Enumerators fanned out across Myanmar on Sunday for a census that has been widely criticised for stoking religious and ethnic tensions, after the government denied members of a long-persecuted Muslim minority the right 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 it will be used for political purposes.
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 estimated, around 60 million, is based on extrapolations from the last count in 1983, that experts say was hugely flawed, leaving out many religious and ethnic minorities.
More than 100,000 enumerators – most of them school teachers wearing white blouses, green traditional longyis and khaki waistcoats – started going door-to-door at 7am Sunday.
They hope to reach 12 million households by the time they finish their job on April 10.
Their long, complicated survey – a collaboration between the government and the United Nations Population Fund – seeks information well beyond the number of people living in each home, however, from literacy and employment levels, to disabilities, access to clean water, and fertility and mortality rates.
It also includes sensitive, and highly controversial, questions about race and ethnicity that human rights groups have repeatedly warned are especially inappropriate at this delicate juncture in the country’s transition to democracy.
They are especially worried about Rohingya Muslims in the western state of Rakhine, who have been the targets of Buddhist mob attack in the last two years that have left up to 280 people dead and sent another 240,000 fleeing their homes nationwide.
Tens of thousands are living in apartheid-like conditions in crowded camps, where they have little or no access to jobs, education or medical care.
The government considers members of the religious minority to be illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh, though many arrived generations ago, and refers to them only as “Bengalis.” Though numbering around 1.3 million, they are denied citizenship by national law.
Worried the census would legitimise their status, Buddhists in the state have protested, at times threatening to boycott the count. With tensions soaring, they have in recent days attacked the homes and offices of foreign aid workers who have been helping Muslims, forcing the evacuation of almost all staff.
On Saturday, Ye Htut, the presidential spokesman, announced that Rohingya would not be allowed to identify themselves as such on the ballot.
“If a household wants to identify themselves as ‘Rohingya’, we will not register it,” he told reporters after meeting with President Thein Sein and political parties, adding that people could call themselves “Bengali”.
Some Rohingya, speaking on condition of anonymity because they fear reprisals, told reporters they would refuse.
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.
The British Embassy protested against the government’s decision, saying under international standards, respondents have the right to answer as they see fit.
Ethnic minorities, which together make up about 40 per cent 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.
In some cases, the ethnic groups listed on the survey are split up in too many subdivisions.
The Chin, for instance, account for 53 of the categories, though many of the names listed are simply of villages or clans, not separate ethnic groups, fracturing the already small group. In other cases, sub-tribes with different ethnicities are grouped together, increasing the chances of misrepresentation.
An ethnic group calling itself Tai Nai or Red Shan, which lives in the Sagaing region and the states of Shan and Kachin, complained that they were not included among the 33 sub-tribes of the Shan.
Khaing Khaing Soe, director of the department of population, was undeterred by rebel threats to deny access to census workers.
“We will go to every corner of the country and will conduct the census according to international standards,” she said. “We will not exclude any area.”
Anyone who tries to stand in the way of enumerators will be punished, she added.