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Census procedures raise ‘serious questions’: UNFPA

By Bill O’Toole   |   Monday, 31 March 2014

(Myanmar Times)- The United Nations Population Fund said on Monday that recent statements from the government on self-identification in Myanmar’s census raise “serious concerns” about its commitment to upholding international standards.

The UNFPA has provided training and support for the national census, which began on March 30 and runs through to April 10, and has refused to back calls for the census to be postponed because of the risk it will inflame conflict. However, its support has begun to waver after the government said that nobody would be allowed to self-identify as “Rohingya”.

On March 29, presidential spokesperson U Ye Htut was quoted as saying that any citizen choosing to self-identify as “Rohingya” would not be counted. A video uploaded to Facebook the same day purported to show Department of Population official Daw Khaing Khaing Soe, who sits on the Central Census Commission (CCC), warning that those who self-identify as “Rohingya” would be breaking the law.

These developments contracted a March 28 UNFPA statement, in which it said that “as part of its agreement with the UN and donors, the government has made a commitment that everyone who is in the country will be counted in the census, and all respondents will have the option to self-identify their ethnicity. This commitment cannot be honoured selectively in the face of intimidation or threats of violence.”

UNFPA regional communications adviser for Asia and the Pacific William Ryan said the agency would respond to the government’s latest actions in the coming days.

“Events over the weekend raise serious concerns that the government is not complying with our original agreement,” he told The Myanmar Times.

Initial reports from Rakhine State suggested the government was following through on its threat to not let households identify as Rohingya.

U Aung Win, a citizen of Sittwe who claims Rohingya ethnicity, said on Monday morning he witnessed census enumerators in his neighborhood. He said that any time a household responded to be Rohingya, the enumerator would move on without filling in a census form. Because so many houses were skipped, U Aung Win said it took just a few hours for enumerators to finish canvassing his neighborhood.

“[The census] falls short of international standards,” said David Mathieson, a Yangon-based senior researcher with Human Rights Watch, which has previously called on the government to postpone the census. “It’s like the census was designed to be enumerated in a parallel universe of a Burma without all the social problems obvious to everyone who lives in the real Burma.”

But some experts said it was too soon to pass judgment on the census. Paul Cheung, co-chair of the census’ International Technical Advisory Board and a faculty member at National University of Singapore, said it was important to first “investigate these incidents and evaluate its impact”.

“The census preparatory activities went very well. We are confident that for the bulk of Myanmar, the census will yield very good data for future planning use.”

The ITAB is a body of 15 global experts in the field of statistics, demography and census taking that was established to guide the holding of Myanmar’s census.