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BANGKOK, Oct 3 2013 (IPS) - An exiled leader of the Rohingyas, a persecuted Muslim minority in Myanmar, is raising the alarm from his London office about the fate of his community. He fears “ethnocide to remove all references to the Rohingyas” if the first census in 30 years goes ahead in the Southeast Asian nation.
Nurul Islam, president of the Arakan Rohingya National Organisation (ARNO), tells IPS in an interview that he is targeting the United Nations and European governments in the campaign. “We want to put pressure on the Myanmar government to count the Rohingyas in the census, revealing the actual figures of their population.”
Similar concerns about this stateless ethnic group living along Myanmar’s western border have been expressed by Human Rights Watch (HRW).
The 12-day census to be held by the end of March next year is expected to cost 58.5 million dollars, immigration and population minister Khin Yi confirmed during a mid-September media briefing in Naypidaw, the administrative capital. The Myanmar government has agreed to commit 15 million dollars, while U.N. assistance is expected to cover five million dollars.
Western governments are expected to fill in the rest, including 16 million dollars from Britain and 2.8 million dollars from Australia. There have been further pledges by Norway and Switzerland.
The concerns dogging the 2014 census arise from a slew of discriminatory policies targeting the Rohingyas for decades. Some, such as forced labour, are human rights violations faced by other minorities.
Others have been unique to the Rohingyas – many are denied proper healthcare and schooling, are prevented from moving out of their villages, and are even stopped from marrying because they are not given approval by local authorities. Local leaders say tens of thousands of Rohingya babies have not been registered.
They are not officially identified as one of the country’s 135 recognised ethnic groups. The last headcount in 1983 put the national population at 35.4 million, while the registered population during the previous census in 1973 was 28.9 million. These two censuses, held when the country was under the grip of an oppressive military regime, did not recognise the Rohingyas as part of the population.
Official statements and the local media often refer to the estimated 800,000 Rohingyas as “Bengalis.” By implication the community are considered “outsiders” from neighbouring Bangladesh.
“The term ‘Bengali’ has the connotation of being a foreigner,” says Chris Lewa, head of the Arakan Project, an independent research organisation chronicling the plight of the Rohingyas. “Institutionalising the term ‘Bengali’ is therefore far-reaching beyond simply a rejection of the term ‘Rohingya’ and it is a denial of their rights as Myanmar nationals.”
“The census will not affect the Rohingyas’ citizenship status,” Janet Jackson, head of the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA) Myanmar office, told IPS in an interview. “The controversy around this issue must not be allowed to hamper a complete count of the population, and the conduct of the census should not aggravate tensions around the issue.”
UNFPA has received assurances from the government to conduct the census “in line with international census standards, [where] every person will be counted, regardless of citizenship or ethnicity.” Jackson expects the population profile for a country that has an estimated 60 million people to embrace “inclusiveness”.
Such words jar with the reality on the ground since sectarian violence erupted last year between the ethnic Buddhist Arakanese in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar and the Rohingyas.
Attacks on the Rohingyas in June this year and October last year, which killed nearly 200 people and left 140,000 displaced, earned the Rohingyas some sympathy. HRW described them as victims of “ethnic cleansing” in a report released in April this year.
That grim assessment has worsened. The Toronto-based Sentinel Project for Genocide Prevention describes Myanmar as “a textbook case” for a country on the brink of genocide. “The machinery of genocide – the complex systematic process designed to eliminate the Rohingyas – is already operating in Burma [as Myanmar was formerly known] and has carried ethnic cleansing and isolation to its current point.
“Mounting evidence supports allegations that genocide in Burma is currently going on, and may merely be a matter of scale,” revealed the report ‘High Risk of Genocide in Burma’ released by the group in early September. Among the “key indicators of genocidal intent” is the “forced registration of Rohingyas under a ‘foreign’ ethnic identity, thus attempting to provide documentary denial of the existence of the group.”
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