The women will have to go through 37,579 family census forms,
according to officials, using calculators to tally the total numbers
because they have no access to computers.
The scene underscores the challenges of carrying out a census in
this poor and sprawling, predominantly Buddhist nation. It was
supposed to end last Thursday, but was extended on Saturday until
the end of May, due to "technical and logistical problems".
The census — the first in three decades — has long been mired in
controversy, much of it concerning the counting of Rohingya — Muslims who live in western Rakhine state and often described by the
United Nations as one of the most persecuted minorities in the
Officials say some 100,000 school teachers have fanned out across
Myanmar on foot collecting data for the census, expected to count
between 48 million and 65 million citizens.
On April 10, on what was supposed to be the final day of the census,
volunteers went door-to-door in Yangon, Myanmar's commercial
capital, racing to gather data for a census estimated by rights
groups and other groups to cost $74 million.
Trucks with loudspeakers blared reminders for people to be counted
and shops, buildings, ferries and buses were plastered with posters
encouraging people to take part.
Susu Win, a volunteer tallying numbers in Yangon, said she worked 12
hours a day and interviewed, on average, 100 families.
"The biggest problem is that we had to climb eight, nine floors in
four to five buildings a day with no elevators," she said.
Rights organizations and ethnic groups in Myanmar have called for
the census to be postponed until it can be carried out fairly and
The government had promised international sponsors that ethnic
groups could choose their classification. But a day before the
census kicked off, presidential spokesman Ye Htut indicated that use
of the term Rohingya would be prohibited.
In Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine state, Buddhists protested against
the use of the term Rohingya, saying it would give them legitimacy.
The government describes the Rohingya as Bengalis, a term that
implies they are illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh.
Many say they have lived in Rakhine for generations.
ROHINGYA STRESS ETHNIC ORIGIN
Rohingya activist Wai Wai Nu, who says her family has been in
Myanmar for centuries, said census-takers at her Yangon home refused
to list her as Rohingya, saying it was not permitted.
When she demanded written proof, she was told it was a verbal order.
The 27-year-old activist said the vast majority of Rohingyas insisted on being recorded by their ethnicity.
"Our ethnic identity is very important to us for getting equal
rights with other people in Myanmar," she said.
Repression during nearly 50 years of military rule kept ethnic
tensions in check in one of Asia's most diverse countries. But these
have burst into the open since 2011, when a quasi-civilian
government took power.
The country has endured several spasms of violence pitting Rakhine
Buddhists against Rohingya. At least some of the attacks were blamed
on Buddhist extremist groups.
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Critics argue that Myanmar's government and the United Nations
Population Fund (UNFPA) knew the census would be problematic before
it began, but ignored the concerns.
Rights groups say the
government is deliberately preventing the Rohingyas from being
"The writing was on the wall and everyone knew it," said Matthew
Smith, executive director of Fortify Rights, a rights group based in
"The government never had any intention of recognizing the Rohingya
ethnicity through the census."
Trouble broke out last month when 400 rioters in Sittwe damaged
offices, homes, warehouses, and vehicles belonging to aid groups and
International aid workers withdrew.
Minister of Immigration and Population Khin Yi, who is head of the
census commission, said the Rohingyas' classification was one of the
reasons counting had to be extended, adding that some actually
wanted to be counted as Bengalis.
"We heard from some people that they would like to be identified as
'Bengali', as they really are, but they are not brave enough to do
so because of the pressure and threats behind them," the Democracy
Today Daily quoted Khin Yi as saying, comments that a senior
ministry official later confirmed.
"They were always recorded as Bengali, since the censuses under the
British (colonial rule) till the last one in 1983."
The problem is not limited to the Rohingyas.
The government and UNFPA have been criticized for basing the census
on 135 officially recognized ethnic groups. Critics say that is
outdated and inaccurate.
Ethnic groups say their political representation and claims to
ethnicity could be compromised if they are undercounted.
According to Human Rights Watch, several armed ethnic rebel groups
said they would bar census-takers — enumerators — from their
Questions have been raised about the validity of the census.
"If UNFPA and the government heeded warnings to at least remove the
ethnic and religious questions, then a partial census would have
been better than none at all," said Smith.
"At this point, it would've been better for the country if the
enumerators stayed home."
(Additional reporting by Soe Zeya Tun; editing by Ron Popeski and
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