Burma census is not counting Rohingya Muslims, says UN agency

The UN agency helping Burma conduct its first census in decades has said it is deeply concerned that members of the long-persecuted Rohingya Muslim population are not being counted, accusing the government of going back on its word.

In the violence-scarred state of Rakhine, census workers were asking households to identify their ethnicity. When the answer was "Rohingya", they reportedly said thank you, turned around and walked away.

Burma, 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 30 March to 10 April is crucial for national development and planning.

But the inclusion of questions about ethnicity and race – approved by the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) – have been widely criticised. Experts warned they could inflame tensions at a delicate stage in the country's transition to democracy.

That is especially true in Rakhine, home to the country's estimated 1.3 million Rohingya. In the past two years, their neighbourhoods 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 UN 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, the presidential spokesman Ye Htut announced that anyone who called themselves Rohingya would not be counted. Though many members of the religious minority were born in Burma to families who arrived generations ago, the government considers them illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

Ye Htut said only those who called themselves Bengalis would be included in the official tally. The UN 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 UN said it was deeply concerned by the government's about-face, saying it could heighten tensions in Rakhine state and undermine the credibility of data collected.

The census – funded largely by the world body and international donors – was estimated to cost $74m. Rights groups and analysts have repeatedly criticised the UNFPA for failing to properly consult a broad range of ethnic groups before the count, which took years to plan, and ignoring warnings about the potential dangers of including complex, politically sensitive issues about ethnicity.