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Census and ethnic sensibilities

February 24, 2014

Critics claim the first population-wide survey in 30 years is designed to ‘divide and rule’ and weaken ethnic minorities' political position

Officially, Wut Yee Maung has a complicated background. If her Myanmar ID card is to be believed, she is a young Muslim woman who is half Burman-Pakistani and half Burman-Pathan. But the reality is different: Neither of her parents are Burman or Pakistani, and how she came to be registered as such is a mystery to her. 

When the census-taker comes around, Wut Yee Maung could register as Pathan, but to do so she will have to be listed under code 914: “Other”. The Pathan are not included among the 135 fractious and sometimes overlapping ethnic groups recognised on the Myanmar government’s official list. Instead, because of the prevailing tensions in Myanmar and on the advice of family members, she is inclined to conceal her Muslim identity and register as Burman and Buddhist.

This kind of confusion will play out time and again when Myanmar’s first census in three decades is held over 12 days, starting on March 29. The government is deploying 100,000 teachers as trained census-takers across the country to get a more accurate picture of the population’s size and ethnic make-up. The government estimates the population at just under 61 million, while the Asia Development Bank puts it just above.

Each person can freely choose the ethnicity they would like to be recorded as, but several significant minority groups — including Burmese Muslims, Pathan, Pathi and Rohingya — will have to select code 914.

Critics fear the difficulties of getting accurate ID cards and the complex ethnic groupings under the census will hamper minorities’ rights, lead to under-representation at state and provincial government levels, obstruct peace negotiations and prolong the government’s “divide and rule” tactics. Because of the confusion, and the fact many people who belong to ethnic minorities in Myanmar have flawed ID cards, several communities have taken it on themselves to hold their own, parallel censuses.

One of these will be Shan state, where the Shan Population Collecting Committee is encouraging people to take part in both the government census and one of their own making. Naing Haeo Hseng, a central committee member, said there would be some extra questions about national ID cards, such as whether the respondent had one and whether the information on it was correct. If there is a discrepancy between someone's ID card and how they are recorded on the census, it remains unclear whether they will be able to vote for a representative of their ethnic group in next year's elections.

Naing Haeo Hseng calls the list “a crazy one” because the Shan are divided into 33 sub-groups, some of which are mentioned twice but in different languages. The Shan Population Collecting Committee will use a list of 18 ethnicities instead of 135.

The committee also planned to apply for national ID cards for those who do not have one, and to change incorrect cards. However, Ministry of Immigration and Population director-general U Myint Kyaing said the government had made no plans for providing new ID cards, so the issue is unlikely to be resolved before the 2015 elections.

The government has officially recognised eight main ethnic groups — the Bamar (or Burman), Chin, Kachin, Karen, Kayah, Mon, Rakhine and Shan — while the other 127 are all classified as sub-groups. These categories are proving controversial, with some from large ethnic groups claiming there are too many divisions — the Chin have 53 sub-groups. On the other hand, some small groups have complained about being labelled as part of larger ethnicities.

U Myint Kyaing insisted the list was based on the outcome of the 1973 census, would only be used for reference purposes and would not be changed.

A member of the census team, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said: “If nobody answers, that ethnicity will disappear. We are not saying these are our nationals, the list is just for coding reference. We are not defining their identity.”

Tensions have also mounted around the census because minority groups fear that wrongly categorised ethnicities could damage their claims for indigenous rights and obstruct peace negotiations with the government.

Women's Organisations Network of Myanmar chairwoman Susanna Hla Hla Soe is worried about the potential danger posed to the peace process as the list could cause friction among larger ethnic groups that talk in unity to the government. “Now our country is going to negotiate peace, it should not become an obstacle to peace,” she says.

Bertil Lintner, a journalist and author of several books on Myanmar, said: “The biggest problem is that the census will create divisions and the whole purpose behind it is divide and rule. People are not like flowers, insects or butterflies, you cannot divide them into different species.”

Burmese Muslim Association representative Myo Win said code 914 was worrying because it covered ethnic groups that were not officially denied citizenship but often have difficulty obtaining ID cards.

Myo Win said Burmese Muslims were an official ethnic group when the census of 1973 was conducted but this changed after the introduction of the 1982 Citizenship Act, which he calls “the apartheid law”. After that, the name of the Muslim population was changed to Pathi and was still not recognised.

Many Rohingya are also Muslim and denied citizenship under the 1982 law. The government refers to many Rohingya as “Bengali”, claiming they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Bangladesh also does not recognise the Rohingya as its citizens.

U Wirathu, the leader of the 969 Buddhist nationalist movement in Myanmar and well-known for his anti-Muslim sermons, has been exploiting the lack of data about the Muslim population to illustrate his claim that they pose a threat to Buddhism. The movement says the Muslim population is about 23% and they are a danger to the Buddhist identity.

“They [Muslims] are breeding so fast and they are stealing our women, raping them,” U Wirathu told Time magazine. “They would like to occupy our country, but I won’t let them. We must keep Myanmar Buddhist.”

Myanmar has been plagued by religious violence since clashes occurred between Muslims and Buddhists in 2012. U Wirathu’s sermons have been said to instigate the violence, an allegation he denies. Civil groups dispute that Muslims comprise such a large part of the population. The census, if conducted according to international standards, could provide an opportunity to debunk U Wirathu’s claims.

“The Muslim population is about 8-10% of the total population, the government says it is about 4% and Wirathu says it is 23%,” Myo Win said.

Perhaps the census will provide a clearer picture, but perhaps the facts will get lost in the confusion of the 135 ethnic categories and the controversial code 914.

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