Census stokes ethnic tensions in Myanmar's Rakhine State

Census stokes ethnic tensions in Myanmar's Rakhine State

Census stokes ethnic tensions in Myanmar's Rakhine State

Updated 30 March 2014, 5:12 AEST

Foreign aid workers have been attacked in Myanmar as the country's first census in three decades gets underway, raising fears of renewed unrest.

Foreign aid workers have been attacked in Myanmar as the country's first census in three decades raises fears of renewed unrest.

Buddhist protesters, who want to see the census banned, have rampaged through the streets of Sittwe in Myanmar's volatile Rakhine State.

Police had to escort at least eight aid workers from a German aid agency after a mob hurled stones at their office this week.

The government in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, is about to embark on its first national census since 1983.

This tally threatens to inflame tensions in a country where suspicions of the state run deep after years of dictatorship.

The census asks people to choose their ethnicity and religion, but some ethnic groups, like Rohingya Muslims, are not officially recognised by the government.

A person belonging to an ethnic group has to identify as "other", and write in their ethnicity.

'Rohingya' term banned

The Myanmar government says Muslims in the country would not be allowed to register as "Rohingya" in the census.

"If a household wants to identify themselves as 'Rohingya', we will not register it," government spokesman Ye Htut said.

He says people could call themselves "Bengali", a term used by the authorities who view most Rohingya as illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh.

Myanmar's Rohingya mainly live in the restive Rakhine State in the country's west. But the Rakhine deny the Rohingya even exist.

Local politicians in Rakhine support a boycott of the census because they believe the Rohingya should not be counted.

Radical monk U Wirathu is accused of stoking tensions and delivering hate speeches against Rohingya Muslims in the weeks leading up to the census.

He has also encouraged ethnic Rakhines to boycott the head count if Rohingyas are included. He says they should not be citizens, and should go back to Bangladesh.

Rohingyas fear identifying as Rohingya will threaten their legal status, but not doing so will leave them under-represented.

"Claiming an ethnicity is not the question of violence. Who will initiate the violence, it is the question," Rohingya politician Kyaw Min said.

Risk assessment groups have urged the United Nations and the government to remove the ethnicity question, but the UN has said it is too late to change the questionnaire.

Topics: