Yangon, Myanmar – Rights groups and activists have criticised the Myanmar government and United Nations for not recognising the Muslim Rohingya minority as an ethnic group in the country’s first nationwide census in 30 years.
Though observers praised the census – which cost $50m – released on Friday, as an important socioeconomic indicator, they said that leaving Rohingya Muslims off the list of the country’s 135 official ethnic groups is a sign that it has no intention of recognising them as citizens.
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“The exclusion of the Rohingya from the census is an unacceptable capitulation by the international community to the starkly racist and repressive policies of the Burmese government,” said David Mathieson, a senior researcher on Myanmar for Human Rights Watch.
“It poisons an otherwise important and urgently needed census for Burma’s development.”
Where the facts presented in the release of the census gives an overview of Myanmar’s long unknown population, it also omitted key indicators, including the total composition of the ethnic groups that live in it, choosing instead to release such data after general elections are held in November.
In a speech at the launch of the census, Myanmar President Thein Sein made no mention of the omission of the Rohingya, a long-persecuted community of nearly 1.3 million.
However, he defended the study, saying it was done in line with international standards.
“From the political dialogues that we will be conducting in the very near future to establish a union based on federal principles, we will certainly encounter issues of categorising and recognising the ethnic national races based on political agreements reached,” he said.
“In this respect, census data would facilitate addressing the said issues.”
‘Population left out’
Also speaking at the launch, Vijay Nambiar, the special adviser to the UN secretary-general on Myanmar, acknowledged the shortcomings in the census: “While recognising the achievements of the census, we must not overlook some of its shortcomings.”
“In northern Rakhine state, a considerable segment of the population was left out of the exercise amid ongoing communal tensions and the demand of many local people to self-identify as Rohingya, a demand not conceded by the authorities,” he said.
“This controversy over nomenclature prevented many people from being counted and census maps were used to estimate the number of uncounted people. Other details necessary for a complete census in this region remain un-provided,” said Nambiar, adding that it would be necessary “to conduct social surveys in the months ahead to help fill this data gap”.
According to the UN Population Fund, the reported total population of 51.5 million includes estimates for areas not enumerated in Rakhine, Kachin and intention states, a total of 1.2 million people.