SITTWE, Myanmar – The U.N. agency helping Myanmar carry out its first census in decades said it was "deeply concerned" members of the long-persecuted Rohingya Muslim population were not being counted, accusing the government of going back on its word.
In village after village in the sectarian-torn state of Rakhine, enumerators were asking households to identify their ethnicity. When the answer was "Rohingya," they said thank you, turned around and walked away.
Myanmar, a predominantly Buddhist nation of about 60 million, only recently emerged from a half-century of military rule. It held its last count in 1983 and experts say the information being gathered from March 30 to April 10 is crucial for national development and planning.
But the inclusion of questions about ethnicity and race — approved by the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA) — have been widely criticized. Experts warned they could inflame sectarian tensions at a delicate stage in the country's transition to democracy.
That's especially true in Rakhine, home to the country's estimated 1.3 million Rohingya. In the last two years, their neighborhoods have been targeted by rampaging Buddhist mobs. Up to 280 people have been killed and another 140,000 forced to flee their homes. Many are now living in crowded camps on the outskirts of the state capital, Sittwe.
The U.N. agency said it had received assurances from the government that everyone in the country would be allowed to self-identify their ethnicity.
On the eve of the census, however, presidential spokesman Ye Htut announced anyone who called themselves "Rohingya" would not be counted. Though many members of the religious minority were born in Myanmar to families who arrived generations ago, the government considers them illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
Ye Htut said only those who call themselves "Bengalis" would be included in the official tally.
The U.N. agency said that went against earlier promises.
"In its agreement with the United Nations ... the government made a commitment to conduct the exercise in accordance with international census standards and human rights principles," it said in a statement. "It explicitly agreed with the condition that each person would be able to declare what ethnicity they belong to."
"Those not identifying with one of the listed ethnic categories would be able to declare their ethnicity and have their response recorded by enumerators."
The U.N. said it was "deeply concerned" by government's about-face, saying it could heighten tensions in Rakhine state and undermine the credibility of data collected.