Myanmar’s nationwide census scheduled from March 23 to April 10 threatens to inflame more ethnic and religious conflicts in the country over some ‘antagonistic and divisive’ issues included in the questionnaire. Myanmar’s last census was held more than 30 years ago.
The census, supported by the UN, aims to determine Myanmar’s key demographic and socio-economic statistics in order to ascertain the country’s particular development needs. But questions about ethnicity or tribal identification have become controversial after the government listed 135 ethnic groups and sub-groups on the questionnaire. Critics reminded the government that the listing is a colonial legacy which must be revamped. Several ethnic groups have complained about being lumped with other minorities while others claimed they were dropped from the listing.
The government is urged to reclassify the listing based on consultation with ethnic communities. And while the government is doing this, some groups wanted the census delayed for another month.
In Myanmar, majority are Burmans. An estimated 40 percent of the population is considered an ethnic minority, with Shan composing the biggest minority group.
The common complaint of many groups is the inaccurate categorization of ethnic groups. For example, the Palaung (Ta’aung) tribe questioned their inclusion as a Shan race:
We, Ta’aung, settled down in this land before the Shan…We are not the same with other races. We live in mountainous area and have a different culture and language.
Kyaw Thu, head of the civil society consortium Paung Ku, thinks questions on ethnicity and religion should be dropped because they are no longer necessary:
If development is the priority, the data of headcounts—the numbers of people and the age group—is enough to conduct economic projects.
Tun Myint Kyaw, local coordinator in Mon State for the European Union-funded Rule of Law Project, also urged the removal of some controversial questions in the census:
If [the Ministry of Immigration and Population] has a plan to omit the ethnicity and religion category from the national identity card, why would they still include in the census data collection?
Khun Jar of the Kachin Peace Network explained how inaccurate ethnic categorization can cause trouble; and she also warned about the danger of conducting census in some remote areas where armed conflicts are still taking place:
If the government accepts 135 ethnic groups only, it can cause harm to the peace process because ethnic groups can get into armed conflicts if disagreements arise among them
We can’t anticipate who will conduct the census in remote areas and places where there is no ceasefire. In some places there are no schools. Teachers are normally used to collect data on the population. So with no schools, it will not be easy to collect population figures at the refugee camps.
Thet Ko from Minority Affair proposed the drafting of a new listing based on the principle of democratic consultation:
The list of ethnics should be compiled again after consulting with ethnic groups through a democratic procedure.
Some ethnic groups are worried that they might lose political representation if the proposed census will adopt the official listing of ethnic groups in the country. Ethnic minister positions in local parliaments are automatically given to ethnic groups with more than 0.01 percent of the population in the area.
The government is accused of deliberately bloating the number of ethnic subgroups to deny representation to some tribes.
But in the case of the Rohingyas, the government refuses to recognize them as citizens. Kyaw Min of the Democracy and Human Rights Party is appealing for the recognition of Rohingyas, who are mostly Muslims:
Every human race has its own identity. We have our identity already…This is not just now—we have had it for a long time. But we have found that there is discrimination in the country, which ignores our demand that our identity be recognized.
One concern about the inclusion of religion in the census is the destabilization it might generate. In particular, the census might confirm that Myanmar has a growing number of Muslims which could provoke Buddhist extremist groups to cause trouble in many villages.
Worried about the threat, the International Crisis Group, is proposing to limit census questions on age, sex and marital status:
…the coming census, consisting of 41 questions, is overly complicated and fraught with danger. Myanmar is one of the most diverse countries in the region, and ethnicity is a complex, contested and politically sensitive issue, in a context where ethnic communities have long believed that the government manipulates ethnic categories for political purposes
A poorly timed census that enters into controversial areas of ethnicity and religion in an ill-conceived way will further complicate the situation.
Meanwhile, the Burma Partnership fears the census might undermine the national reconciliation process:
Yet the lack of transparency and consultation is a damning indictment of the UN’s – and donors’ – role in the census, while the accusations of inaccuracy and divisiveness only serve to further undermine the credibility of these parties. Moreover, there are real fears about the logistics of collecting the data, both in terms of authorities using the correct forms and accessing remote areas or conflict zones, which would have implications for the accuracy of data recorded
It is clear that this census represents a Pandora’s Box of potential ethnic tensions and conflict. At a time when the Burma government claims to be striving to secure a sustainable peace deal with the armed ethnic groups and cementing political reforms before the 2015 national elections, the timing and nature of the census is strange, to say the least. It risks jeopardizing national reconciliation, undermining the peace process, and exacerbating inter-communal violence.
Apparently, some ethnic groups are cynical of the census process that they chose to conduct a census on their own.