Khin Maung Win/AP

Myanmar begins census amid tensions

In first count since 1983, Muslim minority denied option to identify as Rohingya; other groups also distrust count

Census takers fanned out across Myanmar on Sunday for a count that has been widely criticized for stoking religious and ethnic tensions, after the government denied members of a long-persecuted Muslim minority the ability to identify themselves as "Rohingya."

And 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 count will be used for political purposes.

More than 100,000 census takers started going door-to-door early on Sunday. They hope to reach 12 million households by the time they finish their job on April 10.

The long, complicated questionnaire the census takers are presenting people is a collaboration between the government and the United Nations Population Fund. It seeks information that goes well beyond tallying the number of people living in each home to inquire about literacy rates, employment levels and disabilities, access to clean water and fertility rates.

It also includes sensitive, and highly controversial, questions about race and ethnicity that human rights groups have repeatedly warned could put vulnerable populations at risk.

They are especially worried about Rohingya Muslims in the western state of Rakhine, who have been the targets of Buddhist mob attacks in the last two years that have left more than 200 people dead and prompted another 140,000 to flee their homes.

In December, Buddhists from an extremist sect toured Rakhine state, where Rohingya make up 90 percent of the population, calling for the group's expulsion. In January, Buddhists hacked to death about a dozen Rohingya with knives, including women and children.

The government considers members of the religious minority to be Bengali immigrants and denies them citizenship by national law, even though many arrived generations ago.

Worried the census would legitimize the status of Rohingya, Buddhists in Rakhine state have vowed to boycott it. With tensions soaring, Buddhists attacked the homes and offices of foreign aid workers last week, forcing the evacuation of almost all staff.

On Saturday, Ye Htut, a spokesman for President Thein Sein, announced that Rohingya would not be allowed to identify themselves as such on the ballot even though the United Nations had given repeated assurances that the Rohingya would be allowed to identify themselves by that name.

"If a household wants to identify themselves as `Rohingya', we will not register it," he told reporters after meeting with the president and political parties, adding that people could call themselves "Bengali."

The United Nations did not comment directly but said in a statement on the eve of the count that the world body and international donors  had been assured by the government that everyone in the country would be counted, and all respondents would have the option to self-identify their ethnicity.

Ethnic minorities, which combined 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 by larger groups. In some cases, the ethnic groups listed on the survey are split up in too many subdivisions. For example, the Chin, account for 53 of the categories, though many of the names listed are 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.

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 estimate of the population — approximately 60 million — is based on extrapolations from 1983, the last count. Experts say it was flawed because it left out many religious and ethnic minorities.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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