Myanmar: Rohingya parties call for change to census categories

12th Jan 2014

By Tim McLaughlin

Myanmar Times: Two Rohyinga political parties are calling on the government to amend a question on the upcoming national census to recognise the minority Muslim group. They argue that the current version of the census could be used to further erode their already tenuous access to citizenship.

Under the proposed census structure, people are able to identify as one of Myanmar’s 135 formally recognised ethnic groups through simply recording a specific code number. Ethnicities that are unrecognised by the government, such as the Rohingya or Chinese-Myanmar, will be forced to identify as “other” but will also have the option to self identify their ethnicity.

Members of the National Democratic Party for Development (NDPD) and the Democracy and Human Rights Party (DHRP) last week described the census structure as unacceptable.

DHRP president U Kyaw Min said the effect on the Rohyinga community could be “ruinous”. He argued it could adversely affect its members from obtaining full citizenship under current citizenship laws but did not clearly explain how this could happen.

“In the future our status will be like [that of a] foreigner,” he said on January 10.

U Kyaw Min and U Khin Maung Myint, head of the NDPD’s foreign relations committee, said that the Rohingya population in Myanmar – which they estimated at 1.5 million, most of whom live in Rakhine State – makes the group much more significant in terms of size than most of those that are officially recognised groups.

“We are not asking for anything special. We are asking [for the census to be changed] as a basic right,” U Khin Maung Myint said.

Despite the urging of the political parties and the group’s sizable population, it seems extremely unlikely that the government will list the Rohyinga as an ethnicity option. Nay Pyi Taw refuses to officially recognise the group, instead referring to its members as Bengalis and characterising them as illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh.

NDPD and DHRP leaders said they would take a wait-and-see approach to the issue and have not yet decided whether they will encourage Rohingya to boycott the census if the census is not amended.

U Khin Maung Myint said that both parties had on multiple occasions approached the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), which is assisting the government with the census, to raise their concerns. He said they were told that the agency’s role as technical adviser meant it could not dictate the structure of the census to the government.

Speaking to The Myanmar Times last week, a UNFPA spokesperson said people who opt to self-identify will be tallied “through a sub-coding process after the census”.

“This will take time to do and the analysis of this will provide important statistical data in terms of the ethnic spread and groupings in the country, as well as giving the opportunity for further research, review and discussion on this,” the spokesperson said.

The nationwide census will be the first in 31 years. It is scheduled to take place in March and April.

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