What is your ethnic background? Rakhine organisers of the first census to be held in Myanmar for 30 years had decided they might as well ignore international standards and get the most controversial question over and done with first.

When those asked replied “Rohingya” —  as almost all those in the Te Chaung IDP camp who were questioned did — enumerators and their huge entourage of police and military officers simply moved on and the rest of the 41 questions on the form remained unasked.

Soon the officials were not even bothering to stop at every home. An official notice board outside the camp, which lies on the outskirts of state capital Sittwe, declares there are a total of 2,649 households living there.

The truck convoy that set off for the camp just after 7.30 am today included around 200 beige-clad census enumerators, two police battalions, and an army battalion. Four hours later, the hundreds of officials and security forces drafted in for the controversial poll that has sparked protests leading to the withdrawal of UN and INGO workers from the region had, according to residents, recorded the details of only around 30 IDP families who were Kaman Muslims.

Shu Kari, a Rohingya acting as an assistant to the census collectors, said he had agreed the week before to help because “I am doing the job for the benefit of the people and maybe they can write in the census their own ethnicity. I am disappointed the [enumerators] have gone without writing anything in their documents.”

Mahamud Inis, 48, an IDP, originally from Nazir village, said: “I waited at the house for the census [enumerators] to come but they didn’t. I was disappointed with this. They went to one of my neighbours was asked his race, and he said Rohingya and they refused to write it down.”

Janet Jackson, the UNFPA representative for Myanmar,  told The Myanmar Times that the organisation was “disappointed” with how the census was being carried out in Rakhine.

“This is not how we had planned and prepared it would happened and we are concerned about the conditions under with the enumeration is being conducted,” she said.

Ms Jackson added no international observers were present for the first census visits to IDP camps in Rakhine, but they were “on their way” as planned.
Humanitarian and international observers had been predicting for some time that the census would provoke ethnic tensions in Rakhine and elsewhere in Myanmar, and that conditions were not right for effective recording to take place.

The UN and INGOs were forced to evacuate staff from Sittwe town following attacks ahead of the census on their offices and homes on March 26 and 27 and people are already dying without access to medical care as a consequence.

As the enumerators moved through Te Chaung camp this morning The Myanmar Times spoke to the mother of one-year-old baby girl who died on March 31, saw the body of a 40-year-old man who died this morning, and was shown the records of a 5-year-old boy who died on March 30.

None of those had access to the vital hospital referrals or medical care that INGOs had been offering, and which their families believe would have saved in their lives. Meanwhile aid observers are predicting an even bigger humanitarian crisis within weeks because INGO and UN food and water supplies to the 140,000 or so IDPs in Rakhine have been halted.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, senior police officials told The Myanmar Times that the decision had been made to ask the ethnic question first to keep the peace and save time.

Security officials also claimed that some camp residents who would have chosen to use the term Bengali had come under pressure from neighbours to stick to the name Rohingya – a suggestion strongly denied by those camp residents The Myanmar Times spoke to.

Ethnic tensions in already-troubled Rakhine have been heightened in recent weeks ahead of the census, with many ethnic Rakhinese residents saying they would boycott the process if people were allowed to refer to themselves as Rohingya while taking part in the questionnaire.

Protestors insisted the group should refer to themselves as Bengali, which is the official government term and implies the group are illegal immigrants despite many of them having lived in the country for generations.

Despite previous assurances, that people would be able to self-identify as Rohingya during the census, on April 29, government spokesman Ye Htut, confirmed that “if a household wishes to identify themselves as Rohingya we will not register it.”

Noor Mahamud, 57, and IDP camp committee member originally from Nazir village, told The Myanmar Times that he had been invited to a meeting with authorities in Sittwe on March 17, and been told about the nationwide census and given assurances that the camp residents would be allowed to answer freely, and assurance he said was later repeated by state police.

However, on March 26, he said, township authorities, general administrators , police and immigration officials had arrived in the camp and told them “If we [refer to ourselves as] Bengali the census team will write it down, but if you use Rohingya they will leave it blank and not fill in the form.”

Mr Mahamad added he believed the state government had made the decision to appease Rakhine hardliners.

“I agree with [those who say] this is not a suitable time for the census. But the government makes the policy. If the government was neutral then it could go ahead.”

Abdul Rahim, an IDP originally from Zair village, said: “At first the authority came to the village and explained we would could write (on the form) freely and there would be no problem. But when they came today they asked only their race name. We trusted the government and still hoped we would be allowed to write our ethnicity.”

Asked if it camp residents had decided as a group to use the term or come under pressure from those within their community to use the term, he replied: “This is my right. I am Rohingya. All of my fathers are Rohingya. Because I am Rohingya I have no need to discuss with other people about using this name.”

When contacted this afternoon about how the Te Chaung census had been carried out this morning, Malene Arboe-Rasmussen of the the United Nations Population Fund, the international body charged with overseeing Myanmar’s census, said she was unaware of the problem.

Phil Robertson, deputy director Asia, of Human Rights Watch, said:

“The government’s refusal to register Rohingya in the census and failure to stop violent actions against NGOs providing humanitarian assistance in Rakhine state is a double whammy that shows how desperately bad the human rights situation is in that state. To continue the census betrays the human rights principle of non-discrimination that the UNFPA and the UN system have sworn to uphold. Perhaps this is the new UN “rights at the very bottom” approach, the new Burmese version of what was supposed to be “rights up front” – but in any case, it’s contributing to a human rights disaster in the making.”