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Arakanese Buddhists from all of the state’s 17 townships have vowed to boycott Burma’s upcoming census after the government ignored an ultimatum to omit the term “Rohingya” from data collection.
Thousands of Arakanese, joined by Buddhist monk Wirathu, gathered on 16 March to demand that the term be expressly excluded by enumerators writing in ethnic affiliations, urging them to instead use the term “Bengali”. Demonstrators issued a joint letter to the Central Census Committee requesting a formal reply before 21 March.
“We will not allow census data collection in Arakan State,” said Than Htun, one of the campaign organisers, adding that all of Arakan’s 17 townships will participate in the boycott.
Myint Kyaing, director general of the Department of Population, insisted that the census will be conducted in accordance with international standards and is designed to serve the interests of the people.
“The issue of using the terms Bengali or Rohingya is still being negotiated by the state government and respective authorities. There is no exact answer yet about the usage,” he said.
The census, supported by the United Nations Population Fund, will begin on 30 March and continue through 10 April. It will be the first census conducted in the country in over 30 years, though results of all previous surveys are by and large dismissed as inaccurate.
The forthcoming census has caused controversy in many of Burma’s ethnic states and regions, especially the restive western state of Arakan, where an estimated 800,000 Rohingya Muslims are denied citizenship and referred to as illegal Bengali immigrants, though many claim to have lived in Burma for several generations and in some areas constitute a majority of the population.
Enumerators are trained to inquire about participants’ ethnic and religious identities, the former to either fall into one of Burma’s 135 officially recognised ethnic nationalities or be written in under an “other” category. Much of Burma’s predominantly Buddhist population denies the legitimacy of a Rohingya race, claiming that the term was fabricated by immigrants whose populations are widely assumed to be growing, though hard evidence to that effect does not yet exist.
Burma’s Rohingya population has for decades been subject to restrictions on movement and several aspects of family life, under state policies premised on population control. Rights groups have condemned the policies as tantamount to “persecution”, a punishable offence of international law.