When census workers arrived at his house in Rangoon earlier this week, Abu Tahay was able to say something straightforward yet hugely significant. When asked about his ethnicity, he replied that he was Rohingya. The officials completed the form and went on their way.
The following day things changed. A new directive passed by the government of President Thein Sein meant census staff could no longer write “Rohingya”. Instead, they had to use the word “Bengali”.
“Today they said the government had informed them not to fill in the form if someone says ‘Rohingya’,” said Mr Tahay, a community leader, speaking from Burma’s former colonial capital. “The Rohingya are not willing to complete the forms if they cannot say ‘Rohingya’. The government is not going to take the census from someone using the word ‘Rohingya’.”
The stand-off is the latest problem to embroil the first census for more than 30 years, an operation funded by international donors to the tune of £45m. Britain has provided £10m.
Those behind the project, which began on Sunday in liaison with the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), say an accurate assessment of Burma’s diverse population is essential. The total is reckoned at around 60 million.
But the problem is that the survey, due to be completed by 10 April, does not simply detail the age and gender of respondents. The most controversial issue among the 41 questions asked by workers relates to ethnicity.
A law passed in 1982 by the military junta codified 135 ethnic groups it considered to be Burmese, and thus eligible for citizenship. The Rohingya were not among them, a fact used to discriminate against them ever since. The government insists this Muslim community are illegal migrants from Bangladesh.
Recently, discrimination has turned to violence, especially in Rakhine state. More than 200 people have been died, mainly in attacks on Rohingya by Buddhist mobs, and 150,000 driven from their homes.
In the run-up to the census, NGOs urged it be modified to avoid such sensitive questions. The Burma Campaign UK suggested it be postponed.
Yet the census went ahead, with officials saying the Rohingya could write the word on their forms. Now they have backtracked. At the weekend, Thein Sein’s spokesman, Ye Htut, told reporters: “If we ask a family about their ethnicity and they say ‘Rohingya’, we will not accept it.”
To the Rohingya, few things matter more than identity. In towns such as Sittwe, huge, wretched refugee camps have spread out, and people cling to the hope that the government will bow to international pressure and recognise the Rohingya as citizens.
Local Buddhists have countered with protests and attacks on foreign NGOs. International aid has ground to a halt. Buddhist leaders claim the number of Rohingya is growing and demand they be forced to leave Burma. With elections next year, the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has refused to speak out.
It seems the government’s decision was a reaction to Buddhist groups in Rakhine threatening to boycott the census if the identification “Rohingya” was permitted. Britain is pressing Burma to stand firm on its original commitment.
“We again urge the government to put in place the right conditions to allow everyone to participate in this census in a fair manner and free from intimidation,” said Britain’s International Development Minister, Alan Duncan.
Abu Tahay said the Rohingya wanted to participate in the census. But they did not want to take part if they were not granted the basic right of identifying themselves as they wished. He said: “There are records of the Rohingya in Myanmar before the British time.”