YANGON, Myanmar – The proportion of Muslims in overwhelmingly Buddhist Myanmar has not increased in three decades, contrary to the fears of strident Buddhist nationalists.
The government's release Thursday of the religion data from the 2014 census showed 87.9 percent of Myanmar's 51.49 million people are Buddhist, while 6.2 percent are Christian and 4.3 percent Muslim.
Minister of Labor, Immigration and Population Thein Swe said at a news conference that members of the Rohingya ethnic minority — who are Muslim — were not officially counted because they refused to identify themselves by the official category of Bengali, which implies they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
The 4.3 percent proportion of Muslims is based on a projection that includes the 1.09 million Rohingya.
Rioting directed against Rohingya in 2012 in western Rakhine state, where most live, sparked deadly anti-Muslim violence around the country and fueled the rise of a politically aggressive Buddhist-nationalist movement.
More than 100,000 Rohingya still live in squalid displacement camps in Rakhine after the 2012 rioting forced them from their homes, while as recently as June, there were two mob attacks on Muslim religious institutions in other states.
Prejudice against the Rohingya remains strong even though the government of Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi this past month moved toward curbing Buddhist extremists.
Thein Swe said that census enumerators were intimidated sometimes from carrying out their duties in Muslim areas of Rakhine, as well as in the northern state of Kachin and eastern Karen state, where ethnic minority militias hostile to the central government hold sway.
Yoriko Yasukawa, the Asia-Pacfic regional director of the U.N. Population Fund, in a press release "expressed hope that the census data will help all communities to work together to build an inclusive society that respects and values the rights and aspirations of all people in Myanmar — without exception."
However, the U.N. agency also took note of the absence of data on the Rohingya, most of whom "face severe restrictions to freedom of movement, depriving them of access to health services, education and employment.
It described their absence from the census as a shortcoming and a "grave human rights concern," and said the Rohingya should have all their rights restored as soon as possible.