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(New York) – Burma’s national government should postpone the planned nationwide census to prevent growing communal violence and attacks on the aid community, Human Rights Watch said today. At greatest risk are vulnerable Muslim communities and aid workers from international organizations.

On March 26, 2014, mobs in Arakan State began attacking international aid organizations, damaging or destroying 14 properties, including offices, residences, and food storage facilities. The organizations quickly evacuated 32 international and 39 Burmese staff from the Arakan provincial capital, Sittwe, on March 28.

“The mob attacks in Arakan State illustrate the risks of proceeding with the census in such a volatile atmosphere,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “The government should suspend the census until it can ensure adequate security and a fair process for everyone involved.”

Burma’s long-awaited census is slated to begin nationwide on March 29, with census surveyors working from March 30 until April 10 to collect basic demographic data on the country’s estimated population of 60 million. Several non-state armed groups have announced they will not permit census-takers access to their territory, including the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), which controls significant swathes of territory along the Burma-China border and is hosting over 40,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) from the recent conflict. Other ethnic groups, such as the Wa, Pa-O, and Mon, have also expressed concerns over the impact of the census on their areas. Many ethnic minorities have rejected the census as potentially weakening their local political representation or claims to ethnicity if the process undercounts their group.

The census questionnaire includes 41 questions ranging from the number of persons in the household to specifics about age, gender, education level, birth rates, and members of households living overseas. Major controversy has surrounded two categories of questions related to ethnicity and religion: since the initial days of the census planning, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and several key international donors have accepted the Burmese government’s deeply flawed and highly contested classification of its population into “135 national races,” even though listing just the eight main ethnic groups would have given flexibility to a process being conducted in the multi-ethnic country. These ethnic classifications risk exacerbating already vexing identity issues as part of the fragile nationwide ceasefire process, and within very diverse communities in ethnic areas such as Shan State.

Ethnic community groups have also expressed concerns that both the government’s Ministry of Immigration and Population and the UN Population Fund have failed to adequately consult with a broad range of ethnic groups and have conducted the census preparation in a nontransparent, largely unaccountable manner that has discounted critical voices seeking improvements in the process. UNFPA didn’t hold its first consultation with ethnic groups without the presence of government officials until March 17.

“The census is a technical project that has taken on major political overtones and risks inflaming an already tense environment, with particular potential to spark violence against Rohingya Muslims and the foreign aid workers trying to help people in desperate need,” Adams said. “The government and the UN should listen to the concerns of ethnic minorities and go back to the drawing board to make sure they get this process right.”

The national government should act proactively to prevent any renewed violence against the Rohingya Muslim population in Burma’s western Arakan State and against the broader Muslim population throughout Burma, who have been targets of mob attacks since 2012. Many of Burma’s estimated 800,000 Rohingya are stateless because the 1982 citizenship law effectively denies them access to citizenship.

In Sittwe in Arakan State, demonstrations against the census and the government’s agreement to permit the classification “Rohingya” to be put in the ethnic classification box on the census form have been ongoing for several weeks. Community leaders have called on ethnic Arakanese Buddhists to boycott the census, and this call has been spread further by a tour of anti-Muslim extremist Buddhist monks led by U Wirathu, the Mandalay-based leader of the nationalist 969 movement. Demonstrations against Rohingya Muslims being counted in the census have also been held in the commercial capital Rangoon.

Pressures on aid agencies grow
In February, the national government announced the suspension of the international humanitarian aid organization Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) (Doctors Without Borders), the primary health provider to the Rohingya population since 1992, for alleged breaches of their operating agreement. Human Rights Watch believes the government acted in response to local Arakanese Buddhist pressure to end MSF’s operations providing assistance to Rohingya.

MSF and other humanitarian organizations had been under pressure from Arakanese nationalist groups since the violence in Arakan State in 2012. However, there was an intensifying of criticism following an incident in Du Chee Yar Tan village in Arakan State’s Maungdaw township in January when state security forces killed an unknown number of Rohingya villagers. Despite vociferous denials by Burma’s presidential spokesman, Ye Htut, that the incident took place, MSF publicly stated that their clinic nearby had treated Rohingya with wounds sustained in a violent incident, lending credibility to international media reports. The late March attacks in Sittwe come just days after MSF President Joanne Liu held what she termed an “encouraging dialogue” with national authorities for MSF to resume activities in Arakan State.

“Burma’s government should suspend the census, reformulate its design so that it does no harm, and try again later in a way that won’t fuel communal violence,” Adams said. “Donors have long been privately worried that the census could backfire. They should now be at the forefront of calling for the process to be suspended and then substantially redesigned to assist Burma’s development, not imperil it.”

Burma’s first nationwide census since 1983 is scheduled to be conducted in conjunction with the Ministry of Immigration and Population and the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) between March 29 and April 10, 2014. The process will be conducted by approximately 140,000 enumerators and 20,000 supervisors, mostly schoolteachers, throughout Burma in a process that UNFPA has claimed will achieve a “100 percent headcount.”

However, UNFPA and other census supporters have not addressed concerns that after decades of military rule, many people, especially in areas controlled by ethnic minority groups, are highly distrustful of state employees. The Population and Housing Census Act of 2013 makes it illegal to refuse participation in the census or in any way obstruct the process.

The census will ask 41 questions covering basic information about members of each household, and most controversially, questions on ethnicity and religion. Other elements of the census to be collected other than basic headcounts and demographics include: literacy rates, employment levels, disabilities, housing units and conditions, access to clean water, electricity and social amenities, fertility and mortality rates, and internal and international migration. Some critics of the process assert that obtaining data on many of these sensitive subjects should be postponed because of their potential for misuse. More controversial questions could be surveyed at a later date or using different methodology.

Administrators in some parts of the country – such as rebel-controlled areas of Kachin State and special administrative zones controlled by the United Wa State Party – have announced they will not permit census-takers into their zones of control.

The results of the census are scheduled to be released in three stages, with preliminary results being issued in August 2014, the main results being reported in the first quarter of 2015, and subsequent analytical reports being issued in November 2015, which is the planned date for the next nationwide parliamentary elections.

The census is estimated to cost US$74 million, an increase from the original estimate of US$58 million. The Burmese government has committed approximately US$15 million, UNFPA US$5 million, and a consortium of other main donors including the United Kingdom, Australia, Finland, Germany, Norway, Sweden, and Switzerland making up the rest.

Human Rights Watch recommends that the Burmese government:

  • Take all necessary steps to prevent further attacks on aid agencies in Arakan State;
  • Ensure that local Arakan and national authorities are held accountable for abuses;
  • Ensure that security forces protect all communities impartially and ensure that abusive units and personnel are rotated out of the area and replaced with units and commanders who have a proven record of upholding the law and not taking sides in communal violence;
  • Take concrete steps to end the culture of impunity prevalent in the security forces, particularly the Myanmar Police Force and including members of the Defense Services, for abuses against Rohingya and other Muslims and other minority groups. Discipline or prosecute as appropriate commanders and security personnel who commit or condone such abuses; and
  • Should, if the census goes ahead, release results only if all appropriate action is taken to prevent ethnic or other violence sparked by the results.

Human Rights Watch recommends that donors and others in the international community:

  • Call for the suspension of the census until it can be carried out safely and fairly;
  • Reduce the number of census questions to avoid sensitive issues of ethnicity and religion that could generate violence and discrimination;
  • Call upon the government to only release results of the census if all appropriate action is taken to prevent ethnic or other violence sparked by the results;
  • Demand that the authorities take all necessary steps to ensure that humanitarian organizations can operate safely in Arakan State;
  • Press the Burmese authorities to immediately rescind local restrictions in Arakan State that limit the rights of Rohingya and other Muslims to movement, work, religion, number of children, and access to health and education; and
  • Support the formation of a UN Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights office in Burma with a full protection, promotion, and technical assistance mandate, and sub-offices in states around the country, including in Arakan State.

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