Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 24 August 2019

Census shows proportion of Myanmar Muslims unchanged, undermining Buddhist hardliner claims

Islamophobia has rippled across Myanmar in recent years, with Buddhist nationalists sending alarmist messages about the growth of the Muslim population – but the new data affirms that Buddhists still make up 90 per cent of the population.

Naypyidaw, Myanmar // Muslims make up just over two per cent of Myanmar’s population, government census figures showed Thursday, contrary to the fears of strident Buddhist nationalists that Islam poses a threat to the dominance of their faith.

Details from the 2014 count, the first of its kind in more than 30 years, was withheld for almost a year to avoid stirring tensions in the Buddhist-majority nation ahead of elections that propelled Aung San Suu Kyi’s pro-democracy party to power.

Islamophobia has rippled across Myanmar in recent years, with Buddhist nationalists sending alarmist messages about the growth of the Muslim population.

But the new data affirms that Buddhists make up 90 per cent of the population of 51.48 million.

They are followed in number by Christians, which make up 6.3 per cent, and Muslims, which make up 2.3 per cent — or over 1.1 million people.

However, the survey does not include the one-million strong stateless Rohingya Muslim minority, who were banned from self-identifying during the census taking.

Added together, their number doubles the country’s share of Muslims to around four per cent — an estimate that has been in circulation since the last census in 1983.

“Some were worried that there could be a significant difference in the numbers of each religion,” Thein Swe, minister of labour, immigration and population said in the capital Naypyidaw as he released the data.

“But there is not much difference when compared with the census data in 1983.”

The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), which supported Myanmar’s government in carrying out census, said the figures should extinguish incendiary rhetoric.

“It is time to replace speculation with fact,” the UNFPA’s Janet E Jackson said.

But the UNFPA hit out at the Rohingya’s exclusion from the data as “a serious shortcoming of the census and a grave human rights concern”.

More than 100,000 Rohingya were displaced by deadly clashes with Buddhists in 2012 and now live destitute in camps in western Rakhine state.

They are denied citizenship and face severe restrictions on their movement and access to basic services.

Just days before the census was carried out in 2014, Buddhist nationalists accused the international community of bias towards Muslims and attacked humanitarian offices in Rakhine, forcing aid workers to flee.

At the core of their ideology is the belief that Myanmar’s Buddhist identity is under attack from Muslims and other ethnic minorities, despite the country hosting such groups for generations.

Ms Suu Kyi, the de facto premier, has been criticised for not taking a stronger stance on the Rohingya or publicly condemning two recent attacks on mosques in other parts of the country.

* Agence France-Presse and Associated Press

Updated: July 21, 2016 04:00 AM