Muslims have risen little as a proportion of Myanmar’s population over the past three decades, the government said Thursday, though it’s unclear whether this news can appease a Buddhist majority alarmed by an increase in Muslim immigrants.
The 2014 census shows that Muslims accounted for 4.3% of the population, up only slightly from 3.9% in the 1983 count. The country skipped the survey for the intervening decades amid turmoil under the military regime. The 2014 census took place in March and April of that year.
The government had announced the total population of over 51 million and other key figures by May 2015, but had not given a breakdown by religion.
More than 1 million people in the western state of Rakhine identify themselves as Rohingya Muslims, an ethnic minority. The government does not recognize them as citizens, saying they are illegal migrants from Bangladesh and elsewhere.
But the latest data includes the Rohingya. Buddhists accounted for 87.9% of the population nationally, and Christians 6.2%.
Rohingya Muslims and Buddhists have clashed frequently in Rakhine since summer 2012, leading to more than 200 deaths. Myanmar has put over 100,000 Rohingya into refugee camps, ostensibly to maintain peace through isolation. But some have fled to neighboring countries, creating an international problem.
Many speculate that the government had sought to hide a surge in Muslims to prevent rifts between religions. But Thein Swe, the minister of labor and immigration, told reporters Thursday that the data is trustworthy and should be accepted by the international community as well as members of various religions.
“Some were worried that there could be a significant difference in the numbers of each religion,” Thein Swe, Minister of Labour, Immigration and Population told reporters 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 in a statement.
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”.
hardliners under pressure
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.
De facto premier Suu Kyi has faced criticism for not taking a stronger stance on the Rohingya or publicly condemning two recent attacks on mosques in other parts of the country.
But her government has made moves in recent weeks to rein in the Ma Ba Tha, a monk-led movement at the fore of anti-Muslim protests in recent years.
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.
Under the previous military-backed government, the nationalist group successfully lobbied for the passage of controversial race and religion laws that rights groups say discriminate against women and religious minorities.
Earlier this month Suu Kyi’s religion minister warned the group could be disbanded if it uses hate speech to stoke conflict.