World Bulletin / News Desk
The United Nations is facing intensifying criticism for its support of a census that discriminates against Rohingya Muslims by banning members of the persecuted minority in Myanmar from listing their ethnicity.
Rights groups have attacked the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) for providing funding and logistical support for the controversial tally, which many fear is fuelling long-running ethnic tensions in Buddhist-dominated Myanmar.
Countries including Britain, Germany and Australia are also helping cover the US$70 million cost of the country's first headcount in over 30 years.
Deputy Information Minister Ye Htut announced Saturday that Rohingya would be banned from putting their ethnic name on the census form. Until then, both government officials and the U.N. Population Fund had maintained the group would be allowed to list themselves under an "other" category.
Rohingya are denied citizenship by Myanmar’s government, which claims they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and refers to them officially as Bengali.
As the data gathering began Sunday, reports emerged of census takers leaving some areas without collecting any information after Rohingya living there refused to register as Bengali.
"International aid, including British aid, is now funding discrimination against the Rohingya," the director of Burma Campaign UK, Mark Farmaner, wrote on Twitter Sunday. His group recently called for the census to be postponed, claiming it could cause bloodshed.
Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, said it was a "big mistake for Burma’s census to go forward in this form, fuelling ethnic tensions and denying recognition to Rohingya."
Amy Smith, a human rights researcher covering Myanmar, added, "Many 'concerns' are being raised by UNFPA about the census in Myanmar, but what action are they taking?"
Nationalist Buddhists have threatened to boycott the census because they fear allowing Rohingya to name themselves on such an official form would be the first step to granting them citizenship.
Those fears spilled over into violence last week when a Buddhist mob rampaged through a town in Myanmar’s western Rakhine state and attacked the homes and offices of aid agency workers before ransacking NGO warehouses full of food supplies.
An 11-year-old girl was accidently killed by a police warning shot that was fired to disperse a crowd near a warehouse of the U.N. World Food Programme.
The riots were apparently sparked by a dispute with a worker from Malteser International, a medical relief group, over the handling of a Buddhist flag. Nationalist anti-census protesters have been flying Buddhist flags outside their homes as a sign that they are boycotting the count.
Johannes Kaltenbach, a spokesperson for Malteser International, told local news website the Democratic Voice of Burma that he believes the violence was orchestrated.
"Maybe the groups were waiting for something to grab on to so they could start," he said.
The Rohingya have suffered decades of persecution in Myanmar, which until recently was run by a brutal military dictatorship. But hatred against them has intensified since 2011, when a reformist government began a wave of reforms, including relaxing restrictions on freedom of expression.
Ethnic riots erupted in Rakhine state in mid-2012 and have since spread across the country. Hundreds have died and tens of thousands have been displaced in the violence, which has disproportionately targeted Muslims.
In a statement over the weekend, the UN Population Fund said Myanmar’s 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 honored selectively in the face of intimidation or threats of violence." The group added that it was "concerned" by reports linking rising tensions to the census.
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