Myanmar census takers make final rounds in controversial exercise

YANGON (AFP) - Myanmar census takers made their final rounds on Thursday in the country's first population tally in three decades, which triggered international concern over a refusal to recognise the stateless Rohingya.

More than 10 million households have taken part in the survey, according to official figures for the first 10 days of the 12-day exercise, which is designed to plug widespread information gaps in the poverty-stricken nation.

But the census has come under criticism from its own backers in the United Nations and Western governments after authorities decided not to allow minority Muslims to register their ethnicity as Rohingya following a fresh wave of unrest in the western state of Rakhine.

This has meant potentially tens of thousands of Rohingya have gone unrecorded, while thousands more in conflict-torn northern Kachin were also missed out after ethnic minority rebels refused to allow enumerators into their territory.

Myanmar views the Rohingya as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, despite many being able to trace their family back for generations in Myanmar.

The country's first census since 1983 has largely been carried out by an army of teachers and its 41 questions were designed to give policymakers a full picture of the country as it emerges from decades of direct military rule, which ended in 2011.

Critics warned the UN and donors in the run-up to the census that the tally had the potential to spark unrest, pointing out controversy over questions of ethnicity and religion in the survey.

They accused the organisers of focussing exclusively on technical issues and ignoring the political problems it could raise in the country formerly known as Burma.

An eruption of violence just days before the census began forced humanitarian workers to flee Rakhine, leaving tens of thousands of displaced people without adequate healthcare, food and water.

Local Buddhist nationalists accuse the international aid community of favouring Muslims.

One young girl was killed in the riots, although the survey has since been largely violence free, with a heavy security presence around the Rakhine census taking.


The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), which facilitated the tally, last week said it was "deeply concerned" about the decision not to accept Rohingya as an ethnicity.

Britain, which donated 10 million pounds (S$21 million) to the survey, on Thursday said the exercise was "a critical step in Burma's development process", but said the move to exclude the Rohingya breached international standards.

British Foreign Minister Hugo Swire said on Monday he had summoned the Myanmar ambassador over the conduct of census in Rakhine.

Rohingya Muslims in the state are subject to a web of restrictions on everything from movement and employment to marriage and in some areas family size.

Activist group Burma Campaign UK has called on the British government to launch an investigation into its decision to back the tally.

"British aid is paying for a census which discriminates against the Rohingya," the group said this week.

Animosity between Buddhists and Muslims in Rakhine erupted into bloodshed in 2012, leaving dozens dead in clashes and around 140,000 people displaced - mostly Rohingya.

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