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Burma must allow Rohingya to self-identify in census: MRG

2 April 2014

Minority Rights Group International (MRG) is deeply troubled by Burma's decision to hinder the Rohingya minority from participating in the country's national census.

The census, currently being conducted in partnership with the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), is intended to collect demographic data from the former military dictatorship for the first time in over thirty years.

But a government spokesperson announced on Saturday that the Rohingya, a stateless Muslim minority living in limbo along the Bangladeshi border, must register as ‘Bengalis' if they wish to be counted. This reflects a discriminatory government policy classing the Rohingya as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. It also reverses a previous commitment to allow all minorities to identify themselves freely — a key human rights standard.

‘There are legitimate concerns that the census may be used to further marginalize and persecute the Rohingya minority in western Burma,' said Carl Söderbergh, Director of Policy and Communications at MRG. ‘The 2014 census must count all residents irrespective of ethnicity, religion and language, or it cannot be considered a valid process.'

The UN, whose support has lent considerable legitimacy to the process, also has an obligation to ensure these standards are met. On Tuesday, UNFPA expressed ‘deep concern' about the government's policy U-turn, but stopped short of denouncing the poll. It has repeatedly dismissed calls for the census to be postponed.

‘MRG is disappointed that UNFPA has not taken greater care to protect the rights of minorities in Burma,' said Söderbergh. ‘It now risks becoming complicit in the oppression of one of Burma's most vulnerable communities.'

Many organizations have called for the census to be delayed until Burma can ensure that it is carried out in a transparent and inclusive manner, without aggravating existing ethno-religious tensions. Burma has been struck by several bouts of religious violence since 2012, leaving 140,000 Rohingya Muslims stranded under abysmal conditions in camps in Arakan state.

‘Burma's decision effectively excluding the Rohingya is a direct violation of international human rights law, which guarantees minorities the right to equality and self-identification,' added Söderbergh.

‘Both the Burmese government and UNFPA must take immediate steps to ensure that all ethnic and religious groups are accurately represented in the census. If the process continues without meeting international standards, it risks being seen as illegitimate as well as exacerbating already serious tensions in the country.'

The government's U-turn is broadly seen as an attempt to appease Buddhist nationalists who threatened to boycott the census if the Muslim Rohingya are recognized. It follows heightened tensions in Arakan state, where Buddhist extremists have led violent campaigns against humanitarian groups working with the Rohingya.

In late-March, most aid workers were forced to evacuate Arakan state after coming under attack by local mobs, which ransacked the homes and offices of humanitarian and UN staff. Aid workers say the violence appeared ‘organised' and ‘structured', raising concerns that extremist groups are attempting to completely isolate the Rohingya, who are heavily dependent on aid.

Media reports suggest that 20,000 Rohingyas living in the state-capital Sittwe will run out of water and food within two weeks. The Rohingya were stripped of their citizenship in 1982 by the former military junta, even though most of them have lived in Burma for generations.

For more information contact:

Carl Söderbergh, MRG's Director of Policy and Communications (UK)
T: +44 207 422 4200 or 422 4227
M: +44 7837 533 675
E: [email protected]

Hanna Hindstrom, MRG's Asia Information Officer (Thailand)
T: +66(0)9055 83627
E: [email protected]

Minority Rights Group International (MRG) is a non-governmental organization working to secure the rights of ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities and indigenous peoples worldwide.