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Myanmar’s upcoming census could spark anti-Muslim violence

The poll is sorely needed by a nation that has no idea of its population size. But rights groups urge that it be suspended.

Myanmar rohingya muslim destroyed houseEnlarge
A man walks past a destroyed mosque in Pauktaw, Myanmar, that was burned in violence between Buddhist Rakhine and Muslim Rohingya, in October 2012. Rights groups fear that an upcoming census could spark further violence. (ATAR/AFP/Getty Images)

BANGKOK — Decades of dictatorship in Myanmar produced a deep catalogue of casualties: slain dissidents, land mine victims and economic ruin, to name a few.

A lesser-known casualty of Myanmar’s totalitarian rule? Facts.

For instance: Maybe Myanmar has the population of South Korea. Maybe its population rivals that of France. Both estimates of Myanmar’s population — ranging from 48 to 65 million — are commonly cited.

The truth?

No one knows for sure.

The troubled Southeast Asian nation formerly titled Burma hasn’t held a census since Michael Jackson released “Billie Jean” on vinyl.

In late March, Myanmar will launch its first census in more than three decades.

The project is designed to collect basic facts inside a nation shrouded in mystery. It’s being touted as a vital unifying, nation-building exercise. “Let us build a new Myanmar together,” reads a pamphlet promoting the census, which the government is undertaking with United Nations backing.

But Myanmar’s Muslims and outside human rights groups are sounding an unconventional warning. They contend that data on religion will reveal a potentially dangerous truth: Myanmar’s Muslims are much more plentiful than the old military regime ever admitted.

Given waves of anti-Muslim violence and a pervasive suspicion of Muslim groups in Myanmar — even from politicians celebrated in the West — there is a real concern that revealing the truth could fuel dangerous fanaticism.

Buddhist supremacists

Myanmar is several years into a historic undertaking: transforming from a reclusive and abusive backwater to a freer and more open nation. In 2011, the long-reviled military ceded power to a parliament under its sway.

The new establishment — largely composed of former generals, albeit with a minority of leaders unaffiliated with the army — promises to rebuild their broken nation. There is much to rebuild. Across Myanmar, illiteracy is rife, meat is a luxury and electricity is scarce. 

The census — indicating which areas most desperately need schools, wells, power lines and more — is touted as essential in drafting a blueprint for national rehabilitation.

But it will also probe two of Myanmar’s touchiest subjects, race and faith, and send census takers to remote places at odds or even at war with the central government.

Myanmar’s Muslim population is typically cited as 4 percent of its people, a figure declared by the last census in 1983. That tally was conducted under the iron rule of the dictator Ne Win, architect of the authoritarian ideology that gave Myanmar its infamy. Then and today, the dominant Buddhist faith is enshrined in law and society as superior to all others.

According to the International Crisis Group, the old regime likely cooked the books. Without naming sources, the watchdog group states “strong indications” that the real figure was 10 percent, but a “a political decision was taken to publish a more acceptable figure of 4 percent.” The Burmese Muslim Association, relying on intel from thousands of mosques, says the true figure is likely somewhere between 8 and 12 percent.

The International Crisis Group warns that authentic numbers could be “mistakenly interpreted as providing evidence for a three-fold increase in the Muslim population ... a potentially dangerous call to arms for extremist movements.”

Proving that more than 1-in-10 inhabitants of Myanmar are Muslim would indeed play into the delusions of hyper-nationalist Buddhist vigilantes, who are personified by a movement known as 969. Its leading voice, a monk named Wirathu, told GlobalPost last year that “Muslims are like the African carp. They breed quickly and they are very violent and they eat their own kind.”

In recent years, many Buddhists have grown obsessed with fears of Muslim takeover. Conspiracy theories are rampant. Wirathu propagates bizarre rumors that oil-rich Arabian Gulf states finance secret Islamic plots to overrun and outbreed Buddhists.

As these beliefs spread, anti-Muslim riots have grown disturbingly common, leading to hundreds of deaths and forcing tens of thousands into squalid resettlement camps.

Given the intensity of Myanmar’s anti-Islamic fervor, the census should omit all questions about religion, argues Myo Win, a senior member of the Burmese Muslim Association. The International Crisis Group has proposed the same. Another rights group, Burma Campaign UK, declares the census “not worth dying for” and urges its postponement.

“I’m Muslim today,” Myo Win said. “Well, tomorrow, I can be Buddhist. Then the next day, I can decide to be