protested the decision, saying under international standards, census respondents have the right to answer as they see fit.
Ethnic minorities, who together make up about 40 percent of Myanmar’s population, have also expressed concern about the process. They argue they were not properly consulted ahead of the census, which requires respondents to identify themselves as one of 135 ethnic groups.
Long suspicious of the government, they worry the classification system could be used for political gain.
In some cases, the ethnic groups listed on the survey are split into too many subdivisions.
The Chin, for instance, account for 53 of the categories, though many of the names listed are simply of villages or clans rather than separate ethnic groups, fracturing the already small group. In other cases, subtribes with different ethnicities are grouped together, increasing the chances of misrepresentation.
An ethnic group calling itself Tai Nai, or Red Shan, that lives in the Sagaing region and the states of Shan and Kachin, said that they were not included among the 33 subtribes of the Shan.
Department of population director Khaing Khaing Soe was undeterred by threats to deny access to workers.
“We will go to every corner of the country and will conduct the census according to international standards,” she said. “We will not exclude any area.”
She also said anyone who tries to stand in the way of enumerators will be punished.