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Myanmar embarks on first census in 30 years

SITTWE, Myanmar -- Tens of thousands of census-takers fanned out across Myanmar on Sunday to gather data for a rare snapshot of the former junta-ruled nation that is already stoking sectarian tensions.

Groups of school teachers and local officials began the 12-day population survey — the first since 1983 — traveling from house to house in an ambitious drive aimed at counting everyone across the poverty-stricken nation.

But the census was called into question even before it started in Rakhine state, the site of deadly religious conflict.

A main point of contention is that Muslims will not be able to register as “Rohingya.”

Buddhist nationalists threatened to boycott the tally over fears it could lead to official recognition for the Rohingya, a stateless group viewed by the United Nations as among the world's most persecuted minorities.

Muslims in displacement camps who were made homeless in two major bouts of fighting two years ago expressed determination to defy the government edict to register as “Bengali” — a term used by the authorities, who view most Rohingya as illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh.

“Fill in the form that you are Rohingya,” read a sign scrawled on a wall in one of the bleak camps clustered on the outskirts of the Rakhine capital Sittwe.

“We do not want any problems. I was born here and my parents were also born here. I was born a Myanmar national. For me, I will not register as 'Bengali,' I will register as 'Rohingya,'” Hla Myint, 58, told AFP.

Foreign aid workers fled Rakhine after Buddhist mobs attacked their offices as tensions escalated in the run-up to the census.

An 11-year-old girl was killed by a stray bullet after police fired warning shots to disperse angry crowds in Sittwe.

Humanitarian workers in the region have come under increasing pressure from Buddhist nationalists who accuse them of bias in favor of local Muslims.

Tensions High in Rakhine

The state remained tense on Sunday as Buddhists sought confirmation that the Rohingya term would not be allowed.

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 Balinese Hindus observe ritual of temple cleansing 
Myanmar census enumerators pay their respects to Buddhist monks while collecting information at a monastery in Dala township in Yangon on Sunday.

(AP)

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