Muslim Rohingyas will not be included as an ethnic group in Myanmar’s first census exercise in more than 30 years because the government does not recognize them as belonging to a national ethnicity, an official said Thursday, dispelling online reports that the group would be acknowledged in the survey.
But they can still identify themselves in the census—there is a box for “other” with space for anyone living in Myanmar to write any group or name they wish to be identified as, said Myint Kyaing, director general of the Department of Population under the Ministry of Immigration and Population.
His statement came as lawmakers in western Rakhine state, where Rohingyas are reeling from deadly sectarian violence believed perpetrated by ethnic Rakhine Buddhists, endorsed a proposal to shut down unregistered nongovernmental organizations in the volatile state.
Many NGOs, including international medical aid group Doctors Without Borders (MSF) which was expelled from Rakhine state recently, have been trying to help the Rohingyas, who the government considers illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh, although many have lived in the country for generations. The U.N. says they are among the world's most persecuted minorities.
Myint Kyaing said he wanted to make clear that Rohingyas would not be included as an ethnic group in the census to be carried out between March 30 and April 10 to allay concerns by ethnic Rakhines over social media reports indicating that Rohingyas would be officially recognized in the survey list.
“This is not the government’s list—it is from the Muslim group’s [proposed] list,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
“We don’t have any code number [on the census] for the Rohingya ethnicity in our country.”
When asked what code number 914 represented on the census, which reports had said was designated for the Rohingyas, Myint Kyaing said it denotes an “other” category of ethnicities not recognized by the government.
“We have code number 914 for ‘others’—people who are not included in the [official] 135 ethnic groups of Myanmar. It is used for all others,” he said.
The U.S. $75 million census project, jointly run by the Myanmar government and the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA), will mobilize around 100,000 schoolteachers to count every person in the country for the purpose of national planning and development.
Myint Kyaing said that despite the involvement of the U.N., the government would not be pressured to include them on the survey.
“We will only have UNFPA’s technical help,” he said. “We won’t let them be involved in the policy behind the census.”
International groups have criticized Myanmar’s 1982 Citizenship Law, which omits Rohingyas from the list of 135 recognized ethnic minorities, as discriminating against the group and effectively barring them from citizenship.
Rohingya activists have argued that many of the 800,000 Rohingyas living in Myanmar should be eligible under Article 6 of the law, which states that anyone who is “already a citizen on the date this law comes into force is a citizen.”
Myint Kyaing said that the government was working to prevent protests by ethnic Rakhines over the social media reports.
Ethnic violence in Rakhine state has killed more than 200 people since 2012 and left tens of thousands displaced.
“If people want to change their ethnic listing or if they were put into an incorrect ethnic group, we will hold a conference with historian and academics to make corrections after the census,” Myint Kyaing said.
He acknowledged that there could be “some difficulties” in carrying out the census in areas of northern Myanmar’s remote Kachin state, where ethnic rebels fighting for an independent state have refused to enter into a ceasefire with the government.
“There may be some difficulties in areas that we can’t reach because of location and limited transportation, but we assume that, overall, the nationwide census will be successful,” he said.
He said the census had already been conducted in Kachin state’s Putao district at the foot of the Myanmar Himalayas ahead of the March 30 due date because of difficulty of access. In March, snow melt can cause a trip to the mountainous region to become even more treacherous.
Daung Kha, a spokesperson for the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) told RFA that while his group had not officially objected to the census being taken in Kachin state, many members of the ethnic group “don’t agree with the government’s policy” behind the project.
He said that ongoing military issues, including internally displaced persons (IDP), would add to the logistical problems census takers would face.
Last month, the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG) said that the census should focus only on key demographic questions to avoid deepening ethnic and religious divides ahead of crucial elections next year.
It called on Myanmar to postpone questions “which are needlessly antagonistic and divisive,” such as those concerning ethnicity, religion and citizenship status, for “a more appropriate moment.”
Also on Thursday, the Rakhine state legislature voted to shut down unregistered NGOs operating in the region following a proposal last week from Rakhine Nationalities Development Party (RNDP) MP Aung Win, who said that the groups had been “causing bigger problems” between Muslims and Buddhists and giving Myanmar “a bad image.”
Speaking at Thursday’s session after the measure passed a vote, chairman of the Rakhine State Parliament Htein Lin said that the work of NGOs and international NGOs (INGOs) in the region must be regulated.
“The government allows any organization to register,” he said.
“If an organization doesn’t register, it is operating illegally. Every organization must respect and follow laws of the country.”
Some 68 international and domestic NGOs have applied to work in Rakhine since deadly violence broke out in 2012 between ethnic Rakhines and Rohingyas, leaving the region mired in a humanitarian crisis, but only 15 international and four domestic groups have been approved.
Many NGOs operate in Rakhine without formal registration, and therefore illegally, either because they chose to bypass the red tape required to obtain permission or because officials have looked the other way while the groups provide much-needed services to the region.
A report by the Myanma Freedom Daily quoted Rakhine state government press committee secretary Win Myaing as saying that NGOS that had signed agreements with the authorities would also be subject to removal from the region.
“Some NGOs and INGOs operate beyond the boundaries agreed in the MoU. In fact, they need to stick to the MoUs and should not overstep the boundaries. Therefore, we need to see what exactly they are doing,” Win Myaing said.
The Myanmar government on Feb. 27 ordered Paris-based Doctors Without Borders’ (MSF) to halt all its operations in the country, accusing it of giving “preferential treatment” to Rohingyas, among other reasons.
Following criticism from foreign governments and rights groups, the ban on MSF was confined only to Rakhine state, where it has provided primary health care to people in camps displaced by violence and in the region’s isolated villages.
Prior to the suspension, MSF said, it had carried out a variety of activities in nine townships across Rakhine state, “treating anyone who was unable to access the medical care they required.”
In addition to primary care, the group provided referrals for patients that required emergency secondary hospital care, and family planning and care for pregnant women and newborn babies.
Reported by Khin Khin Ei and Min Thein Aung for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.