Myanmar's census at risk amid fresh unrest in ethnic powderkeg Rakhine
Watchdogs warn first population count in 30 years could stoke violence and suggest scaling back questions on ethnicity amid Rohingya rift
Myanmar's first census for 30 years is threatened before it has even started, as renewed unrest in the country's west threatens to send foreign aid workers fleeing, making conditions impossible for counters.
The government is planning a 12-day marathon operation from tomorrow in which 100,000 teachers will fan out across the country to count the population and tally other data.
But the count has threatened to widen the ethnic rifts that sparked deadly violence in the west of the country. Western aid workers have been targeted by angry Buddhist protesters, triggering a strict curfew. As soldiers patrolled the streets, police escorted aid workers from their homes. Other aid groups said they were evacuating all local and foreign non-essential staff, some on regularly scheduled flights, others on charters.
On Thursday, an 11-year-old girl was accidentally killed when security forces fired warning shots to disperse Buddhist mobs targeting international aid groups in Rakhine.
The unrest began late on Wednesday when hundreds of Buddhists massed around the offices of Germany-based medical aid group Malteser International in Sittwe, accusing an American aid worker of handling a religious flag disrespectfully.
The incident bodes ill for the census workers.
"These are unarmed schoolteachers," David Mathieson, of Human Rights Watch, said of the census team. "I wouldn't be inclined to send them out if they might have their skulls cracked. It's still not too late to call off the entire process."
The census is controversial because it opens up the thorny issue of ethnicity and crucially gives the marginalised Muslim Rohingya minority a chance to have their presence in Myanmar validated for the first time.
There are more than a million Rohingya in Myanmar, and 140,000 have lived in camps in Rakhine since ethnic riots and clashes with Buddhists nearly two years ago. They will not be counted as citizens, nor will they be listed among the 135 officially designated ethnic categories. But the census will acknowledge they exist by allowing an "other" category, allowing people to identify themselves as Rohingya.
"We are the Rohingya. We have no other race name. We simply have no choice but to write in our proper name," said Rasheed, deputy principal of an Islamic school in one of the camps. "We are losing every one of our rights, our health care, our education. We are being discriminated against from every corner. We have asked our people to stay here and to co-operate with the census and hope that it could help us eventually."
But the validation of Rohingya has angered Buddhists.
So great is the desire to be formally recognised in the head count that in recent days the outflow of Rohingya refugees has slowed to a trickle.
At one of the largest Rohingya displacement camps, a group of educated men who were once merchants in downtown Sittwe gathered over tea and samosas to discuss how they would co-operate with the census takers and encourage others to have their voices heard.
"Life in this camp has no future," said U Maung Dru, 52. "There is no clinic, no education, many people do not have enough food. We hope that after this census, we might have some human rights in the future."
International watchdog groups have warned the census could lead to unrest and violence and suggested scaling back questions about ethnicity.
But an official from the UN population fund said Myanmar's development depended on a complete and accurate census.
Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse